Donatello – At Padua, And The End

DONATELLO journeyed from Florence to Padua in the year 1443, and, according to the recent re-searches of Signor M. A. Gloria, the number and respective dates of his works for that city are as follows :

” 1. Works for the tribunes (1443-1444).

” 2. Crucifix in bronze for the high altar (1444).

” 3. Statue in stone representing The Father, which was intended probably to be placed on a baldachino over the altar (1445). It is not known what has become of this statue.

“4. Statue of Gattamelata. Begun in 1446 ; construction of the pedestal in 1447 ; erection of the statue, 1453.

“5. Altar in bronze, destined to replace the ancient altar, for which he had previously made his bronze crucifix, ordered in 1446. In 1448, on a provisional wooden altar, he displayed the seven statues, the four miracles, the four symbols, and the ten bas-reliefs of angels. He silvers and gilds the miracles, gilds the other bas-reliefs, and sculptures the Deposition from the Cross. In 1450, for the feast of the saint, the altar is erected and completely finished.”

These together form a distinct group, differing much from his other work either in Florence or elsewhere.

Unhappily, on all accounts, the altar of the church of San Antonio, as designed by Donatello, was, like his great Cantoria, removed to make room for one by another artist. The sculptures, however, were pre-served, and in 1895 were, by Signor Camillo Boito, again placed together on the altar with skill and judgment.

As at present arranged, the reliefs of angels making music form the front of the altar ; above these are two reliefs of the miracle of ” Il Santo,” two symbols of the Evangelists, and a ” Pietà ” ; above these are seven figures of saints, life-size, and sculptured in the round, with a crucifix surmounting the whole. At the back, the great altar is almost as rich as at the front, having two other miracles of the saint, and two symbols of evangelists, all in bronze relief, and in the centre a large ” Entombment” in terra-cotta.

The twelve angels making music are in themselves a great study, both as art and as craftsmanship. The ordinarily accepted canons of relief are in them gloriously over-ridden ; and problems of technique are solved with such an absolute sense of power that one is lost in admiration before these music-making bambini, each one more lovely than the last. In one of them, placed upon the north side of the altar, we see the bacchanalian form with which we have become familiar on the Pulpito della Cintola,” and the Cantoria ; in the – eleven others, however, this character is entirely absent. These, as it were, combine Donato’s mastery of form and action with Luca della Robbia’s grace and devotional spirit. Each figure, or couple of figures, rests within its own deep moulding, and has its own pose and character, all, however, making music with either instrument or voice.

As regards the method of working the relief, we have that of the ” Pulpito ” carried a degree further. The figures stand out in parts almost with the projection of full relief ; but in the case of a limb, its surface is flattened and modelled, as if in low relief, with a straight cut edge for outline ; what is behind this recedes into the background to the depth of an inch or more without being modelled at all, but serving as a thin support to the outer surface merely. This treatment secures the same effect of sharpness of outline and precision of shadow which we noted in the panels of the Pratese pulpit ; what is specially remarkable in this case is that Donatello has known how to modify the bold handling so suitable for large architectural effects, and adapt it to delicate panels of fine decoration, in a position close to the eye. His treatment of the musical instruments is in one or two instances extra-ordinary in its originality. In one case a lyre, in another a pipe is held by the player, as it were, pointed directly outwards from the panel. The ordinary treatment of an object in such a position would be to fore-shorten it, as in drawing ; to have done so in these cases would have resulted in an ungraceful and probably unintelligible form. Donato has solved the problem with a directness only more astonishing than its absolute success. He has frankly given the instruments their true length, by bending them sideways over the edge of the enclosing moulding.

The four symbols of the Evangelists are fine compositions. The “Lion of St. Mark” is perhaps the most striking ; it is a magnificent heraldic treatment of_ the lion form. The lion is, however, one of the most decorative of beasts ; an ox, on the contrary, has probably as stiff and uncompromising a form as that of the lion is adaptable. The ” Ox of St. Luke” is, nevertheless, as triumphant a composition as the ” Lion of St. Mark.” The ” Eagle of St. John ” and the ” Angel of St. Matthew ” are a little less happy than the other two.

In the four miracles of “11 Santo,” we have a return to the composition of storie, and, as such, these are probably Donatello’s capo lavori.

The four subjects are as follows :—The miracle of finding a miser’s heart in his money chest ; that of healing a young man who, in remorse for having kicked his mother, had cut off his foot ; that of causing a newly-born baby to speak in order to establish the innocence of its mother ; and that of an ass which, though starving, recognised the sacredness of the Host, and refused to eat it, thus confounding an unbeliever. In all these reliefs architecture is largely introduced, not so much as setting up an additional and independent interest, but rather as a decorative setting and framing for the figure groups. It is thus restrained and sculptural in its character, and duly subordinate to the design as a whole.

