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Sweet faces of youth

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Oh, baby, could Florentine sculptor Desiderio da Settignano capture the joy of youth. His spirited busts of laughing and almost smiling infants are among the most appealing creations of Renaissance Italy.

The humanistic portraiture created by this 15th-century wunderkind, particularly his cheerful children and doting mothers, was widely admired by the artists of the era. Masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael took inspiration from his atmospheric, low-relief carvings and tender maternal scenes.

So why isn"t this sculptor better known? Part of the reason is that his career was cut short. Desiderio died young, at age 35. Another reason: His sculptures often were misattributed to Donatello (who may have been his teacher) and overlooked by scholars. Most of Desiderio's best known works are scattered in collections throughout this country and Europe, making it hard to comprehend fully his accomplishments.

The National Gallery's exquisite new exhibit "Desiderio da Settignano: Sculptor of Renaissance Florence," in galleries adjacent to the West Garden, allows us to appreciate that bigger picture.

Co-organized with the Louvre in Paris and Bargello in Florence, the retrospective brings together 28 sculptures by Desiderio and his circle. It resuscitates the sculptor's reputation for greatness by revealing his subtle, sketchlike technique and skillful ability to express complex emotions through portraiture and allegorical scenes.

One of the enjoyments of this show is the perfect fit between the sculptures and their setting. Marble busts atop slender pedestals and reliefs on simple wooden plaques look right at home within John Russell Pope's travertine-clad small rotunda and adjacent gallery. Pope's neoclassical architecture, after all, was inspired by Renaissance buildings similar to those in which these artworks would have been displayed originally.

The son of a stone carver, Desiderio seemed destined for his precociousness as a sculptor. He was born around 1429 in Settignano, a village outside Florence known for its quarries of pietra serena, the hard sandstone preferred by Renaissance sculptors and architects. A relief by the artist in this black stone, depicting a young St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, is among the most sensitively rendered in the exhibit.

Sharing a house and a studio with his older brother Geri, who also was a sculptor, Desiderio secured prestigious commissions from Cosimo de Medici and other wealthy Florentine patrons while in his 20s. Included in the show are large photographs of two of his grandest works: the San Lorenzo Tabernacle and the tomb of Florentine chancellor Carlo Marsuppini in Santa Croce. However, his talents seem far better suited to portable sculptures for private worship and admiration than these workshop-created monuments, as borne out in the more intimate pieces that constitute most of the exhibit.

From the West Garden, visitors are introduced to Desiderio by a recently restored, painted wooden bust emblematic of the kind of delicate damsel prevalent in Renaissance art. Nicknamed "La Belle Florentine," this heavy-lidded, blue-eyed blond saint bears an uncanny resemblance to actress Cate Blanchett. It was created in the late 1400s by Desiderio's circle of artists and captures the kind of beauty — most familiar from Botticelli's paintings — that still means much to us.

From the Blanchett look-alike, the exhibit opens with more youthful heads chiseled by the master himself. Such portrait busts, inspired by ancient Roman sculpture and medieval reliquaries of saints, were a Renaissance invention. Desiderio's were more innovative still in depicting small children and adolescents rather than powerful rulers and wealthy merchants. In his busts, animated details — wavy hair, slightly parted lips and almond-shaped eyes — breathe softness and life into the marble and create the impression that these portraits were based on real people rather than ideal conceptions.

Even more lifelike are Desiderio's busts of little boys in the next gallery, nicknamed "the nursery" by the curators. These gleeful and pensive portraits, with their chubby cheeks and tousled hair, are so startlingly naturalistic that it is tempting to think that the artist based them on his own children. The father of four, he may have created them for prosperous patrons seeking to symbolize dynastic aspirations with representations of their male offspring.

The sculptor extended this youthful realism to affectionate scenes of the Madonna holding the Christ Child, created through shallow, flattened carving called schiacciato relief. Comparing his casually posed, active babies to the more frontal and solemn Jesus in the Madonna and Child by fellow artist Antonio Rossellino, it is easy to see why Leonardo and Raphael were so taken with Desiderio's work. His standing figure of the baby Jesus, which crowned the San Lorenzo Tabernacle, became such a cult object that it was substituted by a copy — some replicas are included in the show — so that the original could be displayed on the high altar during Christmas celebrations.

Similar sensitivity to teenage youth is apparent in Desiderio's companionable portrayals of Christ with a gaunt St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. Such sculpted reliefs may have served as didactic models of sibling harmony for the children of wealthy patrons. Desiderio also was keenly observant of adulthood, as in his refined portrait of Julius Caesar. This profile of the Roman emperor may be one of the earliest Renaissance depictions of a renowned figure from antiquity, inspired by popular interest in the classical world during the 15th century.

Such sculpted low reliefs were a principal source of Desiderio's fame and coincided with the collecting of similarly engraved gems and cameos by fashionable Florentines. His distinguishing talent was to chisel the stone panels with such subtlety that some of them almost seem like drawings. Light and shadow playing across the surface, helped in the exhibit by sunshine-filtering laylights in the gallery ceilings, contribute to a luminosity that belies the heavy solidity of the marble.

The technique is particularly effective in "Saint Jerome in the Desert," a stratified scene of the praying scholar framed by a fleeing monk and a lion and lioness emerging from a rocky cave. Finely carved lines convey texture, movement and the illusion of space in a slab just 1.5 inches thick. Desiderio also was skilled at representing cloth so it appeared flowing and lightweight, as in "The Foulc Madonna." This effect was another way he enhanced the buoyancy of his figures.

Though still admired by artists in the decades after his death in 1464, Desiderio fell into oblivion starting in the late 1500s, only to be rediscovered when interest in Renaissance art was revived during the second half of the 19th century. American art patrons in the 20th century added his works to round out their Italian sculpture collections, which eventually were donated to museums. The National Gallery owns several Desiderio pieces, including two of the little boy busts, which can be more fully appreciated within the context of this rare retrospective.

WHAT: "Desiderio da Settignano: Sculptor of Renaissance Florence"

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Tomorrow through Oct. 8. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.goq

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