Archive for November, 2013

Masculinity, Modernity, and the Artistic Crisis in Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2″

Posted on November 29th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

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Federico Fellini’s last great masterpiece, 8 ½, can be viewed as his most autobiographical work, the swansong of an artist who is out of ideas and questioning his purpose in lifeLike its predecessor La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ is an esoteric, black and white art film starring Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi, a jaded, egotistical womanizer whose life is one ongoing existential crisis.  Rather than a hack journalist, Guido is a big time movie producer trying to come to terms with his life by turning it into a film.  The trials he undergoes in trying to get it underway present themselves as dream sequences and flashbacks that blend seamlessly with the absurdity of the modern condition.

8 ½ represents Fellini’s decided move away from the neo-realism school of Italian filmmaking, as it starts off with a nightmare and continues with a series of vignettes that are so surreal that the audience is never entire sure what’s a dream, what’s reality, and whether the whole thing isn’t in fact one of Guido’s egotistical delusions.  Throughout the film, strains of classical music serve as a backdrop to the protagonist’s life, symbolizing the artistic ideal he will never attain as long as he remains absorbed in his phony, over-indulged lifestyle.  Thus, Fellini deconstructs the fundamental crisis at the heart of every artistic endeavor, that being how can one create something real and beautiful when one’s whole existence is built on lies?  As Guido’s hollow relationship with his wife, Louisa, comes to light, he descends deeper and deeper into his memories to try to figure out where his “complex,” as he calls it, originated.


A strong theme running through the movie is that of the stranglehold the Catholic Church exerts over Italy, a nation which can never truly move forward until it turns away from superstition and the Church’s hypocritical moral code.  In a dream sequence where Guido begs advice from a cardinal, symbolically obscured by the haze of a steam room and entirely removed from the populace he’s meant to serve, the cardinal sanctimoniously tells him, “Why should you be happy?  That is not your task.”  Later, in a telling flashback where a gaggle of priests viciously shame a young Guido for dancing with a local madwoman, the audience gets a clue as to the confusion and fascination Guido—and consequently Italian masculinity as a whole—has with women and sexuality.  Overwhelmed by the combined pressure of the film industry and his relationship problems, Guido fantasizes a bizarre paradise where he is the master of a harem of women, all of them pandering sexual objects but at the same time mother-figures who cook and clean, and even bathe and swaddle him.

The film ends in a carnival-esque romp with all the characters from Guido’s life—including his wife, who agrees to accept him as he is—suggesting some sort of redemption is in the protagonist’s reach, whether real or imagined.  Fellini’s most surreal work, 8 ½ is a pastiche of existence in an Italy torn between tradition and progress, but mostly of the Italian male—macho and perpetually adolescent, trying to create something beautiful but at the same time driven to lie compulsively, all the while incapable of grasping the root of their problems, which is their failure to love.

Italy’s Love Affair With Hand Gestures

Posted on November 25th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Hand gestures and non-verbal language are a crucial part to any culture, and to the Italians more than most.  In Italy, hand gestures are a natural way of illustrating a conversation, and typically the more immersed you get in what you’re saying, the more ebullient your gestures become.  Growing up, I could see the stark difference between the Italian approach to gesturing as opposed to everyone else’s when we had our extended family over for Christmas dinner.  Relatives on my father’s side, all of German-Irish stock, ate quickly and efficiently and cleared their end of the table to make way for dessert, drinks, and presents; three hours later, the Italian relatives on my mother’s side were still working away at their meals—they were busy talking, and of course talking involved the necessity of putting down utensils to move one’s hands along with the story.