The ” Miracle of the Miser’s Heart” is perhaps the most completely satisfying of the four. There is a strong sentiment of “line ” throughout the grouping of the figures, among which is present every variety of pose and action. The modelling is finished to the highest degree, and that especially where the nude occurs and throughout the whole there is manifested a subtle sympathy with the subject which adds to the general effect of perfect attainment in the work. Remembering his own earnings, slung up in a basket to the rafters of his bottega, for the use of friends and garzoni, there is little cause for wonder if this subject made a stronger appeal to Donato than the other three.

The same qualities of technique that we admire in the ” Miracle of the Miser’s Heart ” are present in the others ; and in all we have revealed to us the tremendous step out of the Old into the New which Donatello had taken. We have already noted in some detail his revolutionary methods with regard to the statue ; in the Miracles we see clearly the position which he attained in regard to Relief. If we compare a panel on the Tabernacle of Or San Michele, or even the trial panels for the Baptistery Gates, we shall recognise how entirely Donatello treads a new World of Art, in aim as in achievement.

In the statues for the high altar, with the exception of the ” St. Francis,” the peculiar touch of the master is much less obvious than in the reliefs. There is a quiet stateliness about their pose, which preserves them from insipidity, but the fiery character which we are accustomed to perceive in Donato’s work is entirely absent. One cannot but think that the garzoni are largely responsible for these comparatively lifeless figures. The local saints of Padua possibly did not appeal strongly to the Florentine Donato. In the ” St. Francis,” however, we recognise the old familiar strength and expression of character ; this is a figure conceived and executed in the true Donato fashion.

The terra-cotta Pietà ” is somewhat extravagant in sentiment, the women being wild in their expression of woe. Technically, however, the composition is wonderful, both in the management of “line” and of planes; not very highly finished, it is left in that fiery sketchiness of one of ” those that know.”

The “Gattamelata” equestrian statue has, as already noted, a great historical position. It is doubtless to that position, as the first of its kind in modern art, that are due any shortcomings in it that we may, by taking thought, discover.

The horse, as is natural, is not equal in execution to its rider, and, possibly because of the disproportion in size between the two, the full greatness of the latter does not strike one immediately. The fact of the rider’s head being uncovered increases this effect of disparity. Verrocchio, following after Donato, gave to his figure of “Colleone” a peaked helmet, and, in comparing the two statues, we cannot but feel that the addition was a happy one. Yet the “Gattamelata ” in itself is a magnificent presentation of a sagacious warrior, cool, determined, commanding, and is filled with that subtle suggestion of individual character, which it is Donato’s special triumph to achieve. By the side of the dignified and restrained ” Gattamelata,” the more decorative ” Colleone ” may be almost accused of bluster.

The action of the horse is that of ambling ; both feet on the same side move together. This action it has in common with the bronze horses of St. Mark, and also of the horses on the frieze of the Parthenon. Thus it seems probable that, in classic times, if not also in later days, the amble was the equine pace of ceremony used on state occasions, and for that reason chosen for representation in that most stately form of monument, the equestrian statue.

The “St. John the Baptist,” sculptured in wood for the church of the Frari in Venice, presumably Donatello’s first work on leaving Padua, is in striking contrast to the labours of the preceding six years. A certain unwonted suavity marks the whole of the Paduan period ; the ” St. John ” is a direct return to his Florentine manner. Beauty of form for its own sake is eschewed ; truth, combined with spiritual suggestion, again assert their paramount position in the master’s mind. Thus we find the “St. John” as realistically portrayed as ever before, although the time of life chosen for presentation is more advanced, and there is, in consequence, even less of bodily beauty to depict. At first sight, the figure appears meagre in its proportions ; it is, however, a sternly logical development from the breathless youth of the Martelli Palace, and the absorbed enthusiast of the Bargello. This older man is worn by his added years and labours, but still full of fire, and keenly alive. The prophet is still uttering his message, though a sadness as of disappointment has come into the sunken eyes. Despite the quaint, quasi-naturalistic colouring given to skin and hair and robe, this, most of all the representations of St. John given us by Donatello, is “the Voice crying in the Wilderness” made visible to us. On the plinth beneath his feet is the full signature of the sculptor, Donatellus Flor.

In connection with this most bold portrayal of his conception should be noted his ” Magdalen,” in the Florentine Baptistery, also a statue in wood. Whatever the actual date of the ” Magdalen,” it is the spiritual twin of this wonderful “St. John.” Donatello represents the penitent with the same uncompromising realism, such, indeed, as she must have become in the course of nature, if the legend of her hermit life be accepted. She stands, an emaciated figure, covered but with her flowing hair; no physical loveliness is left to her; her sacrifice has been complete ; she is, in fact, unlovely, almost unsexed through her austerity. Yet, despite, or rather by means of his handling of this realism, Donatello has endowed his beauty-less ” Magdalen ” with a spiritual force which one looks for elsewhere in vain.

