The short working career of the Italian sculptor Desiderio da Settignano (1428-1464) was entirely centered in Florence. He was one of the most sensitive carvers of marble, especially in his images of children, in the history of this medium.
Desiderio da Settignano was born in Settignano, the youngest of three sons of a mason, Bartolommeo di Francesco. All three sons joined the sculptors' guild in Florence; Desiderio matriculated in 1453. In 1456 Desiderio and his older brother, Gero, rented a studio in Florence. There are few certain details recorded of Desiderio's earlier training and later life. He must have been influenced by Donatello, but scholars now believe that Desiderio's actual training was under Bernardo Rossellino, with whom he may have worked on the tomb of Beata Villana in S. Maria Novella before 1451.
Desiderio must have had an established reputation by 1453, since he was then awarded the important commission for the tomb of the humanist scholar and state chancellor of Florence, Carlo Marsuppini, in Sta Croce. The date of completion of this monument is not known, nor is it certain when Desiderio began his second major project, the Tabernacle of the Sacrament in S. Lorenzo, but this was surely in place by 1461. The charming frieze of putti heads on the exterior of the Pazzi Chapel was probably completed in 1461. According to Giorgio Vasari, Desiderio's last work was the painted wooden statue of St. Mary Magdalene, left unfinished and completed by Benedetto da Maiano after Desiderio's death in 1464.
From the outset Desiderio's talent was distinct, assured, and very rare. His Marsuppini tomb, planned to balance Bernardo Rossellino's tomb of Leonardo Bruni on the opposite wall of Sta Croce, is at once a harmonious counterpart to its model and an independent achievement, animating and enriching the sober, dignified characterization of the deceased with the grace notes of an ornamental setting in which every detail is chiseled with an incomparable combination of featherlike delicacy and prismatic precision and strength.
The same seemingly effortless ease controls the astonishing inventions of Desiderio's Tabernacle of the Sacrament and invests his smaller separate reliefs and images, whether of the infant Christ Child or the aged St. Jerome, with a serene radiance that never degenerates into sentimentality and is never reduced to a formula. His subtle variations of expression, type, and design give such traditional themes as the Madonna and Child or youthful angels a new grace and humanity.
The quality of Desiderio's sculpture can be appreciated in Clarence Kennedy's sensitive photographs in Studies in the History and Criticism of Sculpture, vol. 5: The Tabernacle of the Sacrament, by Desiderio da Settignano (1929). Both John Pope-Hennessy, Introduction to Italian Sculpture, vol. 2: Italian Renaissance Sculpture (1958); and Charles Seymour, Jr., Sculpture in Italy: 1400-1500 (1966), include important critical estimates of Desiderio's work.