Donatello – The First Florentine Period

IN the first part of our work we have viewed Donatello from the outside, as citizen and craftsman, taking his part as such among his fellow-men. There remains for us now to make a more intimate examination of the man by way of his works, which, to judge justly, we must look upon as so many thoughts of his brain and aspirations of his nature reduced to concrete form. Among the noble army of artists, few, probably, have been so absolutely sincere in their work as Donatello. The temptation to follow the convention of the time, because it was the expected thing, or because it looked the correct thing, seems never to have assailed him. His idea once clear in his own mind, he pressed forward to that mark unflinchingly, so that his works reflect, as it were, the very heart of the man.

Hence the plan proposed in this section of our work is to go over the master’s life a second time, not touching more than incidentally on the outer events which it comprised, but making his works, considered one by one, or group by group, as the case may seem to demand, the chain by which our examination is linked.

First of these we take the Santa Croce crucifix, an early, though probably not, as often stated, actually his earliest sculptural work. In this we may see, with the keen-eyed Filippo, his strenuous effort after realism, the subject being a human form nailed to a cross, the youthful sculptor studied to the best of his powers the human figure placed in that position.

The difficulties of figure sculpture are great ; to wrest the form of man or woman out of the shapeless block is labour of the severest ; and yet a great work of art demands more than even the most faithful reproduction of form. That form must be so reproduced that an idea is presented or an ideal created, and the more living, the more correct the form, the more power will it possess of speaking to the intellect and the imagination. The art of the statuary contemporary with Donato’s crucifix was not in itself very eloquent. Proportions were uncertain, draperies conventional, poses rigid,—sometimes one saw, as it were, an attempt to reproduce a classic character, but generally such resulted in a crude adoption of some superficial mannerism of drapery or detail ; that which was behind giving the soul to classic sculpture was not recognised, and much less reproduced. In studying Donato’s crucifix, one is led to conclude that already had come to him the realisation that accurate re-presentation of form was the first essential in his art ; indeed, it seems possible that, to his boyish mind, truth to the life may have appeared the goal of sculpture. If so, how salutary must have been Filippo’s terse criticism. He had so far mastered form as to have carved a man; he had sculptured a peasant, but a peasant is not a Christ. The further step in art, that form must not only imitate but also suggest, he realised on seeing Brunellesco’s more ideal effort, and frankly acknowledged that he had made his discovery : ” To thee it is given to sculpture a Christ ; I can only carve peasants!”

The question of the journey to Rome in 1403 may be left undecided ; but, whether by such a sojourn and prolonged companionship with Brunellesco, or by other means, it seems indisputable that he became increasingly touched by the new spirit which was in effect one with that of the older art. In work after work of his early years we see the bonds of the Masonic Guild traditions loosening, and the new ideal growing up before him.

Belonging to about the year 1406 we have an interesting example of work still in its place over one of the north doors of the Florentine Duomo. This is a single male figure, still conventional, still stiff, and yet there is a stirring within it of the new breath of life. The proportions are truer, and though some of the drapery meanders down the front in folds almost as those of an archaic Athene, in certain other parts there is a movement which betrays the first beginnings of what later becomes one of his most marked characteristics—to wit, his peculiar treatment of drapery.

Within the next ten years follows a remarkable series of statues, in the round, and of heroic size ; these manifest the development of his idea as an artist, and his gradual increase of mastery in his art, until, with the “St. George,” executed in 1416, a climax is reached which would have completed the reputation of any other man, and ranked him among the Great Masters.

This date, however, left Donatello but thirty years old, and just about to enter on an entirely new period of his career, that of his association with Michelozzo.

The series of statues which we have now to consider was as follows : The “St. Peter,” on the exterior of Or San Michele ; ” St. Mark,” in another niche on the same church ; “St. John Baptist,” on the Campanile ; ” Joshua,” for the interior of the Duomo ; the figure popularly called ” I l Zuccone ” ; ” Jeremiah”; ” Habakkuk” ; “Abraham and Isaac,” these four for the exterior of the Campanile ; a ” St. John the Evangelist,” a seated figure ; a “David” as shepherd ; and finally the “St. George,” with its adjuncts, a low relief, representing the saint’s combat with the dragon, and a ” Dio Padre,” also in low relief, surmounting the niche which encloses the statue.

