Donatello – From 1426 T0 1444

THE tomb of Pope John XXIII. was one of a series which the two collaborators undertook. It is difficult to determine exactly and in detail how the labour was divided between the partners. M. Müntz hazards, and in all probability with justice, the following supposition : “Il (Donato) fut heureux de trouver un collaborateur qui consentît à prendre en main le compas et l’ équerre, à mesurer et à calculer, A tracer des épures, en un mot à se charger de la partie architectonique de l’ oeuvre, le laissant libre, lui, de creuser les problemes de la vie et de faire palpiter le marbre.”

Following this tomb of Pope John came a commission for another sepulchral monument, one in memory of Cardinal Brancacci, to be erected in the church of S. Angelo a Nilo in Naples. To facilitate the transport of the heavy marbles used in this work, the artists re-paired to Pisa, and executed the monument there, and from that port it was finally shipped to Naples.

Donato’s reputation spread, and we next find him working in Siena and later in Prato, in the latter town executing with Michelozzo the exquisite ” Pulpito della Cintola.”

In Siena he was principally employed in some details for the font of the Baptistery, the design of the whole being by Jacopo della Quercia.

In connection with this work for the cathedral authorities of Siena is a most interesting document preserved in the Archivio dell’ Opera del Duomo di Siena.

The transactions between Donato and the Opera or Board of Works seem to have been long drawn out, the entry being dated 1434. It is as follows :

” Deliberations of the Master Builder and Council of the Board of Works of the Duomo of Siena on the question that Pagno di Lapo be paid a further sum due to Donatello for work executed by him for the Baptistery of San Giovanni. . . . On the 18th day of August 1434. Being assembled the aforesaid Master Builder and Council, absent only Andrea —

Whereas Pagno di Lapo assistant of Donato di Niccoló of Florence presented himself before them and on behalf of the said Donato demanded a settlement of certain questions of monies received by the said Donato from the said Board of Works, which settlement being reasonable, just and due, and whereas the said Donato has had in advance the sum of 738 lire and 11 soldi as appears from the Yellow Book of the said Board page 90, and whereas the said Donato has served the said Board and made certain figures in gilded bronze for the font of the church of San Giovanni, the said figures being more particularly described in the Treasurer’s Books, for which figures there is due to him 720 lire, it was unanimously re-solved that the Treasurer of the said Board be hereby authorised to credit the said Donato in the books of the said Board wherein he is debited, with the afore-said sum of 720 lire. And whereas, after credit being given to the said Donato for the above named sum, he still remains a debtor to the extent of 18 lire and II soldi, and considering that the said Donato made a small door (sportello) of gilded bronze for the afore-said font which however was not of such fashion as to please the said Master Builder and Council, wishing to deal liberally with the said Donato so that he should not lose all the fruits of his labour, this appearing only reasonable and just, it was solemnly resolved that the said Treasurer be and hereby is authorised to give and to pay to the said Donato from the funds of the Board 38 lire and I I soldi by the said Donato to the aforesaid Board as balance of the aforesaid sum. And the said small door, the said Bartolomejo Master Builder shall give and consign to the aforesaid Pagno di Lapo as agent for the aforesaid Donato, in presence of me Notary, and the other witnesses whose names are sub-scribed hereto. And the aforesaid matters were de-liberated upon and determined by the Master Builder and Council aforesaid to the end that Tommaso di Paolo goldsmith of Siena shall in the place and the name of Donato solemnly ratify, adhere to and confirm all the matters herein written, and under the herein written penalty shall free liberate and absolve etc.

” And the aforesaid matters were resolved at the office of the Master Builder and Council and Treasurer, being present as witnesses Niccoló di Giovanni Ventura, Provision Dealer, and Paolo di Jacomo, both of Siena.”

Another entry shows that the balance of 20 lire was duly paid to Donato as compensation for the rejected sportello.

