Department of Art History
The Pennsylvania State University
“Making Up Materials: Donatello and the Cosmetic Act”
Over the roughly half-century that he plied the medium of sculpture, Donatello (1383/6–1464) produced a number of works which, although differing in key respects, all take up the same basic conceit. Broadly speaking, these are sculptures wrought from one material that masquerade as a different substance entirely, always a substance more costly or prestigious than the first. To affect these transformations Donatello and his collaborators would rework the raw substrate of these sculptures – their “skin” – dramatically, applying subtle films of pigment, varnish, gold powder, resin, wax, brick dust, and a host of other materials that work in concert to make terracotta resemble marble or glass mosaic; stucco simulate precious stones; to give limestone the look of porphyry. While the range of activities to which Donatello’s dissimulated materials might be compared was broad, this talk explores the possibility that the sculptor and his peers were reminded of one pursuit in particular:not painting per se, but its less dignified offspring cosmetics, the artificial enhancement of a body with rouge. Contemporary anecdotes, gossip, popular poetry, and payment records offer insight into Donatello’s appetite for cosmetic experiment.By resurrecting these sources, this talk identifies an underappreciated discourse surrounding Donatello’s “made up” materials, at once exalted for their artifice, and marked by a deep-seated distrust of false appearances, in sculptural media and flesh alike. Throughout, I will attempt to remain faithful to the belief among his contemporaries that what distinguished Donatello within his culture was a special aptitude for cunning – my proposal, in fact, is that this quality is most explicitly manifest in how the sculptor treated surface itself, and a key to understanding the facets of his practice that posterity left behind. For unlike Donatello’s better-known works in marble and bronze, which became a rich quarry for posterity to mine, his cosmetic experiments were not once reprised in the sixteenth century.