The order given above is that accepted as chronological by most authorities, and may be taken as indicative of the course of the master’s thought at the time ; for though he would naturally be influenced in his work by the commissions offered to him, it is also probable that, to a young man of obvious genius, such work would be offered that it was felt he would be most inclined to execute. Thus, from this long ‘series of twelve heroic statues undertaken by him, it may be fairly assumed that he desired the discipline and opportunity which this form of work afforded him ; and that through them he considered that he could win the mastery to express that which he felt might be expressed by Sculpture, and which, up to his time, had not been achieved since the last artist of antiquity had laid down his chisel.

In order to estimate the full significance of this new departure on the part of Donatello, we must bear in mind that for centuries previously the most generally adopted form of sculpture in Italy had been relief, while the manner of expression was very diffuse, and much by way of accepted symbols. Statues, when present, were introduced for the most part rather as accentuated points of ornament, and not as prime vehicles for conveying the artist’s idea.

Thus we find in the Tabernacle of Or San Michele —a typical mediaeval monument, in honour of the Madonna—that the Madonna sentiment is diffused through all its parts. Her story is detailed in a series of reliefs, her character suggested by a carefully thought-out arrangement of the accepted virtues appropriately placed between those stories which appear to illustrate them ; symbols are freely employed ; even the material and colours, the white marble, spangled with stones and enamels, appear to contribute their qualities to aid in the expression of those ideas which in the Catholic mind are associated with the person of the Blessed Virgin.

This was essentially the mediaeval form of art, as it were a benedicite omnia opera. Nothing that had form or colour, or that could be endowed with an inner significance was left unutilised. It was felt that every-thing must be drawn in to give artistic expression to that particular order of thought which the plastic artist was then called upon to represent. The masonic masters were profoundly didactic, and their ” mysteries ” were in touch with the deepest contemporary thought, patristic and scholastic. No so-called “grotesque” was in fact a mere grotesque ; all these forms were symbolic ; and to unravel the inner significations which are woven into the decoration of a great medieval monument is to find a wealth of hidden lore of the profoundest import, judged from the standpoint of the artist who executed the work.

The genius of classic art was antipodal to the medieval: where the latter was diffuse, the former was concentrated ; where the one with faltering technique flew to symbols in order to express “the eternal things of the supernal glory,” the other, choosing the most perfect form in nature,—the human,—so refined, so idealised it, and so transfused it with the spirit and the thought of its time, that it spoke by suggestion to all who had the ears to hear. If Orcagna’s Tabernacle in honour of the Madonna may be taken as a typical mediaeval masterpiece, perhaps as a classic parallel may be instanced the Venus de Milo.

And yet another point of contrast may be noted ; it would seem that the older sculptors recognised a limit beyond which plastic art should not attempt to pass ; the mediaeval master, on the other hand, recognised no such limit, but attempted all, to do, in fact, in addition to his own proper task, that which it has been given to the modern musician alone to achieve —namely, to express the ineffable.

Donatello’s predecessors were mediaeval one and all ; he himself was a scholar in the masonic schools ; yet, twelve years before he is admitted as ” Master” in his Guild, we see that he turns his back on the old fashion of relief, the mode of expression by story and symbol, and begins his series of heroic statues. In short, whether directly inspired by it or not, he chose the way of antiquity, and recognised the apprenticeship necessary in order to follow this path. He realised with the older sculptors that it is out of absolute knowledge of what is in nature that the artist may pass beyond her, and so inform his work that by its own proper power, without help of symbol or of allegory, it may speak the ideal which is in its creator’s mind. Thus we find him, in the strength of this new realisation or inspiration, setting himself to sculpture certain ideals, but giving himself the while the severest discipline possible. By way of the peasant he will attain to sculpturing a Christ.

In this series of statues we cannot but recognise two distinct groups, one purely disciplinary, and the other a striving after ideal expression. Among the first, speaking broadly, we may include the “St. Peter,” ” St. Mark,” ” Il Zuccone,” ” Jeremiah, ” “Habakkuk,” ” Abraham and Isaac,” and ” St. John the Evangelist”; the other group includes the “St. John the Baptist,” the ” Joshua,” “David” as shepherd, and the “St. George.”