The art of Italian hand gestures is both eloquent and subtle, and can require some translating to the uninitiated.  For example, the way my nonna always urged me to come over to her was by extending her arm, palm-down, and flapping her fingers forwards and backwards—a gesture which can often be mistaken by English-speakers to mean “goodbye,” or “go away.”  On the other hand, the iconic gesture of holding up one’s hands, palms inward, with all the fingers pinched together can have various meanings according to context, body language, and facial expressions: from “whaddaya want from me?” to “delectable!” to an expression of emphasis or urgency.  A display of prayer hands, palms pressed together and fingers pointed Heavenward, generally accompanied with the exclamation, “Madonna!” connotes exasperation.  To slice downwards with your thumb along your cheek expresses that you are impressed with someone’s cleverness, whereas pointing to the eye with the index finger from below implies that someone was sneaky or a smart-aleck.


So where did this culture of gesturing come from, and why did it catch on so famously in Italy?   One theory is that, in light of a history of being almost constantly occupied by foreign nations, Italians came to depend on hand gestures as a secretive way of communicating under enemies’ noses.  Another is that gesturing wildly was originally a method of gaining attention and standing one’s ground in overcrowded cities such as Rome and Naples.  Interestingly, scholars have found gestures painted on Ancient Greek vases that correspond exactly to gestures still used in Italy, suggesting that while spoken languages evolve, gestures, which tap into something primal and instinctive, do not.

At any rate, hand gestures are so prevalent in Italian culture that, astoundingly, people will use them to punctuate telephone conversations.  Some Italian gestures—particularly the insults—have even become universally recognized, such as the unmistakable using one arm to strike the inside of your elbow while the other arm shoots up, and the action of brushing your fingertips outwards along your chin.  Actually, this second gesture, while interpreted as incredibly insulting in other cultures, is more a display of defiance among Italians, meaning something along the lines of, “I don’t give a damn.”  In this light, hand gestures, whatever their origin, exist to preserve a sense of rebelliousness against authority figures, which Italy has had its share of throughout the ages.  In a society that is becoming more and more impersonalized, gestures in any culture serve as an emphatic reminder of one’s individuality.

Bocce, a Social and Athletic Tradition

Posted on November 22nd, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

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On Sunday visits to Little Italy while growing up, I was always struck by the image of local old men playing bocce in the center of the neighborhood.  (They were always grandfathers—one of the requirements of playing bocce publically seemed to be you had to be at least sixty years old.)  They would toss red and green ceramic balls into the square patch of sand and then sit out their turns in lawn chairs, drinking strong coffee from the nearby Vacarro’s café.  Bocce, I always figured, was the Italian-American version of dominoes—it took depth perception and keen judgment but not an enormous amount of athletic prowess.  At the same time, it was sporty enough to inspire all sorts of competition between different teams, with bets being placed and good-natured joshing firing off left and right between opponents.

The game of bocce dates back to the Roman Empire, named after the word boccia, Italian for “bowl,” and records exist of Roman soldiers playing bocce with stones in between fighting with the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars in 264 BC.  Like many Italian customs, it has since then spread internationally through Italian immigrants and is currently popular worldwide, especially in countries to the east of Italy such as Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia.  The aim of the game in bocce is to throw a ball that weighs roughly three pounds down the length of a playing field about 90 feet in length, having it land as close as possible to a small, white ball called the boccino or pallino.  People can play individually or in teams of up to eight players, and the first team who reaches twelve points wins.


While the sport of bocce is closely related to the British game “bowling on the green,” it is much more refined, requiring skill, strategy, and cunning.  In fact, while bocce is played by many for both exercise and relaxation, it has shown great health benefits for elderly players—not only does it get you outdoors and interacting with other people, (which studies have shown can be a powerful asset against Alzheimer’s, as it keeps your mind and body active,) but it was declared by the Montpelier Medical Faculty in France to be the best exercise to prevent rheumatism.

As a child, I remember my grandfather taking part in local bocce tournaments—my grandmother approved because it got him out of the house and there was little to no risk of him injuring himself—and we would all tag along to support him.  Tournaments were always very sociable, night-time events held in the center of Little Italy where all the players’ families would show up with food and wine.  They would turn into miniature festivals with music and dancing as people got more and more excited over the turnout of the games.  Moreover, the tournaments drew fantastic business for the surrounding restaurants and cafes, making it a win-win situation for everyone.  Not only was it a good excuse for people to get together and have a good time, but it was a hands-on, energetic way of celebrating our heritage.