To 1457 belongs another “St. John,” again executed for the Duomo of Siena, but though the same conception appears to have been in Donato’s mind as that of the “St. John” of the Frari, it can hardly be said to have realised it in bronze with such absolute success. It is probable that to about this period also belongs the ” Judith.” As M. Marcel Reymond points out, the ” Judith” group appears more akin to the statues of Padua than to those of any other period.

The ageing master, arrived in fact, at his seventy-second year, again returned to Florence, and there, for his old friends the Medici, undertook the two pulpits of San Lorenzo. Though it is generally held that these are only in part executed by him, certain authorities claim for them a high place among his genuine works. It will, in all probability, remain one of those difficult points around which the war of opinion will continue to be waged. There can, however, be no doubt that, though the hand may have been largely that of the faithful Bertolo, the informing voice was that of Donatello, never long absent from his follower’s side. The general character of the work is too strong and too fiery to have been inspired by any lesser man. DONATELLO’S PLACE AND INFLUENCE

NOTHING is more difficult than to appreciate justly the position and influence of such a profound genius as was that of Donatello. It may be said that for fully fifty years he was a guiding and inspiring force in art throughout Italy, and that, after him, the whole standard of art was altered, and the archaic for ever left behind. Nevertheless, it cannot be maintained that his influence was exerted by the establishment of a school ; as, for example, Giotto left behind him the succession of the Giotteschi.

In order to follow, in any strict sense of the word, a master such as Donatello, the followers would require to have an intellectual and artistic equipment equal to the full appreciation of the master spirit that they had set before them. This does not appear to have been the good fortune of any of the sculptors immediately succeeding Donatello.

To say that Desiderio da Settignano, the Rossellini, or even Verrocchio, his actual pupil, in any way shared the peculiar and distinctive spirit of Donato, is to indicate a lack of appreciation of the proper nature of that spirit.

Attention has been drawn on a previous page to certain points in the technique of Desiderio and the Rossellini, wherein it differed from that of Donatello ; but in their apparent aim in art there is a still greater difference. With them, beauty of line and form was obviously valued for its own sake, and diligently sought after. We perceive this in the beautiful and delicately executed tombs in Santa Croce and San Miniato al Monte. This became, in fact, the generally pervading characteristic of Florentine sculpture, in the works of Mino da Fiesoli Benedetto da Majano, and the later della Robbias, no less than in those just mentioned, excepting Verrocchio ; this we find always, whether further wedded to a devotional Christian spirit, or the gay insouciance of the contemporary neo-paganism.

In Donatello we find a different aim. Form was with him only a means to an end ; that end, being the expression of some ideal conception, generally heroic in quality. Thus beauty of form is with him never essential; it may or may not be present ; his genius was to pass behind the mere form, and, grasping the spirit, bring it to the surface, so that it became visible in the form, be it of an emaciated ” St. John,” or a knightly ” St. George.” Donatello, of all sculptors of the Renaissance, is the master of conveying spiritual suggestion by means of his art. One only of his successors is worthy to be named with him ; one only was in any fashion truly his follower, and he was Michel Angelo. The sculptor of the Medici tombs also touched that highest level of sculptural art, and achieved a grandeur of expression fit to rank with that of the earlier master. The direct influence of Donatello is, in fact, more apparent on the painters than the sculptors. Massaccio, the Pollajuoli, to mention the principal, owed him much ; and through the latter his influence doubtless passed on to Botticelli, as through Verrocchio possibly to Leonardo da Vinci.

While holding Donatello as indeed unapproachable in his loftiest moods by his immediate successors, nevertheless, there appear to have been some who, in rare moments, have achieved a something akin to his manner. To these happy moments are probably due a certain number of works of extreme beauty, obviously inspired by Donato, nearer in style to his work than that of any other master, and yet not his, nor attributable without question to any known name. Such, for example, is the altar front in a side chapel of San Trovaso in Venice ; such, also, the ” Madonna ” of the Medici Chapel in Santa Croce. These, however, lovely as they are, but recall Donato’s touch and manner, and in no instance approach to the higher qualities on which rest the master’s enduring fame.

That this fame suffered partial eclipse for a certain period is not to be wondered at, when we consider the changes in matters of taste that have passed over Europe during the last four centuries. A more artificial time inevitably failed to appreciate justly the unflinching truth and spiritual aim of the earlier Florentine.

It is possible,-indeed, that Donatello may never again become a popular hero ; but so long as his works re-main, so long must he continue to be, in his own domain, ” Il maestro di color che sanno “—the Master of those who know.