Nicholas Penny, senior curator of sculpture and decorative arts. The work of fifteenth-century sculp...
Two documented dates in Desiderio da Settignano's biography delimit his brief but productive career. In June 1453, he was admitted to the Arte dei maestri di pietra e legname (carvers' guild) in Florence, a prerequisite for any ambitious sculptor. Eleven years later, in January 1464, he was buried in the church of San Pier Maggiore and hailed as one of the leading Florentine sculptors of the fifteenth century.
Desiderio was born about 1429 in Settignano, a quarry town just outside Florence that was home to many stonecutters. Though both of Desiderio's older brothers were active as sculptors, he probably trained in the Florentine workshop of Bernardo Rossellino (1407/1410-1464), also originally from Settignano. The sixteenth-century biographer Giorgio Vasari claimed that Desiderio was Donatello's pupil, but Donatello was away from Florence (1443-1453) during Desiderio's formative years. Nevertheless, Donatello's Florentine masterpieces, especially those in low relief, had a determining influence on the young artist's style.
From the mid-1450s until 1461, Desiderio shared a workshop with his brother Geri near Santa Trinita bridge in Florence. An important activity seems to have been the carving of architectural ornament and stone furnishings, such as fireplace surrounds, wall basins, and coats of arms. Desiderio also provided a carved pedestal for Donatello's David in the courtyard of the Medici palace. One of his most successful and innovative projects was the frieze on the portico of the Pazzi Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce (c. 1460): composed of fifty-eight medallions bearing lively cherub heads, it was executed with the help of assistants.
Following the death of Carlo Marsuppini, chancellor of Florence, in 1453, Desiderio received the commission for the funeral monument in Santa Croce (completed c. 1459), a considerable distinction for an artist then only in his early twenties. Earlier, Desiderio had perhaps collaborated, as an apprentice to Bernardo Rossellino, on the monument on the opposite wall, the tomb of Leonardo Bruni (1446-1448). He emulated Rossellino's overall structure and ornamental scheme for his own project. Marsuppini, who succeeded Bruni in the office of chancellor, was a close friend of the powerful Cosimo de' Medici and tutor to his children. It is therefore likely that his funerary monument was executed under the auspices of the Medici family.
Desiderio's second public masterpiece, the tabernacle of the Sacrament in the Basilica of San Lorenzo (completed c. 1461), also had a strong connection to the Medici. The family owned the side chapel where the tabernacle was originally housed (it is now located in the nave) and probably commissioned it directly. The twelve-foot-tall composite structure showcases the subtlety and range of Desiderio's marble carving, from the central schiacciato (flattened) relief of adoring angels to the crowning statuette in the round of the Christ Child. The tabernacle was an influential work: its monumental arrangement and individual elements were copied in churches throughout Tuscany. Both the Marsuppini monument and the tabernacle required the involvement of a skilled workshop, which probably included Francesco di Simone Ferrucci (1437-1493) and possibly the young Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488).
However, Desiderio is best remembered for his small-scale work, in particular his delicate busts of children (for example, Laughing Boy, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Gallery's Christ Child ?, both probably c. 1460-1464) and domestic devotional reliefs. His intimate depictions of the Virgin and Child were particularly popular in Florentine households, as the numerous stucco replicas of the so-called Turin and Foulc Madonnas demonstrate. In his Ricordanze (workshop journal), the painter Neri di Bicci, who began to collaborate with Desiderio in the mid-1450s, detailed the common practice of painting and gilding the replicas. The child bust, for which Desiderio showed a particular talent, is a genre he may actually have invented.
These works, after having long been misattributed to Donatello, came to symbolize the very essence of Desiderio's style when the sculptor was rediscovered in the nineteenth century. Despite more recent efforts to re-evaluate the whole of his oeuvre and chart his stylistic evolution, the paucity of documents and the absence of any signed or securely dated production explain why conceptions of Desiderio's career and corpus have remained in flux. Nonetheless, the body of work ascribed to Desiderio da Settignano shows him to be one of the most original, masterly, and moving sculptors of the mid-fifteenth century.