The Decameron of Boccaccio: Progressivism in Renaissance Literature

Posted on November 18th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »


At some point of your education, whether at the end of secondary school or the beginning of university, you’ve probably encountered Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories a rag-tag group of pilgrims tell each other, the defining literary work of Middle English.  In fact, virtually all of Chaucer’s stories are derived from an earlier work, The Decameron, composed by “the father of Italian prose,” Giovanni Boccaccio around the year 1350.

Much like Dante’s obsession with the number 9, Boccaccio drew on medieval numerological traditions and used the number 10 as a symbol throughout his book; in the midst of the Black Death, ten young people escape from Florence to hang out in the countryside for ten days—hence the title, Decameron.  Because YouTube parties were not yet a thing, to entertain themselves they declare that everyone has to tell a story, resulting in a hundred stories told over the course of ten days.  These stories cover the full span of human nature, with a different theme set for each day: love stories, tragedies, tales of mischief, tricks, and virtue.

The tales are in turn bawdy and satirical, offering keen insights on the human condition during the early Renaissance.  Many are vignettes exposing the greed and corruption of the Catholic Church, in which clergymen are depicted as lewd, opportunistic megalomaniacs, not at all the spiritual leaders they were meant to be.  This, as well as Boccaccio’s depiction of sex as a natural, often comedic part of human existence, were virtually unthinkable in a post-medieval Italy dominated by religion, where asceticism and the life of the spirit were taught to be of prime importance and the Black Death was believed by many to be God’s punishment for mankind’s sins.  Boccaccio, through his jocular tales of cuckolded husbands, scheming young women, sexually voracious nuns, and money-grubbing friars, was able to pave the way towards the Renaissance’s focus on humanism and secularism.

Also unprecedented was Boccaccio’s treatment of women in his stories; while in Italian society of the times women were viewed as inferior to men, Boccaccio actually depicted them as having the upper hand to men in most relationships, as being altogether tougher, more lustful, and more cunning.  Many of the tales in the Decameron depict battles between the sexes, with women emerging victorious due to their superior wit, tolerance in the face of adversity, among other virtues.


Boccaccio also proved himself centuries ahead of his time—which was very emphatic in proscribing women from the public sphere, insisting that their only satisfaction should lie in taking care of the home and family.  Boccaccio, in the voices of his seven female raconteurs, takes a sympathetic view of women’s condition, in which lovesickness is more keen, daily trials more difficult, and unreached potential more frustrating, because women are not permitted to act out in any of these aspects.

Through his many tales of women outsmarting men, outperforming men sexually, and finding ways around the constrictions society—and the Church in particular—placed on them, Boccaccio stood out as one of the only public figures of his time who depicted women realistically.  Unlike other writers of the early Renaissance, most notably Dante and Petrarch, who viewed women in the dualistic way popularized by religious teachings—pure, saintly, and acquiescent in the tradition of the Virgin Mary or whorish, demonic, and out to corrupt all of mankind—Boccaccio was able to write women as individual and flawed, having lives and desires independent of men, rather than moral archetypes.  In the scope of European literature, this was not seen again in mainstream thought until the 18th century.

A Love Affair With Caffe: Italy’s Espresso Culture

Posted on November 15th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

In Italy, as in Spain and other Mediterranean countries, it is the cultural norm, when one is going out for drinks or dancing with friends, to not leave the house until 11:00 or 12:00 at night—or even 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, if you want to be really fashionable.  Of course, there are plenty of different factors leading to this socially sanctioned night-owlery; many of these cultures involve a mid-day nap, leaving people energized and alert through the wee hours of the night.  Most bars don’t have a last call for drinks until 6:00 in the morning or later.  During the summer months, it’s best to wait until the sun has gone down for a few hours before it’s cool enough to venture out.  But, I am convinced, one of the driving factors behind this phenomenon of late partying lies in Italy’s fondness for drinking espresso.


