Santa Croce sometimes allows its many treasures to temporarily travel and reveal their magnificence in museums around the world. One of Santa Croce’s valuables that will soon venture off is Donatello’s statue of Saint Louis of Toulouse. The restoration of this statue, which has taken about four months at Santa Croce, will be complete sometime this December. While Saint Louis will make his move around March 2013, he will surely return to Santa Croce, where he has lived for several centuries.
Donatello created Saint Louis of Toulouse from 1423 to 1425. The statue was originally created for the niche of the Guelph party on the church at Orsanmichele in Florence, which had been empty a long time before Donatello was commissioned to fill it. Saint Louis of Toulouse was the figure chosen for this niche because he represented someone who was entirely obedient to the pope. Louis, the eldest son of Charles II, gave up his right to the throne of Naples and Sicily for a spiritual office and way of life.
But St. Louis’ existence in Orsanmichele was short lived, while Donatello was still alive, c. 1459, the sculpture was moved to Santa Croce because the Guelph faction sold its tabernacle at Orsanmichele. The statue was placed on the façade of Santa Croce, where it stayed from mid 15th century until 1860’s when the new façade, created by Nicola Matas came into place. Removed from its original location, after several centuries even Donatello’s authorship came into question. That’s right, for several decades no one could confirm that Donatello created the work. Why was this hard to confirm? Donatello’s work was never the same; he was known for reinventing himself for every commission he was assigned, which makes it hard to establish what he did and did not do.
The mystery was solved only after the Second World War. During the war, Saint Louis of Toulouse, among many other statues, was taken away from Florence for protection. Upon its return, and thanks to Bruno Bearzi, an art connossur, it was suggested to place it back in the niche of Orsanmichele. This temporary move was actually amazing; it was a mystery solver! It revealed the answer to a long debated question: who created Saint Louis of Toulouse? It was discovered not only that he fit perfectly into the niche that Donatello was commissioned to fill but there was even a small piece of marble on the floor of the niche were his scepter was meant to rest. When the sculpture was returned to Santa Croce in 1945, it was certain that Donatello’s hand created it.
A celebrity in his own time, Donatello is known as one of the greatest sculptors in history. But like all famous artists, Donatello had to start somewhere, and it just so happens that one of his earliest commissions was filling the niches of Orsanmichele. This means that Saint Louis of Toulouse was one of Donatello’s first bronze sculptures. This early sculpture helped kick off Donatello’s fame as an expert in bronze. After Saint Louis, Donatello moved on to do other great projects, such as his bronze statues of David, Judith and Holofernes, and Gattamelata.
Now Saint Louis of Toulouse is being restored again, this time by restorer Ludovica Nicolai. Nicolai is no stranger to Donatello’s work, and has also restored Donatello’s famous sculpture, the bronze David, at the Bargello museum. Another famous project she has been working on are Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, which has been under restoration for the last 25 years! Clearly, Nicolai is an expert when it comes to bronze.
The sculpture of Saint Louis of Toulouse was once a bright bronze that shimmered with gold. The statue had special accessories, an archbishop’s hat, and a scepter, both of which were enlaced with gold and jewels. Since St. Louis of Toulouse was left outside for so many centuries, however, the brightness of the bronze became bland, and the sculpture has serious loss of gilding. Nicolai usually works with a laser to tackle such problems on sculptures, but now she is trying a new restoration technique using algae. This is an experiment for her, but so far it has been working extremely well for the sculpture. She comments, “Algae turned out to be natural, quick and easy for application, and give amazing final results.” As long as the sculpture remains inside, which it will in Santa Croce, then it should still shimmer for years to come.
St. Louis of Toulouse is only one of the many magnificent sculptures at Santa Croce. It traces Donatello’s fame back to the demanding works he did in Florence before his reputation took flight. The statue will be in restoration in-situ till December of this year. Then it will make its debut exhibition in Palazzo Strozzi and then at the Louvre in Paris. So come check out St. Louis of Toulouse in Santa Croce and see the sculpture magically transformed with restoration.
Blogger Rose Picón is a Syracuse University student currently studying abroad at Syracuse University in Florence. She is a double major in Art History and Advertising and is passionate about writing about art and culture.
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