Donatello’s Madonna in Citerna

This is highlight #1 from our recent Italian vacation. In the little Umbrian hill town of Citerna, in the church of San Francesco, a small, badly damaged, and heavily painted terracotta Madonna and Child stood on a shelf above the choir for many centuries, unnoticed by art historians. To the extent that its existence was recorded at all, it was assumed to be a folk work from the 15th-16th centuries.

In 2001, Laura Ciferri–then a graduate student–paid it a visit and realized that it was not the kind of Umbrian folk piece that she was studying for a paper. She proposed instead that it had been made by the great Donatello himself.

Experts in Florence removed numerous layers of thick paint, chemically tested the materials, and rebuilt portions of the sculpture, working on the little object for seven years. Although I have found peer-reviewed scholarly articles from ca. 2002 that doubt its attribution, now that the restoration is complete, the consensus seems to be that it is a work of Donatello. He probably made it in Florence between 1415 and 1420–not using a mold but working directly with clay. He personally painted the baked terracotta, and his polychrome surface is now visible again.

To support the attribution, specialists point to similarities with more famous works, such as the hands of Donatello’s “David.” I would add that this most idiosyncratic artist always visualized scenes in his own unprecedented way. Here the baby senses an unknown danger in the distance. His face is disturbed; his body tenses even as one hand reaches for his mother. He curls the┬ábig toe of his left foot. Most of his wrap has fallen away to reveal his vulnerability and humanity. Mary, who knows what lies ahead for him, reflects soberly as she touches her cheek to his forehead and very gently supports his foot.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.