In English-speaking countries, we’re familiar with espresso, that is, the thick, dark, drink brewed by pressure-forcing a stream of almost boiling water through finely ground coffee beans, mainly as the main ingredient in cappuccinos, lattes, macchiatos, and other milder coffee drinks.  But in Italy, espresso—or caffé, as they call is—is commonly drunk black, out of small, white mugs, without milk or even sugar to adulterate its taste.  (My first taste of properly brewed, straight espresso in Venice was such a shock, after growing up on overly sugary Starbucks beverages, that I wasn’t sure if the stuff was hot or cold, bitter or sour.  However, I was aware of a direct charge of caffeine straight to my system.)

While the first European coffeehouse was opened in Venice in the 17th century and then spread like wildfire across the peninsula, espresso itself was not conceived until much later.  Espresso first became Italy’s secondary staple beverage (after wine, of course,) at the beginning of the 20th century, when Desiderio Pavoni bought the patent to the newly-invented espresso machine, which sent a controlled supply of steam and hot water separately through the coffee.  As he set up his company, La Pavoni, espresso bars became local hotspots for socializing and recreation—espresso was widely viewed as a way to stimulate conversation and keep one’s energy up.  This tradition of cafes as places for social gathering spread throughout Europe and North America along with the Italian diaspora.


Today in Italy, drinking espresso or coffee in general is practically a ritual, and there are very specific rules of etiquette that you should follow.  At most espresso bars you’ll see, locals often drink their espresso in two to three quick shots at the bar, right before rushing off to their next engagement; people who sit at tables and savor their beverages are often taken to be tourists.  When ordering an espresso in Italy, ask for un caffé, as the term “espresso” is the base ingredient added to coffee beverages, such as a latte, (equal parts steamed milk and espresso,) or a cappuccino (equal parts steamed milk, froth, and espresso—historically, the name comes from the Capuchin friars, who were known for their brown garb and ring of brown hair.)  Most importantly of all, it is unheard of to order coffee with milk in it after breakfast, and to ask for a cappuccino any time after mid-morning may earn you some odd looks.

Although today coffee and coffeehouses are ubiquitous, the true aficionado of the Italian coffee culture can always tell the difference between artistically brewed coffee and that of lesser quality.  While the cultivation of coffee is thought to have originated in Ethiopia, like so many traditions, Italy has managed to adopt it and perfect it.  So the next time you’re grabbing a quick cup of Java on your way to work, remember that you have Italy to thank for your daily caffeine boost.

Olives, the Western Hemisphere’s Most Versatile Fruit

Posted on November 11th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »


Greek mythology tells of the birth of the city of Athens.  On its creation, both the god Poseidon and his niece, Athena, wanted to be patron of the city, so they proposed a contest: whoever could give the city a better gift would gain control of it.  So Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, unloosing a spring of water for the townspeople, but the water was as salty as the ocean and not much use to them.  Then Athena, the goddess of wisdom, gave the people of the city a small olive tree, explaining that this tree would provide them with fruit, oil, and wood.  Athena won the contest; the city was forever after known as “Athens,” and the olive tree became sacred to the goddess.

Ever since ancient times, the olive has been a staple crop among Mediterranean societies, and Italy is no different.  (In fact, virtually every language that has Latin influence derives its word for oil from its word for olive.)  One of the world’s top producers of olives and olive products, Italy views the olive as a symbol of culture and fertility, and the time of the raccolta delle olive—the olive harvest—is marked with feasts and festivals.  Lasting roughly from the middle of November to the beginning of the Advent calendar, the olive harvest represents for many the reaping of a year’s worth of hard work in preparation for the Christmas season.

