- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

Damaging effects of weather and pollution have sent many a centuries-old building statue to the indoor safety of a museum gallery. The sculpture may be preserved, but when removed from its original surroundings, it will never be experienced quite as its creator intended.

That is the fundamental problem with the National Gallery of Art’s new exhibit, “Monumental Sculpture From Renaissance Florence.” The small, spare show celebrates the restoration of three revolutionary sculptures created by Nanni di Banco, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Andrea del Verrocchio during the 1400s for the exterior of the merchant church and granary known as the Orsanmichele.

The preservation of the artworks, on loan from the Orsanmichele Museum, was undertaken under the supervision of Italy’s premier conservation workshop, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.

However, the exhibit downplays the bond between art and architecture by presenting the bronze and marble sculptures as solitary fragments set within bland niches. Only a handful of photos provide a clue to the site-specificity of these imposing saints and martyrs.

Understanding their original context is important because the sculptures weren’t remote symbols tucked high within the Orsanmichele. Before being replaced with replicas, they stood in Gothic niches around the building and were raised just above the heads of people walking past on the busy street.

The statues were much like modern-day civic artworks, commissioned by the trade guilds of Florence to impress the public. These wealthy, powerful groups vied with one another to hire the best artists of the day.

Sculptors such as Donatello, whose influential “St. Mark” for Orsanmichele unfortunately is not part of the exhibit, responded by reinterpreting the art of ancient Rome to express a sense of nobility as befitting the republican ideals of 15th-century Florence.

This newfound classical influence is most evident in Nanni di Banco’s “Four Crowned Martyr Saints,” which introduces the exhibit. Created around 1409-1417 for the guild of stoneworkers and woodcarvers, the marble quartet closely resembles Roman statuary in its toga-draped, bearded figures. The head of the oldest saint may have been modeled on a portrait of emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The exhibit’s majestic centerpiece, the almost 9-foot-tall “St. Matthew,” was cast in bronze for the bankers guild. Artist Lorenzo Ghiberti sculpted the weighty saint in 1420 with an open book to suggest a wise philosopher of ancient times.

In the last gallery, the lessons of classical antiquity have been digested completely by Andrea del Verrocchio, whose voluminously draped bronzes of “Christ and St. Thomas” presage the baroque period. The expressive pair, completed in 1483, was commissioned by the merchant’s court for a niche previously occupied by a Donatello sculpture.

The exhibit allows close-up views of the larger-than-life figures that weren’t possible when they occupied the Orsanmichele tabernacles. It puts us at eye level with the big feet and hands of the bronze saints, weathered to a bright green, and their lustrous metal surfaces, cleaned of centuries of grime.

Seeing these marvelous details reinforces the reasons why their 15th-century sculptors are considered so inventive in portraying the human figure. One need only visit the adjacent permanent collection galleries to realize how avant-garde the monumental Florentine sculptures were in comparison to Italian paintings of the same period.

Through realistic gestures and a new spatial relationship to architecture, the statuary conveyed a physical immediacy that demystified religious teachings and spoke to the man and woman on the street.

Each artist shaped his creation to respond to its location within the facades of Orsanmichele. Ghiberti took advantage of a corner to impress passers-by with the intense gaze and tilted book of his St. Matthew. He also went so far as to remodel the Gothic niche with classical elements to complement his sculpture.

Lacking this architectural setting, the exhibit displays the figure on the side of the gallery to re-create the effect, although when approached head-on from the previous room, some of the intended visual impact is lost.

Other artists, such as Nanni di Banco and Verrocchio, crowded two or more saints into the niches, which were meant for single statues. In treating the recesses less like picture frames and more like rooms, they made their vignettes come alive, as if the figures were stepping onto a stage.

Verrocchio went so far as to position his doubting Thomas on the ledge outside the building’s central niche. Christ is placed inside on a plinth, which was cast as part of the sculpture but appeared integral to the architecture.

The exhibit reveals just how skillful these illusory and theatrical effects were by allowing a peek at the unfinished backs of the sculptures, which turn out to be no more than thick reliefs.

It also attempts to convey the spatial dynamic between the art and architecture by setting two of the artworks into modern niches slightly raised above the floor.

These stage sets, of course, cannot recapture the powerful tension between the Renaissance sculptures and their ornate Gothic surroundings. The stylized, rounded arches and moldings, painted beige to match the gallery walls, do little more than create the mistaken impression that the niches of the Orsanmichele were as classical as the sculptures.

Still, it is gratifying to see these groundbreaking Renaissance sculptures, among the great icons of Western art, in such good condition. The trio was lent to the National Gallery to mark the completion of a conservation campaign that began in 1984, when all the sculptures at Orsanmichele were removed from their original locations for safekeeping and repair.

Today, all but one of the 14 niches on the church’s exterior are filled with replicas. A facsimile of Ghiberti’s “St. Matthew” will be made to complete the ensemble after the statue is returned to Florence.

Plans are under way to exhibit the originals (Donatello’s “St. George” is at Florence’s Bargello Museum and may not be returned) at the Orsanmichele Museum, inside the stone walls where they once stood.

WHAT: “Monumental Sculpture From Renaissance Florence: Ghiberti, Nanni di Banco, and Verrocchio at Orsanmichele”

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

WHEN: Tomorrow through Dec. 31. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.

TICKETS: Free admission

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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