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The interior of the church of Santa Maria Dei Servi in Padua, Italy
The interior of the church of Santa Maria Dei Servi in Padua, Italy

Marco Ruffini

Giving Donatello His Due

In the mid-16th century, an anonymous yet plucky reader of Giorgio Vasari's influential Lives of the Artists made a note in the margin—a shout-out, if you will—to an important artwork in the reader's hometown of Padua that Vasari had overlooked. The note said, in effect, "You missed this one, Giorgio." Presumably Vasari never received the message.

Some 450 years later, associate professor of Italian Studies Marco Ruffini sat in Yale University's Beinecke Library. In front of him lay a copy of the 1550 edition of Vasari's book (he also completed a 1568 edition). Lives is still considered the most significant source on Italian Renaissance art for its groundbreaking analytical and historical approach. At the time, Ruffini was taking inventory of Vasari's first and second editions held in U.S. libraries and the annotations they contained. He had seen lots of margin notes over the years; usually they were indices of artists' names and of little interest to art historians. But in a margin alongside Vasari's biography of the Renaissance master Donatello, he came across a simple sentence: "He also made the crucifix which is now in Santa Maria dei Servi in Padua."

This sentence jumped out at Ruffini, because in all his years of Renaissance research he had never heard of this Donatello crucifix. The possibility that history had overlooked a sculpture by such a renowned artist was highly unlikely. Yet the handwriting style and syntax clearly revealed its roots in the 16th century. Ruffini knew that Donatello, who hailed from the great Renaissance center of Florence, had moved to the northern city of Padua in 1443, where he worked on several commissions. Most famously, he executed there the bronze equestrian statue of a Venetian condottiere (a leader of mercenaries) named Gattamelata ("the slick cat"), the bronze crucifix, and reliefs for the high altar of the Basilica del Santo, the Paduan cathedral dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua.

What to do with this cryptic reference to a second Donatello crucifix? Through a complex web of clues, Ruffini was able to determine that the book had belonged to two citizens of Padua, one who wrote annotations in the early 1560s and the other in the early 1580s, and that they were members of the same family or workshop, with the book passing from one generation to the next. The person who identified the crucifix was the earlier annotator. In addition, through further research Ruffini learned that an English painter acquired the book in the 18th century and after his death it landed somehow in a Roman bookstore, and then appeared in Florence, where it was purchased by another Englishman. A member of this family eventually donated it to Yale in 1975.

Ruffini also searched the art historical documents at Yale for clues. The only information he could find was in a few rare booklets of devotional content published in Padua in occasion of religious celebrations—which sometimes offered historical information—and a photograph of a monumental wooden crucifix in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Padua. Moreover, these publications referred to the six-foot-tall sculpture as miraculous: the crucifix was said to have perspired blood continuously for fifteen days in 1512, after which it became a popular destination for religious pilgrimages. The only art historical documentation he could locate, however, was in a footnote in a 1935 monograph on Donatello by the German scholar Hans Kauffmann, which identified a crucifix in Padua that was an anonymous copy of the one in the Basilica del Santo.

So far Ruffini had an intriguing note and bits of evidence, but nothing that authenticated attribution to Donatello. He needed to see the crucifix firsthand. So Ruffini, a native of Rome who started his career as an artist at the Academy of Art in Rome, traveled to Padua and took some photographs of the crucifix.

"I knew I needed the opinion of an expert," Ruffini recalled. "I found Francesco Caglioti, a major expert on Donatello and 15th-century sculpture who teaches in Naples and lives in Florence. He is meticulous and unbiased."

When they met in 2007, Ruffini showed his photographs to Caglioti, who was immediately interested. But it was only after a trip to Padua that Caglioti was able to recognize the unique hand of the Florentine master. For the next three years the two scholars worked together, keeping their project a secret while continuing their investigation. The turning point came when Ruffini happened across yet another annotation in a copy of a well-known art historical manuscript compilation by the writer referred to as the Anonimo Gaddiano. On the margin of the paragraph dedicated to Donatello's works in Padua, this second annotation stated, "he also made two crucifixes … as Lorenzo knows." Caglioti also found a 17th-century notebook written by a historian of the order of the Servites that referred to the miraculous crucifix as having been made by Donatello.

This was exactly what Ruffini and Caglioti needed: historical documents that specifically credited the sculpture to Donatello. Armed with three documents pointing to the same conclusion and Caglioti's connoisseurship, Ruffini and Caglioti felt they had the necessary proof to go public. In 2010 they presented their findings at the University of Trent and the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, and published two articles (Ruffini's addressing the historical documentary aspect and Caglioti's the formal features of the sculpture that revealed the hand of Donatello) in the scholarly journal Prospettiva. The international art community has unanimously accepted their attribution and the Italian media have celebrated it. One Italian newspaper proclaimed, "Miracolo, è Donatello." In March 2012 Ruffini and Caglioti will be hosted by the religious authorities in Padua in occasion of the fifth centennial celebration of the miracle.

Ruffini is still astonished at the circumstances surrounding his discovery. "This church is at the heart of the city. It's incredible that such a monumental sculpture of stunning beauty was unnoticed for centuries in one of the most important cities in art history, the place where Giotto and the most important Renaissance Italian artists worked. Even today there is a big school of art historians in Padua. The fact that this sculpture was unknown is, in fact, more incredible than the discovery itself."

How could art history have forgotten such a masterpiece? Ruffini posited two theories to explain why the work escaped notice for centuries. First, he believes that the miracle associated with the crucifix made it first and foremost a cult object. "The important point about miracles is that their agency is divine. The fame of the crucifix as a cult object eclipsed the name of the artist who made it," Ruffini remarked. "Religion and art often help each other, but there's also a hidden competition between artistic and religious values. When the religious significance determines how we look at an object, the aesthetic ways we look at it are removed from consideration."

Second, Ruffini pointed to the date of the miracle: 1512. Vasari did not begin writing his book until 34 years later, at which time the Renaissance was in full swing and Vasari's attentions were focused on his contemporaries. "The crucifix didn't have a chance. It became a miracle before historical interest in artifacts was raised. Also, Vasari had very limited knowledge of art outside Florence and specifically about artworks in Padua," he noted.

Megan Holmes, associate professor of Italian Renaissance art history at the University of Michigan, works on Florentine Renaissance miraculous images and is interested in the relationship between religious and artistic values. According to Holmes, the kind of "rediscovery" of a work by a celebrated artist is quite unusual, but does happen. She pointed to the example of a wooden crucifix in the church of Santo Spirito in Florence that wasn't attributed to Michelangelo until 1962, when an art historian named Margrit Lisner revealed its provenance.

Holmes noted that art historians may not to look very closely at highly venerated images. "What can happen sometimes is that these images, particularly those that remain in situ and still have active cults associated with them, are not as available to art historians for close scrutiny and study to the same extent that images in museums are, or even works known to be by major artists in churches," she said. "It is almost as if they have a force field around them—one doesn't walk right up and subject them to the same kind of close looking. Often, too, they have physical barriers around them, or they are elevated and behind glass. They are sometimes over-painted or bejeweled, making judgments about their age, date, and style quite difficult."

In fact, although Donatello's wooden Santa Maria crucifix was most likely originally painted in vibrant colors, at some point it was covered in a heavy varnish to look like bronze. Ruffini and Caglioti would like to have the work restored to its original state. Even in its altered state, however, Ruffini marveled at the sculpture's naturalistic beauty, defined musculature, and emotional intensity, as well as the startlingly good luck that led him to find it. He can take deep satisfaction knowing he rescued it from centuries of obscurity.

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