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Collections and Critiques

Preliminary Studies for New York World's Fair on View in Robinson Hall


Seldom do we have the opportunity of seeing, as in the present display of the Dreyfus Collection, a selection of great works of art that reflect so completely the age that produced them. No less important than the Renaissance Humanists' discovery of classical antiquity was their discovery of man. In no other period was there such a vital interest in the phenomenon of the human personality, and so it is not surprising to find that the Italian sculptors represented in the Fogg Museum have mirrored the multiple facets of that interest in their works. The arrogance and strength of the Renaissance prince speaks in Verrocchio's Giuliano dei Medici, the refinement and culture of the day, in Desiderio's Giovanna degli Albizzi. The mystic, contemplative personality is portrayed in Donatello's St. John, and, in the Madonna that della Robbia has set against an infinite blue sky, we have the religious sincerity that survived the enthusiasm for pagan culture. The typical Italian devotion to children is nowhere more delightfully shown than in Desiderio's portrait of a boy.

The work of the two men, Verrocchio the realist and Desiderio the exquisite sentimentalist, dominates the exhibition. The same Verrocchio who produced the mighty Colleoni has given us the forceful bust of Giuliano dei Medici. The sculptor has portrayed Lorenzo's brother as the victor in the great Tournament of 1475, the here of Politian's Stanze rejoicing in his youth and virile beauty. The tilt of the noble head, the pride of race stamped on the curling lips and firm-set jaw make this not only the portrait of a Medici but of the whole class of cultured despots. The delicate handling of the armor contrasts with and accentuates the direct, almost impressionistic modelling of the head. Versatility, even in an age of giants, is always amazing, and so it seems almost incredible that the same hand turned out the reguish putto who cavorts in the centre of the room in much the same pose as his famous brother with the delphin in Florence.

What a contrast there is between this firm-fleshed, bouncing gamin and the delicate, well brought-up little boy by Desidevaerio. The charm of this master's busts of children is almost too evanescent a thing to describe in words. One will want to look at this little head from every angle to enjoy the play of light on the wonderfully soft texture of the marble, to see how well the sculptor has caught the ever-changing expression, mischievous and yet touched with sadness, that animates the face of youth. Another piece by Desiderio, a relief of the Madonna and Child, shows the same exquisite sense of surface texture and a capable realization of form in the planes of low relief. The rich color of the aristocratic bust of Giovanna degli Albizzi adds warmth and life to the characteristic delicacy of the features.

Donatello's St. John the Baptist embodies the spiritual intensity of his other versions of this subject. This Tuscan boy reveals in its ascetic beauty the religious fervor and the introspective side of the Renaissance character. This expression of thought and the splendidly structural modelling of the head make this a worthy example of the master's work.

Typical products of an age that set a premium on immortality and fame are Pisanello's medallion portraits of the great folk at the courts of Ferrara, Mantua, and Milan. Although small in scale, through the accuracy of modelling and characterization, they partake of the qualities of monumental works of art. One is apt to remember the sharp profile of Paleologus in the fantastic dress of Byzantium, the appropriately gentle likeness of Cecilia Gonzaga, and the strangely fascinating head of Leonello d'Este. We may see side by side the first proofs in lead and the later casts in bronze, in every case chased by the master's own hand.

In this review it has been possible to analyze briefly only the most important pieces in a collection which is rounded out, however, by representative works by lesser personalities: I may mention as worthy of the visitor's attention two characteristic marbles by Donatello's follower Antonio Rossellino, an idealized St. Sebastian by Civitali, three typical terra-cottas by della Robbia, and, among the North Italians, the sharply outlined profiles of the Storzas by Amadeo, and Riccio's Entombment with the figures clad in classical garments.

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