While to the uninitiated, one type of olive may be largely the same as the next, the true connoisseur knows there are many varieties, such as the Tuscan moraiolo, of an intense flavor which produces an intense oil, or the leccino, which produces a mild, golden oil, or the frantoio, which produces green oil with a fruity flavor.  After harvesting, olives destined to be eaten have to be cured with lye or brine, or packed in salt for a few months to remove the chemical present in fresh olives, oleuropein.  They are often marinated to add flavor, and stuffed with a garnish such as feta cheese, pimientos, anchovies, almonds, garlic cloves—virtually anything you can imagine!


Contrary to what those of us whose only familiarity with olive oil is in a bottle on a supermarket shelf, the uses of olive oil go far beyond mere cookery.  (Though, of course, you’d be hard-pressed—if you’ll pardon the pun—to find an Italian dish without it.)  The ancient Roman gladiators used to rub themselves down with olive oil before fighting, to soothe and limber up tense muscles.    In the Dark Ages the Catholic Church—the last vestiges of the organized hierarchical state of the Roman Empire—saw to it that olive cultivation didn’t fall by the wayside.  The Church used it for sacraments, and for lighting oil lamps.  Italian monks raised olive trees and used the oil to clear up rashes, headaches, stomachaches, and ear infections.  To this day, olive oil is hailed for its health properties, especially in fighting cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease.  Moreover, warm olive oil mixed with avocado can be used as an excellent hair mask, replenishing key nutrients such as Vitamin E to damaged and brittle hair.

Olive trees are such a widely useful plant that it’s no wonder civilizations have been cultivating them for thousands of years.  (Contrary to the myth, first evidence of domesticated olive trees comes from areas around Syria and Palestine.)  With the olive a rich symbol of peace and prosperity appearing commonly throughout western literature and history—Odysseus sat under an olive tree for shade; the dove returned to Noah’s ark with an olive branch in its beak; the Prophet Mohammed once referred to the olive tree as blessed—it’s no wonder that Italy is proud of its status as one of the leading olive producers in the world.

Enrico Caruso, Italy’s First Modern Superstar

Posted on November 8th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »


We tend to view the phenomenon of universally loved celebrities as something unique to the second half of the 20th century.  After all, how cou

ld anyone even get famous without the help of television and the internet?  However, the early 20th and even 19th century had th

Born to a large, Roman Catholic family in 1873, Caruso grew up singing in the church choir, and later in the streets and cafes of Naples for money.  After an inglorious beginning to his stage career, (he was received so poorly by Neapolitan audiences that he swore never to sing in his hometown again,) Caruso received a contract to sing at La Scala in Milan.  He debuted in 1900, playing Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.  This was the beginning of Caruso’s shift from starving, unappreciated artist to international superstar.  He went on tour to Monte Carlo, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, and even Russia, where he sang before the Tsar and his family in the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg.  As a young and energetic upstart in the opera business, he was called on to take dynamic, romantic leading roles at La Scala, such as Maurizio in Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca.eir celebrity idols as well—with fans just as adoring—thanks to the advent of new media and communication technologies, chiefly the telegraph and telephone.  One of these turn-of-the-century luminaries was the opera tenor Enrico Caruso.  Combining a powerful and versatile voice with a shrewd business sense and eagerness to take advantage of recording his performances on the gramophone, Caruso found himself launched to global fame, and to this day he is considered a paragon of Italy’s opera heritage.

In 1902, Caruso was called upon by the Gramophone & Typewriter Company to make a series of recordings, which immediately became bestsellers in both Italy and the English-speaking world, and Caruso signed on to sing in operas such as Don Giovanni and Rigoletto for London’s high-profile Convent Garden.  After a year of performances in Italy, Portugal, and South America, Caruso went to New York City to premiere in Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, where he continued to sing until the end of his life.

