On 27 August 1456, the Florentine physician Giovanni Chellini Samminiati recorded in his daybook that in lieu of payment from a patient he treating for a serious illness he had received
‘a roundel the size of a trencher in which was sculpted the Virgin Mary with the Child at her neck and two angels on each side, all of bronze, and on the outer side hollowed out so that melted glass could be cast on to it and would make the same figures as those on the other side’.
The donor was Donatello (1386–1466), arguably the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance in Italy; the roundel, one of the V&A's most prized possessions. Chellini's daybook entry makes the so-called ‘Chellini Madonna’ one of the most important works by Donatello because very few can be categorically linked to such documentation.
The reverse of the roundel (tondo) is a unique feature; no other bronze has such a precise negative mould. In addition to its function as a glass mould, the roundel may have been intended as a birth tray (desco da parto). This was a tray laden with sweetmeats brought to a mother after childbirth. The two cherubs on the right-hand side are carrying a heaped bowl in offering, perhaps a reference to this possible use.
The roundel is 28cm in diameter and cast in bronze by the lost wax process. The image of the 'Virgin and Child' carved in relief in a roundel was rare before the Renaissance but in the 15th century it became a standard element in the upper part of wall monuments.
The circular design corresponds to Renaissance architectural forms based on pure, geometric shapes. In emphasising architectural features in his roundel, instead of treating it simply as a frame, Donatello creates the effect that we view the Virgin and Child through an aperture in a thick wall and behind a railing.
The crescent shape of the reveal above, combined with the bulge of the railing below, define a shallow stage for the scene and suggest a low viewing point. This is a dramatic advance over earlier roundels of the Virgin and Child on the same small scale, where the space is not defined. The architectural quality of the composition was such that within a few years (about 1457) Donatello adapted it for a large roundel in Siena Cathedral, where the spectator indeed saw it from below; the illusion of seeing figures within a 'port-hole' is very convincing.
Throughout his career, Donatello made reliefs of the Madonna and Child in marble, terracotta and bronze. The earliest of these is considered to be the 'Pazzi Madonna' (Berlin Museums), dating from the 1420s. Much later is the V&A's gilded terracotta 'Madonna', which is close in style to the Chellini bronze. At least two compositions of the Madonna were designed while Donatello was in Padua (1443–53); although no originals survive, plaster casts exist in Verona.
Donatello's last documented 'Madonna' is the Siena Cathedral roundel, dated to 1457 and carved largely by assistants. The Chellini bronze is important not only for its artistic merits but because it must have been produced in or before 1456, the date of its gift to Dr Chellini. Indeed, there is reason to believe that it may have been made a few years earlier, while Donatello was in Padua.
The history of the Madonna
The roundel probably arrived in England around 1748–9, when it was bought from Chellini's descendants by Lord Malton while on the Grand Tour. It then passed through ownership of successive Earls Fitzwilliam before being sold in 1954.
In 1966 the roundel was brought into the V&A on an Opinions Day, but it later came to the attention of the former Director of the V&A, John Pope-Hennessy, in 1975 when, leaving a dinner party at the American Embassy, he
‘ran into David Carritt [the art dealer], who told me that he had found a circular 15th-century bronze relief in use as an ashtray. I asked him to let me see it, and he brought it round the following day. Its front face corresponded with that of the other reliefs. But what mattered was the reverse, and when I turned it over I found the mould described by Chellini.’
The roundel was destined to be exported to the United States, but following a public appeal and the sale of limited edition silver casts from the reverse, it was secured for the Museum in 1976.
Despite Chellini's claim that the negative mould on the reverse of the roundel was designed to produce glass casts, there are no surviving examples.
The Glass Department of the Royal College of Art, London and the glass firm of Venini on Murano, Venice, experimented to see if such a cast could indeed be made using 15th-century methods. They discovered it was feasible, though technically demanding. The resultant glass plaques, whether plain or coloured, are so beautiful that they suggest that Donatello may have designed the composition specifically for reproduction in this unusual medium.
Donatello, who spent a decade in Padua, only 12 miles from Venice, may well have known the greatest Venetian expert in glass of his day, Angelo Barovier of Murano (1405–60). Always an inventive and unconventional artist, perhaps he was inspired to experiment with the new medium.
Written by Charles Avery, 1976, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series.