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An Italian Renaissance at the MOBIA on Broadway
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An Italian Renaissance at the MOBIA on Broadway

Picture of Tyler Anderson
Updated: 24 April 2017
New York City is home to many of history’s greatest works of art. From the Rembrandts and Vermeers that grace the halls of The Met to the Picassos and Van Goghs that line the walls of MoMA, the city has a long-standing reputation as a bastion of artistic inspiration. Yet, despite this rich cultural history, not until now has the work of one of the Renaissance’s greatest sculptors been on display in NYC.
Donatello, Head| © Museum of Biblical Art
Donatello, Head | © Museum of Biblical Art

With the new exhibit ‘Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral’, which is on display in The Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) until June 14th, art lovers across the boroughs will finally have an opportunity to gaze upon the work of one of antiquity’s greatest masters. The once in a lifetime exhibition is in NYC to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The MOBIA, which was chosen as host for its size and religious motifs, the latter of which creates an ideal setting for the medieval works once commissioned for the great Florence Cathedral, Il Duomo.

Brimming with a number of prominent pieces, the most famous in the exhibit are most certainly those by Donatello, which include ‘The Evangelist John‘, a larger than life statue that once occupied a coveted spot in Il Duomo’s exalted façade, and ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’, one of the few works by Donatello to follow a biblical narrative, that of Abraham nearly slaying his son as an offering to God.

But it is probably ‘Lo Zuccone’ (literally pumpkin-head or squash-head), a bald statue thought to depict the biblical prophet Habakkuk, that people are most likely to recognize. A hyper-realistic piece that Donatello himself credited as one of his greatest works, the sculpture is so lifelike that, upon completion, it is rumored the artist cried out ‘Speak then! Why wilt thou not speak?’

Donatello, Zuccone| © Museum of Biblical Art
Donatello, Zuccone | © Museum of Biblical Art

What makes the exhibit even more striking, aside from the eminence of its works’ progenitors, is that many of the featured pieces have never before left Florence, let alone made the trip to the States. According to the museum’s curators, the original intent was for New York City to be the culmination of a greater world tour, set to coordinate with the renovation of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where the works are permanently displayed. That plan was ultimately abandoned, however, after the Florentine curators decided that the pieces needed to be back in time for a 2015 visit by Pope Francis, and so something more flexible and less time-consuming was required.

It is due to that urgency that the exhibit landed with this most unusual of hosts. Unlike the large museums like The Met and The Frick, which typically have years of backlog for special exhibitions, The MOBIA was one of the few places in the city capable of taking on the challenge of an impromptu display. It was the combination of the museum’s theological foundation, which lent it a certain curatorial authority, along with its small size and quick turnover that made it the perfect, albeit unlikely, fit for the historic exhibit.

Along with the aforementioned Donatellos, the exhibition’s 23 works include sculptures by other Florentine masters Nanni di Banco and Luca Della Robia, as well as a four-foot-tall wooden model of Il Duomo’s famous dome, created by renowned Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi. It is this legendary dome, completed in 1436, which made the Florentine Cathedral one of the most acclaimed architectural structures in all of Italy, and which today serves as one of the most important representations of Gothic-Renaissance architecture anywhere in the world.

Brunelleschi, wood models of dome| © Museum of Biblical Art
Brunelleschi, wood models of dome | © Museum of Biblical Art

The exhibition may already be the most significant in the history of the young museum, which occupies the corner of 61st and Broadway near Columbus Circle. With New Yorkers and tourists alike flocking to catch a glimpse of the masterpieces before they are gone, The MOBIA is drawing crowds larger than any they have seen before, something the curators are almost certainly thrilled to see. The turnout is with good reason; it may be a lifetime before another opportunity like this presents itself in the city again.

The Museum of Biblical Art 1865 Broadway, New York, NY, USA +1 212 408 1500

By Tyler Anderson

Tyler Anderson is a writer living in New York City. After graduating from The University of Iowa School of Journalism he has rarely spent more than a year in one place, bouncing from Chicago to Houston to Austin, and finally settling in NYC. In his free time he loves to travel and explore new places.