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Image Entertainment presents
Donatello: The First Modern Sculptor (1986)

"This really is drawing with the chisel. The depth of carving is no more than 5 millimeters, yet it is enough to catch every nuance of light and form."
- David Thompson, narrator

Review By: debi lee mandel   
Published: October 16, 2001

Stars: The art of Donatello
Other Stars: Henry Moore, Peter Rockwell, Elisabeth Frink, David Thompson, narrator
Director: (no credit)

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: G for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:24m:56s
Release Date: August 14, 2001
UPC: 014381929423
Genre: art

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In this production, the life and work of the 15th-century sculptor Donatello is explored in excruciating detail, in that very BBC sort of way the boys of Monty Python loved to rake. After having previously reviewed 15 other art documentary DVDs, I feel I can say this right up front. While this is a fabulous study for art history courses, it is longer than most, surely not targeted toward the general viewing public.

Donatello (1386 -1466) is a major figure of the early Renaissance, the period from 1400 to the mid-1500s in Europe, when a revival of the Classical style began to replace Gothic and Medieval design in art and architecture. His experiments in perspective, bas-relief and freestanding sculpture that combine Christian themes with pagan sources serve as inspiration, even today.

The program begins in a foundry where artisans fill a mold presented by a positive bronze piastraˇcast by Donatello over 500 years earlierˇwith molten glass. The result is another perfect, positive impression, which establishes the skill and precision of its creator. Filmed on location throughout Italy, the film discloses biographical details as the camera captures the nuances of "Little Donato's" work. While the lens ponders a breathtaking variety of sculpture and schiacciati (extreme low reliefwork) in bronze, marble, sandstone, wood, terracotta and plaster, it exhibits the sculptor's avid versatility and passion.

Modern artist Peter Rockwell demonstrates the master's technique of "drawing" in marble; Elizabeth Frink presents relief modeling in clay and discusses the difficult agility Donatello possessed, made obvious by his quick and subtle work in pigmented plasters. The great British sculptor, Henry Moore, discusses Donatello's technique, using his own charcoal sketches of the Italian's work to illustrate his points. I think a few more didactic segments like these might have elevated my enjoyment of this documentary; the slow-paced direction quickly becomes monotonous and "breaks" are rare in its nearly 90-minute running time. (No director is credited for this piece, an ominous sign.)

From the magnificently ornamented Florentine Duomo to the Basillica of St. Anthony in Padua and the Frari church in Venice, this prolific sculptor brought the mark of the Renaissance to Northern Italy, in works both grand and small. Another revolutionary in the history of art, Donatello's ˙uvre is an essential study, deserving all superlatives it garners. His exterior pulpit, replete with joyous, gallivanting putti and adorned by gilt mosaics, is a mischievous masterpiece worth the lengthy viewing in itself.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The source remains in an unrestored condition, with all the marks of carelessness and age. It is dirty, speckled and grainy, and the colors are murky at best, with exception of the rare exterior shots, which seem to have fared a bit better. Most of Donatello's art was created for interior settings, and many outdoor pieces have since been moved inside for protection, so the presentation suffers from poor contrast and a nasty, penumbral view. While not a complete distraction, combined with the lumbering direction it just does not inspire one to savor the work properly. As I have said before, in documentary films, imparting information is primary, but a bit of work in the transfer process would have gone a long way here.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Image presents Donatello in Dolby Digital mono, which is sufficient for the laborious narration and the spattering of ambient music. It is, however, clear and understandable at all times.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Fifteen chapter stops in groups of 5 thumbnail frames adorn three screens that are less-than-appealing in their presentation. The cover design is rather evocative of the content, however, which saves the concept from failure.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

"...he went on to become one of the creators of that movement which leads out of the Middles Ages towards the modern world."

While not the most exciting documentary Image presents on DVD, the work of Donatello is requisite to a study of Renaissance concepts that can be found in the later work of more widely celebrated artists, from Sandro Botticelli to Michelangelo Buonarroti and later, the 20th century's greatest sculptor, Auguste Rodin, having laid the foundation of "modern" art for centuries to come.


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