In the first group we see, as one after another leaves his hand, the most ardent seeking to see things as they are, thus gaining the power to wring from them their essence, and represent their spirit. First is the “St. Peter,” a marked advance on the prophet over the north door of the Duomo ; though full of crudities, it is nevertheless as full of promise, which promise is not belied in the “St. Mark” which followed. “It would have been impossible to reject the Gospel from so straightforward a man as this”; thus Michel Angelo is reported to have criticised the ” St. Mark “; and in his words lies the implication that now in the second statue the young sculptor had succeeded in bringing life into his work. The hair is treated with due recognition of the natural growth of hair, the face has character, the pose is firm yet easy, and, above all, in this work is manifested his grasp of the nature of drapery. In few things is the Donatello touch more recognisable than in drapery ; other artists studied the flow and the line of stuffs ; no one perhaps composed his draperies more carefully than Ghiberti. Donatello, going beyond this consideration of line, studied the section of the folds. As a result, his drapery becomes, as it were, alive, it is not only an arrangement of lines for decorative effect, or a covering for the figure, but it is a beauty in itself filled with the living air. This sentiment of air within the folds Donatello always achieves, and we may perceive it in every work, statue, or relief which he executed subsequent to the “St. Mark ” of Or San Michele.

Following the ” St. Mark ” is the ” St. John the Baptist.” This is a work on totally different lines ; indeed, it would seem almost a retrograde step if one regards it as aiming at the same goal. The ” St. Peter ” and the “St. Mark” were earnest efforts to infuse life and reality into the traditional treatment of the statue ; and beside these the ” St. John the Baptist” appears at first sight particularly crude. Youth and health, it should be noted, however, are always more difficult to portray than age or sickness, and this ” St. John ” is represented as a youth just on the verge of manhood. Donato has succeeded in giving him a look of freshness and vigour, and, in addition, an air of serious resolution, but there is no doubt that as a statue he is clumsy ; he has not realised the thought of his creator, and remains full of promise rather than fulfilment.

The next statue, ” Joshua” as Prophet, is another attempt on the part of Donato to work out his idea, and one begins, in him, to see what that idea may be. Donatello, breathing as, at this time, he must have done the atmosphere of Humanism, had conceived a human ideal, and this he set himself to express by the means of pure form. The ” Joshua ” is full of fine qualities, but by very reason of their presence, one feels how much further Donato had wished to go. This work, like the last, gives also a sense of promise rather than of fulfilment. It is said that Giannozzo Manetti, orator and humanist, stood as model for this work ; in it there is an obvious striving after classic dignity, yet at the same time it has a vigour which is rather romantic in its character than classic—e.g. the exaggerated contrast between the standing and the resting leg. The drapery, on the contrary, is very restrained, every line being drawn most carefully in harmony with the whole, and a stiff scroll is added with obvious intent to complete the composition of line. Thus the figure is full of art and study, but the art is obvious, and has not arrived at that height where it conceals itself. The ” Joshua” is a noble figure, but does not quite reach the goal. It is surely significant that immediately following on to the ” Joshua” come four works which for the most part return, and even with greater severity, to the direct reproduction of the life. These are the ” Habakkuk,” the ” Jeremiah,” ” Il Zuccone,” and ” Abraham and Isaac.” Chief among these as the most successfully realistic is ” Il Zuccone.” Apart from the figure, the study of the drapery is particularly severe, an absolute transcription into marble of actual folds, as careful and literal as any art-school student’s work. In the ” Abraham and Isaac” he relaxed somewhat from the severe student discipline of “Il Zuccone,” and in the “Abraham” himself, we have a dramatic figure finely conceived. The beard of the Patriarch is treated in a manner which must have been very novel at the time ; the bold modelling of the flowing hair is kept “pale” throughout to express the whiteness of age.

In 1415 we have another novel experiment, that of a seated figure in heroic size ; thus he represented “St. John the Evangelist.” In the dim light of the Tribune of the Duomo, where this figure is at present hidden, it is difficult to estimate its qualities justly. In any case, at the time of its execution it was an effort of great boldness. M. Müntz sees in it the direct precursor of Michel Angelo’s “Moses”: and certainly in order to appreciate it at its real value, it must not be considered by itself alone, but as a link in the chain of sculptural development.

