New Donatello?


New Donatello? Picture- NYT
New Donatello? Picture: NYT

The New York Times reports that a new statue by Donatello has apparently been discovered. In an article called “A Name Game With the Old Masters”, Scott Reyburn recounts the recent history of the statue, where it’s been and who’s owned it, and tells us a bit more about how the 2-foot-8-inch tall putto, or “spiritello”, has gone from being simply “15-century Florentine”, to “Donatello”; viz., from “by anonymous” to “by one of the greatest artists, not only of the early 15th century, but ever”.

You can take issue with Reyburn’s main concern in the article that this stuff, which is to say the attribution of works of art, is done in the name of financial gain. The article turns into a résumé of some recent notable attribution upgrades, mentioning among them La Bella Principessa, which regular readers of this blog will be familiar with because of its most recent foray into the spotlight, and spins this into a narrative about how big names change prices: “Such is the power of a famous name. If you can make it stick”, he says. You can also take issue with Reyburn’s very first statement:

One of the problems for a billionaire wanting to put together a trophy collection of old master art is that the supply of documented works by the most illustrious sculptors and painters has all but dried up.

This is, I think, quite wrong. Documented works by the Old Masters do still come up for sale–Old Master Sales are, after all, still put on regularly by Sotheby’s etc., which it goes without saying means that there are still Old Masters out there to flog–and works of art do crop up on the market which can be related back to the old documents in order to make a convincing argument about its authorship. (A famous case being the recent acquisition by the Kimbell Museum in Texas of the Torment of St. Anthony, which they, and others, believe to be by Michelangelo not least because Vasari et al. document that Michelangelo painted such a thing!)

But the real issue I have, and I suppose it stems from the above objections, is the quality of the art history. The seller of the “new Donatello”, Andrew Butterfield, is a Renaissance scholar and President of the dealership Andrew Butterfield Fine Arts. So Butterfield knows his stuff. He also drafted in a number of other Renaissance specialists, in order to lend robustness to his suspicion that the Putto he bought in 2002 as “15th-century Florentine” is, indeed, a Donatello. And obviously I haven’t been privy to all their discussions, am not aware of all their evidence, their data and so on. Yet the evidence mentioned in the NYT inspires skepticism. This is:

  1. the Putto was originally part of a pair of statues, the other one being in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, who call it “15th-century Italian (possibly Florentine)”
  2. the design of the statue, namely the tiptoe stance

This led Francesco Caglioti, one of the scholars called upon by Butterfield, to pronounce in a catalogue published to coincide with a 2015 exhibition, in which Butterfield showed the Putto, that

we can safely attribute to Donatello not only the invention and design [of both the Puttibut also the personal responsibility for their execution in his workshop and directly under his eyes, for a decorative project he devised and followed through to its completion.

This all seems to me to be a bit of a leap–a leap, indeed, that is driven by the “name game”. Saying that a Putto was once part of a pair, and that that pair of sculptures is thought to be 15th-century Italian, does not give immediate cause to identify the maker of the pair as Donatello and workshop. Plenty of other sculptors would have made pairs of things, especially putti. The tiptoe stance ditto. And it’s all good and well to say that Donatello designed these things and then supervised their manufacture (and this is how sculpture was done then) to fulfil a commissioned project, but what might this decorative project have been?

In all, it’s just a bit vague. Assuming that there’s no way of ever stumbling across a document that says Donatello made such things, art historians will want more evidence: What technical evidence is there? Are they really right stylistically? What comparable projects did Donatello actually undertake? Etc. Those billionaire buyers, however, seem to be less demanding: Butterfield won the “name game” this time and successfully sold it as a Donatello.

The biggest concern of all, I guess, is that now the statue has entered a private collection there’s little hope that art historians will get to see it much, to study it and to conclude, more objectively, that this statue and its twin in Boston really are by Donatello.




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