There are a couple of very good reasons to hightail it over to the Museum of Biblical Art in New York right this very minute.
Let me start with the current exhibition, "Sculpture in the Age of Donatello." It's a tiny gem of a show that brings together roughly two dozen sculptural masterpieces from the world-famous Florence Cathedral — the first and likely last time these works of art will ever be seen in the U.S. (The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, where these pieces usually reside, is in the middle of being renovated, hence the show.)
Much more important: after this exhibition concludes, MOBIA will permanently close. The small museum, which looks at Christian and Jewish art from a secular perspective, couldn't raise enough capital for a new location after the building it inhabited was sold.
This makes me grateful that I caught the Donatello exhibition when I was in New York earlier this month.
It's an intimate gathering of objects that mark the dawn of the Renaissance in Italy: Donatello's sculpture of a wiry, tenacious-looking prophet (likely Habakkuk), a series of hexagonal reliefs by Luca della Robbia depicting creative and intellectual activities and a fine-featured Archangel Gabriel in the midst of Annunciation by Giovanni d'Ambrogio.
It's not for nothing that the show has gotten plenty of ink, including a rave review by Ken Johnson in The New York Times, as well as by Andrew Butterfield in the New York Review of Books. (The latter piece also discusses the history of the cathedral, known as Santa Maria del Fiore, and the context in which the art works were made — worth the price of subscription to the NYRB.)
I went into the show expecting some wondrous early Renaissance sculpture and I got it. I did not, however, expect to see the wooden model of Brunelleschi's Dome.
Checking in at a height of four feet, the simple model, which dates to the first half of the 15th century, is a sculptural rendering of one of the world's most important feats of architecture and engineering: the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore, which today remains the largest masonry dome ever built.
The accomplishment belonged to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), a cantankerous clockmaker and goldsmith who devised a way to build a 150-foot-wide dome without flying buttresses — too Gothic, and therefore passé — and without having it collapse in the middle of construction. In the process, Brunelleschi also built all kinds of ingenious machinery to aid in the construction of his dome. (Ross King's book from 2000, "Brunelleschi's Dome," is worthwhile reading for a backgrounder on all the ingenuity and politicking that went into the project.)
Beyond the record-breaking, the dome's successful completion also begins to mark the moment in which architecture started to transition from craft associated with manual labor to one of the high arts. Seeing the model, which is attributed to Brunelleschi himself, is like seeing the shell from which a revolutionary notion has been hatched.
All of this is plenty of reason to mourn the passing of MOBIA — a little museum capable of showcasing some very big ideas. If you are in New York, get over there as soon as you can.