Enrico Caruso as Lionel in the opera "Martha"

Enrico Caruso as Lionel in the opera “Martha”

To aid his American career, Caruso signed on with the Victor Talking-Machine Company, and the series of discs he recorded spread like wildfire throughout American opera-lovers.  For the first time ever, middle-class families were able to enjoy opera, through the radio and records, as well as the upper-class, making Caruso a musical hero with a truly widespread appeal—he was especially adored by half a million of New York’s immigrant community.  He proved his patriotic fervor throughout World War I by giving concerts for charity and running Liberty Bond drives, and throughout the war years he invested all of his royalty earnings, leaving him a very wealthy man by the end.

Towards the end of his career, Caruso started taking on more dramatic, heroic roles, such as Don Jose in Carmen, Samson in Samson e Delilah, and Otelo.  When Caruso died in 1921 of complications of bronchitis brought on by a heavy smoking habit and otherwise unhealthy lifestyle, his funeral in Italy was held at the Royal Basilica of the Church of San Francisco de Paola.  He was there mourned by thousands of his admirers, including King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy.  An idol to countless music-lovers, Caruso was one of the first artists to bridge the gap between opera as an old-century entertainment for the elite and an art-form to be enjoyed by all.  He is honored in Naples to this day as one of Italy’s truly innovative musicians, an inspiration to all opera-singers after him.

Pizza, the Journey From Naples To Fast Food

Posted on November 4th, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Pizza—the quintessential junk-food.  Since the ‘80s, it’s been the stereotypically greasy, processed meat-laden go-to meal of teenagers in sitcoms, latch-key kids, beer-drinking sports fanatics, and women in their 30s trying to ruin their diets.  But where does pizza really come from?  Most of us are vaguely aware that it’s Italian, but it actually has a long history dating back to the Ancient Greeks, who used to cook bread covered in oil, herbs, and cheese.  (This they called a pita, meaning a pie, a name which has gone in a completely different direction since then.)  Pizza as we know it today—a flat dough covered in tomato sauce, cheese, oregano, and various different meats and vegetables—actually originated in the city of Naples as a customary flatbread.

The mouthwatering Neapolitan Pizza Margherita

The mouthwatering Neapolitan Pizza Margherita

The traditional Neapolitan pizza is made with sliced tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, basil, and extra virgin olive oil.  Strong believers in the perfection of simplicity, the Neapolitans see no need to load down their pizzas with such fripperies as pepperoni, olives, mushrooms, and so on.  As Neapolitan pizza is now officially sanctioned by the EU as a Traditional Specialty Guaranteed dish, the rules for its baking are highly specific.  (Frozen pizza, or even frozen dough is, of course, unthinkable.)  The dough must be mixed with wheat flour, Neapolitan yeast, salt, and water.  The dough must be hand-kneaded, left to rise, and then hand-formed until it is 3 millimeters thick or less.  The pizza can only be baked in a stone oven, (and over an oak-wood fire,) for 60-90 seconds and at 485 degrees Celsius.  The two main variants include the Pizza Marinera, made with tomatoes, garlic, and oregano, and the ubiquitous Pizza Margherita, made with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil.  (Olive oil, of course, is a necessary ingredient to any Italian dish, including pizza.)

The Supreme Pizza, an American variation of the traditional style

The Supreme Pizza, an American variation of the traditional style

Of course, such a straightforward yet delicious meal is bound to inspire countless different imitations.  The Lazio-style pizza, which originated in Rome but spread to the rest of Italy, allows for a rectangular shape and a thicker, bulkier dough.  (Ironically, a pizza topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and anchovies in Rome is referred to as a pizza napoletana, whereas in Naples the same dish would be called a pizza romana.)  Different varieties of Lazio-style pizza, or pizza rustico, include the Pizza viennese, which has German sausages, Pizza capricciosa, which has mushrooms, artichokes, ham, and olives, Pizza quattro formaggi, which adds stracchino, fontina, gorgonzola, and occasionally ricotta to the traditional mozzarella, and Pizza bianca, which involves only olive oil, salt, and a blend of herbs for toppings.