Thus does Paolo di Jacomo, notary, witness, and secretary, unwittingly give to posterity a picture which we would not willingly be without of civic dealings in old Siena, with Donato passing across the page as in actual life. The document, indeed, seems for the moment to put breath for us into the dead past. Donato, easy man, careless almost to a fault, is away who knows where, journeying possibly from Rome, or at work on a new undertaking in Prato; his affairs in Siena he confidently leaves first to his assistant, Pagno di Lapo, and for the rest to a goldsmith of the rival city. Both apparently prove themselves worthy, and we may imagine the master’s genial appreciation of the humour of the situation when he heard of the solemn rejection of his sportello. To posterity the matter is more serious, as the Opera’s conclusion robbed not only their church, but the whole world, for, unplaced in the font, the door has been lost, and no trace of it remains.

The journey to Rome referred to above was taken in 1433 ; this date is significant, being that of the exile of Cosimo de’ Medici. Michelozzo, his partner in work, we know, as loyal follower, accompanied Cosimo to Venice ; Masaccio also left Florence and went to Rome for this notable year while Cosimo was away ; * and to Rome, too, went Donatello. Here he left a few works behind him, a memorial slab carved in very low relief, according to the old Tuscan manner, this in the Aracoeli church ; and a ciborium in St. Peter’s. The principal result of this visit, however, seems to have been that he became inspired with a fresh enthusiasm for antique art.

The return of Cosimo to Florence was the signal for that of Donato, and now, in all probability, began the period when he produced so many of his works for private patrons, notably for Cosimo, busts, reliefs, and single figures, works which today may in part be found in museums and collections, some far distant from. Florence, some still in the city of their birth ; but many, alas, are also lost, it is to be feared irrevocably.

The friendship of Cosimo for the sculptor must have ripened during these busy years. Of their mutual relations Vasari tells us : ” Such was the love that Cosimo bore to the powers of Donato that he continually made him work ; while, on the other hand, Donato had so much love for Cosimo that from his slightest sign he divined what the latter wished and continually obeyed him.”

In the works commissioned by Cosimo and other private patrons, we see the manner in which the social changes of the time influenced art production. The smaller work of delicate finish suitable for the private gallery of the palace began to share the field with the larger monumental labours such as had before alone occupied the artists when employed only by great corporations, civic or ecclesiastical.

Donato’s connection with Michelozzo ceased from about this time. The Pratese pulpit was the last work in which they collaborated. The architect, for the future, confined himself strictly to building, and Donato specialised still further in his particular art.

His earnest study of the life, and sympathy with the antique made him a consummate portrait sculptor, and under his hand this branch of art revived.

At the desire of Cosimo, yet another description of work came frequently to be placed in his hands. The reverence for classic sculpture may be expressed in two fashions ; the antiquarian spirit may be the directing force, or it may be the purely artistic instinct which determines the treatment. In the Florence of the Medici the latter ruled, as does the former with us at the present time. While scholars retained the manuscripts which were so earnestly sought for by the Humanists, examples of art were handed over to the artists in order to have their full beauty restored to them, if by mishap any part was lacking. The ” Dancing Faun,” preserved in the Tribuna of the Uffizi Gallery, is an excellent example of this method of treatment. The head is a restoration by Michel Angelo, and of such restoration it would be indeed ungracious to feel impatient. On the other hand, the additions made to the ” Venus de’ Medici,” in the same gallery,—the mincing hands and inane head,—show the risks run by placing work of the ancients in any hands less than the greatest.

Cosimo, whose collection of ancient marbles grew apace, employed Donato as their restorer. A “Marsyas,” at present in the Uffizi, is said to have thus passed through his hands. In short, we gather that Donato became the great practical authority in Florence on matters relating to classic art, and his workshop was the rendezvous for all those alert spirits who at that time were by their untold efforts bringing back to Europe, under the name of the New Learning, the Wisdom of the Ancients. Of these, Niccolo di Niccoli was his intimate friend, while Poggio Bracciolini, Gianozzo Manetti, and Leonardo Bruni may be safely assumed to have been acquaintances, if not more.