Following this “St. John,” possibly immediately, is ” David,” represented as the youthful shepherd, and destined for the Palazzo Vecchio. In this Donato seems to have sprung back to his old idea, to the expression of which the ” Joshua ” had not quite attained. Through ” St. John Baptist,” the patron saint of Florence, in his early youth, through the warrior ” Joshua,” in the first flush of manhood, had the attempt been made; “David” as the shepherd lad was now before him to express in form ; and it would seem, fortified by the discipline of ” Il Zuccone ” and the other statues of that class, Donatello endeavoured once more through this form to express his ideal. The exaggeration of pose in the ” Joshua ” we find chastened in the ” David,” the neck refined, the face softened. The wreath of leaves across the brow gives a classic touch to the young figure, which otherwise stands in most charming originality ; no copy from the antique is he, still less has he anything of the earlier Italian tradition ; this ” David ” is Donato’s own. There is a fresh charm about him which it is difficult to express. He stands with all the suppleness of early youth in his pose, and an air of ingenuous pleasure in his victory over the fallen foe, that is yet full of a boyish modesty. The composition has great delicacy ; there is no line that is not in harmony with the whole, yet there is no effect of a too obvious arrangement. Donato, on viewing his finished ” David,” must have felt that at last he had begun to inform his work with his very soul, and yet not to the full extent that his art allowed.

Thus, we find in the event, that immediately following the ” David ” came the ” St. George.” In the ” St. George” he achieved his ideal, the presentation in plastic form of Heroic Youth, to which, as it appears, he had struggled through the various stages of the “St. John Baptist,” the ” Joshua,” and the “David” These four make a group apart from those studies in realism headed by the ” Zuccone.” It is impossible not to class them separately and see in them a different train of thought, a different aim, as different as was the goal. ” Il Zuccone ” and ” Il San Giorgio ! “—these are worlds apart. This ideal, which found in ” St. George” its visible type, was one familiar to the mediaeval mind.

Dante expresses it in the “Divine Comedy” as manhood “crowned and mitred ” both ” king and bishop ” of itself —literally, the flesh under the dominion of the spirit. Donato’s heroic youth was but this conception embodied. Thus we have demonstrated to us his intellectual attitude with regard to classic art at this time. The superiority of the ancient method of expression he recognised, and succeeded in making it his own ; but his ideals were those of his own century.

Technically the statue of ” St. George ” is a supreme triumph, one of the few Renaissance figures which may rank in mastery and beauty with Hellenic work. In its own particular style it may be deemed an absolute success ; exaggeration is entirely absent. The “David,” notwithstanding all its charm, might be thought by some to have a touch of weakness in its easy lines the ” St. George” is all restraint and strength. The nature of the pose is that of all others the most difficult to achieve, a pose of rest. We see that accomplished in the ” Diadumenus ” of Polycleitus, and in certain of the works of Michel Angelo ; it is supremely effected in Donatello’s ” St. George.” He stands absolutely at ease, perfectly at rest, and yet, to quote Vasari, with a “marvellous gesture of moving himself within the stone.”

The physical type of the “St. George” is a creation of Donatello’s own, and, with perhaps the exception of Michel Angelo in one instance, no succeeding Italian artist has tried to imitate it ; in fact, once attained, he himself almost laid it to one side ; no other heroic youth came from his chisel on just the lines of the “St. George” ; the series ends with him. Yet, on certain occasions, he seems to recall the idea in part. The terra-cotta bust of ” San Lorenzo,” in the sacristy of the church of San Lorenzo, breathes the serene dignity and calm fortitude of the San Giorgio; and the “St. Louis of Toulouse” also has an air which only the hand which sculptured the ” St. George” could give.

The subject was made complete by a small relief inserted beneath the statue in illustration of the story. It represents the combat of the saint with the dragon, and the princess Sabra standing by. This is a jewel of workmanship, and also remarkable as one of the few instances in which the master treated a woman’s figure sympathetically ; it proves his capacity to express softness and grace, when such was his desire. A “Dio Padre,” also in low relief, and placed over the statue, brings to an end the work of this marvellous year. No wonder that there appears a lull in his labours, and that for some years he seems to have undertaken no great work of first importance.

Two works, however, judging from their style, may belong to this period, though there is no direct evidence to prove the point. These are the statue called “A Prophet,” in the interior of the Duomo; and the other is the well-known terra-cotta bust of ” Niccoló da Uzzano,” an important Florentine citizen. It has been said that “The Prophet is a portrait of Poggio Bracciolini, the eminent humanist scholar, in which case the date of its execution is probably somewhat later. However that may be, as a work, “The Prophet” belongs to the mood of this period ; that mood of earnest study of the truths of human form and expression. The strong form of the head is splendidly rendered, the dignified composition of the drapery and quiet pose of the figure are no less excellent ; indeed, as a work of art, it transcends ” Il Zuccone.”

The year 1423 gives us two other statues, both in bronze, and both representing ” St. John the Baptist.” One of these was executed for the Duomo of Orvieto, and is now in Berlin ; the other, for the Duomo of Siena, is happily still in the position for which it was designed.