Due to a wave of Italian immigration in the past century, pizza is now enjoyed in virtually every country in the world.  In fact, according to a 2004 survey, Norwegians eat the most pizza per capita at 50,000 tons consumed in one year.  Pizza has become a popular snack among the younger generation in South Korea, and it’s a newly emerging trend even in Middle Eastern countries like Israel and Pakistan.  And of course the UK and the United States have their various fast-food chains that form most people’s ideas of pizza.  The United States especially has its different takes on the classic Italian pizza, from the Chicago deep-dish to the Detroit twice-baked to the New York thin crust to the New Haven-style pizza which is served without cheese unless specifically requested.  But to get proper, authentic pizza of the perfect thinness, crispy texture, and delicate, savory flavor topped with fresh herbs, there is nowhere better to go than Italy.  And in all of Italy, there is nowhere better to go than Naples—your taste-buds will certainly thank you.

Donatello, Frontrunner of the Renaissance

Posted on November 1st, 2013 by Anna in Uncategorized | No Comments »

One of the most underappreciated figures of the Italian Renaissance, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, better known as Donatello, was a crucial figure in the early development of Italian art. Donatello was born in Florence around the year 1386, and he received his first artistic training at the hands of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a renowned goldsmith. His first big commission was for a statue of St. John the Baptist, and in Donatello’s work the shift of artistic expression from the stylized idealism of the late Gothic Mannerist style to a more organic and emotional humanist style is evident.

The David, Donatello's most famous statue

The David, Donatello’s most famous statue

As Donatello developed into an independent sculptor, mostly working on images and bas-reliefs of saints commissioned by churches, his work started to contain a stronger emphasis on naturalism and the beauty of the human figure. In the year 1430, Cosimo de’ Medici, the top artistic patron at the time, commissioned from Donatello what is now the famous David, the very first free-standing nude sculpture since the times of the Roman Empire, which has been described as “so naturalistic that it must have been made from life.” Intriguing and startling art critics for centuries, Donatello’s David has been interpreted as a parable of reason and virtue triumphing over brutality, and as a symbol of the artist’s homoerotic tendencies due to the subject’s dreamy, effeminate posture and physique.

Moving from Florence to Rome, and then from Rome to Padua, Donatello continued to work on statues and carvings for various cathedrals and palazzos, both religious and pagan-themed. In 1443 he cast a life-sized bronze equestrian statue of Erasmo da Narni, a dramatic and glorious monument the likes of which hadn’t been seen since classical times, and which was placed in the center of the town plaza. The equestrian Erasmo quickly inspired copycat monuments all across Italy as Donatello’s fame grew. He created many religious works for the Basilica of St. Anthony, including a bronze crucifix, a statue of the Madonna, and carved allegories depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The Penitent Magdalene shows evidence of Donatello's keen sense of emotion.

The Penitent Magdalene shows evidence of Donatello’s keen sense of emotion.

When he returned to Florence, Donatello was rightly perceived to be a master of his craft; as he continued to create bronze reliefs and statues in his characteristically free, intense style, he also trained young sculptors who went on to become notable artists themselves, such as Bartolomeo Bellano and Bertoldo di Giovanni. His final work, reliefs of Christ Before Pilate and Christ Before Caiphus, were left purposely unfinished, a technique that was popular at the time to underscore intense spiritual tension of a scene. When Donatello died in 1466, he was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in an elevated tomb beside his patron, Cosimo de’ Medici.

While Donatello’s work isn’t as celebrated as some of other great Italian artists, his early influence on naturalism in sculpture and emotional expression was crucial in leading to greater developments in artistic expression over the next few centuries. His attention to both physical beauty and anatomic perfection in his statues helped drive the movement away from the rigid medieval style of sculpting, and his nonconventional and intimate depiction of Biblical characters paved the way for greater freedom of interpretation during the later Renaissance.