Donatello – From 1444 To 1406

THE year 1444 saw the close of this second Florentine period. The fame of the master had spread yet further, and in that year he accepted an invitation to Padua to undertake the decoration of the high altar in the church of San Antonio ; and this led to the further commission for an equestrian monument in bronze to a noted condottiere, by name Gattamelata, who had died the preceding year.

Thus the classic impulse was to carry Donato ahead ‘of all contemporary artists. The bronze equestrian statue was a thing which, up to his time, had not been attempted since the days of antiquity. It was now “given to him ” to revive this ancient and noble form of monument. In so doing, two problems, other than those purely artistic, lay before him for solution, and to himself alone had he to turn for help. In the first place equine anatomy must be mastered, and, in addition to that, the process of casting necessary for so large a work, absolutely in the round, must be discovered.

Begun in 1446, this great labour was set up in 1453, with what success the whole world knows. There are two equestrian monuments of the Renaissance period, supreme works of art ; the one is Donatello’s ” Gattamelata,” in Padua, the other the ” Colleone ” statue in Venice, by Verrocchio, the follower of Donatello.

Great as the achievement of this statue was in itself, and important as a landmark in the development of modern art, it was rivalled in excellence of art and workmanship by the high altar in the church of San Antonio. The first two years of Donato’s stay in Padua were presumably devoted entirely to this monument, and throughout the rest of his sojourn it doubt-less engaged a very great share of his thought and energy, as, when completed, it must have formed one of the most magnificent altars of its kind in Christendom.

The revival of art in Padua had not progressed so far, at this date, as in Florence ; hence Donato was not only unrivalled among the craftsmen of the city, but he appeared to them almost superhuman in his mastery and genius. Vasari tells us that his works were held to be miracles, and so much were they praised that finally the master resolved characteristically to return to Florence. ” If I stayed here any longer,” he naively remarked, ” I should forget all I have ever known, through being so much praised. So willingly do I return home, where I get censured continually ; such censure gives occasion for study, and brings as a con-sequence greater glory.”

So again we find him on his travels. In 1451 he is in Venice, and executes for the Florentine chapel in the church of the Frari a statue in wood of St. John the Baptist. In Faenza are two works generally attributed to him while on this journey. In 1457 he casts in bronze a second statue of St. John Baptist for Siena ; and so finally he finds his way home, and we again hear of him at work for the House of Medici. For their House he executed the last of the long series of works with which he enriched the world. These were the two bronze pulpits for the church of San Lorenzo. Here the skilful hand began to falter, and it is said that, through failing strength, he was unable to carry the work through entirely himself. Bertolo, one of his garzoni, seems to have devoted himself with loyal affection to his ageing master. The pulpits were completed by him, and many other designs left unfinished by Donatello, Bartolo faithfully executed according to his ability.

The friendship of Cosimo for the artist ceased only with the death of the former, and he left strong injunctions with his son Piero to watch over the remaining years of Donato’s life, a command Piero faithfully obeyed.

The artist through life had been generous to a fault. It is even said that at one time he placed his earnings in a basket hung from the rafters of the bottega, and bade friends and garzoni consider them common property. Small wonder that, on old age overtaking him, he had but little wealth laid by. In order to supplement this little, Vasari tells us that Piero de’ Medici settled upon him a small farm in the country, to which Donato retired, full of a child-like pleasure in his new possession, entirely characteristic of him. But within the year he was again in Florence, and, seeking out Piero, he besought him to take back his gift : ” He lost time even to think,” so he declared, “with so many cares upon his mind ; the cattle died, the tempest struck the vines, and his servant complained ; rather would he die of hunger than have such satiety and wealth, and with it such fatigue.” Piero, laughing, at once relieved him of his burdensome property, substituting a small but sufficient pension, which he directed, with kindly thought, to be paid weekly to the artist. So Donato made his final lodging in Florence, in a little house which he had in the Via del Cocomero, on the northern side of the great Duomo, over which his friend Filippo’s dome was at length raised in its lines of strength and beauty.

The circumstances of his closing years were sad, but his courage seems never to have failed him. Comparable only to the deafness of Beethoven was the fate of Donatello. He was struck with paralysis, and, bed-ridden, lay with the skilful hands entirely useless. His old pupils and garzoni appear to have been his chief comfort, for near relations he had none remaining. Vasari tells how some connections, hearing that his end was near, reminded him of their existence, and begged him to leave them a small property which he possessed near Prato. ” I cannot content you, relations mine,” he answered them, “because I wish, as indeed appears to me to be reasonable, to leave it to the peasant who has laboured so long upon it ; and not to you who have never done anything in connection with it, and indeed wish for it as some recompense for your visit to me. Go, I give you my blessing.”

On the 13th of December 1486 he closed his eyes for ever on that old world of Florence which he had done so much to make glorious. He was buried fittingly in San Lorenzo, near to the tomb of the great Cosimo. All the artists, painters, sculptors, architects, and goldsmiths followed the bier, the Florence of that day fully appreciating the greatness of her son.

The epigram with which old Giorgio Vasari ends his all too short appreciation of the great master seems the most fitting close that could be made to any notice of his life : ” O lo spirito di Donato opera nel Buonarroto, o quello del Buonarroto anticipò di operare in Donato “—” Either the spirit of Donatello wrought again in Buonarotti, or the genius of Buonarotti had pre-existence in Donatello.”