Of his work, under the direct inspiration of classicism, are the two bronze statues now preserved in the Bar gello : the one a ” David,” a commission from Cosimo ; the other the fantastic little ” Cupid,” of such unique quality and charm. These, revivals of the study of the nude, in their admirable success, must have roused the artistic world of Florence to an absolute furore of admiration.

The large medallions of classic subjects which adorn the court of the Medici, now Riccardi Palace, were also sculptured by Donato, enlarged copies of antique gems. In addition to these the marble singing gallery for the Duomo belongs to this period. Two such galleries were demanded by the Opera, Luca della Robbia having the commission for the first. Much is it to be deplored – that neither is in its proper place at the present time, being re-erected in the most inadequate space which is afforded by the upper room of the Museo del Duomo.

The ten years which succeeded Donato’s return to Florence from Rome, we may presume were those on which he would -look back as the most entirely prosperous and happy of all his life. Two other anecdotes recorded of him in all probability find their place in these years. Both show the intimacy of his relations with Cosimo ; and each throws a vivid side-light on different aspects of the master’s character.

Through all Donatello’s career he preserved the simplicity of manner and condition which we noted was his at the outset. Even in the matter of clothes he apparently maintained a somewhat austere self-restraint. This austerity seems not to have entirely commended itself to Cosimo, the great citizen of the new order—the courtly dweller in the new palace of the Via Larga. Taking the occasion of a festa, he sent to his sculptor friend the present of an entirely new suit of clothes, such as he thought more fitting to a man of Donato’s worth and standing. A rose-coloured mantle and hood, we are told, formed part of the costume, and all the rest was ” entirely new,” the chronicle adds. Donatello put on the brave clothing once or twice, and then laid it to one side, unable to prevail upon himself to continue wearing it—” because,” said he, ” it appeared to him to be delicate.” Here it would seem we may recognise an outcome of the New Learning,—the quatro-cento Platonist enamoured of the antique virtue of Temperance.

The second anecdote alluded to we owe to Vasari. Cosimo introduced a certain Genoese merchant to Donato, presumably for their mutual advantage. There immediately ensued a commission to the artist to execute for the merchant a bust in bronze. This in due course was done, “quanto il vivo, bellissima,” and cast with unusual delicacy in order to facilitate its carriage to a distance. On its delivery, the merchant, true to the commercial tradition of his nation, proceeded to haggle with Donato respecting the price, and finally referred the matter to Cosimo. This latter, merchant too, entered at once into the game, and caused the bust to be carried to a loggia overlooking the street in order that he might see it better. There he suggested that the price submitted by the merchant was somewhat small. The latter replied that the bust had taken less than a month to do, and the price asked amounted to more than half-a-florin a day. But here Donato broke in to the pleasant little professional passage between the merchants. His art to him ‘was no merchandise to be chaffered over as such. Tripping up the man of Genoa on his smart little point of so much per day, he cried : ” In the hundredth part of an hour it is possible to ruin the toil and the worth of a whole year.” And with a blow the bust so ” sottilissima ” was cast into the street, where it lay ruined “and in many pieces.” “Well do you show how you are used to traffic in beans, but not in statues,” he added. The horror-stricken merchant hastened to offer him double his own price if he would but remake the bust, and Cosimo joined his entreaties to those of the luckless Genoese, but Donato would not consent, ” non volle rifarla giammai.”

Isolated statues, busts, and reliefs for private patrons were not the limit of Donato’s labours during these ten prosperous years. Once again we find him associated with an architect in the execution of a work of some magnitude. This was the sacristy of the church of San Lorenzo. Brunellesco, the architect of the church, also designed the sacristy, and it was on the interior decoration of this building that Donato was employed, thus working alongside of his friend. The greater part of this decoration was in stucco, but two pairs of doors opening into small additional chambers were cast in bronze. A tradition connected with these doors relates that over them the two life-long friends fell out. In all the rest of the work Donato had, as was just, subordinated his design to the architectural scheme of Brunellesco ; but in the frames of the doors he adhered to a plan of his own, which was considered not in strict harmony with the rest of the building. If this be so, the doors have a double interest, as we shall see later in our more critical examination of the master’s various works.