Donatello – The Second Florentine Period

DONATELLO’S return to Florence, as already noted, was marked by a more direct classical form bestowed on much of his work. But, as before, we can trace more moods than one affecting his style, and, as it were, simultaneously.

We have his classic medallions for the Palazzo Medici, direct enlargements of antique gems ; his restorations of ancient marbles and his bronze “David.” This latter is very important as a landmark in art history, it being, as above noted, the first serious attempt of the Renaissance to master the difficulties of the wholly nude figure. With the ” David,” as belonging to the same mood, must be coupled the bronze ” Cupid.”

But, alongside of all these and other similar works, we have the Pratese ” Pulpito della Cintola,” the Cantoria for the Duomo in Florence, and the decoration of the old sacristy. These, though evincing familiarity with classic forms, are no less strongly original in essence ; and there remain, beyond even these, three St. John Baptists absolutely and intensely Donato’s own—as much his own as the ” St. George,” but with the experience of added years impressed upon them.

The first to be considered of all these labours is the “Pulpito della Cintola,” apparently undertaken immediately on the return of the two artists, Donato and Michelozzo, the one from Rome, the other from Venice.

Considering the object for which this work was executed, its design is fraught with considerable interest, apart from its intrinsic beauty and masterly workmanship. As design, it is singularly happy and effective, but what must strike one very forcibly in connection with Donatello’s special share of the work is, that his sculptured panels, which form the sides of the pulpit, have no connection in thought with either Madonna or cintola. The position of the pulpit is at the angle of the façade of the cathedral, around which it describes about two-thirds of a circle. The panels, seven in number, all contain groups of children, slightly draped, winged and dancing in exuberant and almost bacchanalian glee. Panel succeeding panel, the groups form a procession, as it were, leaving the Duomo at the side, and re-entering it at the front. In sentiment these putti appear to be entirely non-Christian, but in every action of their bodies expressive of a certain mood, that of the complete abandonment of joy proper to irresponsible childhood. The little creatures, as it were, thrill with life in their unceasing dance. The influence of antiquity would seem to have been very strong upon Donato, as he designed and executed his procession of children for the pulpit of Prato. A closer examination reveals, however, a something in the sentiment of these bambini, speaking of even more than general influences, but possibly indicative of the intimate thought of the master on matters of current interest.

The expression of the children’s faces is very varying ; at the beginning of the procession, those leaving the church have beaming smiles, in complete harmony with the joyous movement of their bodies. As they circle round the pulpit this expression changes ; the smile fixes itself upon the round child faces, and becomes almost a grimace. It is as if the little pagans, beginning with a dance of pure joy in mere existence, found it to become a weary task thus to continue forever dancing in honour of the Santa Cintola that for them was in no way sacred.

Can Donato’s second visit to Rome have inspired him for the time being with a mood of revolt? Who may say with certainty? Surmise, however, is permissible, and cannot but be interesting. Apart from the sentiment of the sculptures of the pulpit, they mark a special development of style in Donato’s work. M. Müntz declares that he recovered the child form from Antiquity, and gave it back to Art. His choice of this form for the decoration of the pulpit, and the general sentiment with which he infuses it, are doubtless direct results of his sympathy with antique art. Nevertheless, the bambini of Prato, in all their special characteristics, are Donato’s own creation ; his is their wild exuberance, not in any way imitated from the past. They may please us or not, according to our temperament, but the absolute mastery of their execution is indisputable. Their bodies are alive, and their draperies cling or float as they touch their wearers, or are caught up by the air.

The fashion of the relief, too, is peculiarly Donato’s ; it became one of his strong characteristics in works of any size, and, employed by him, has a marvellous effect. He brings the figures out to a certain pitch of relief, cutting back to the foundation with an almost straight edge ; then, on the surface of the relief, he models further detail with a delicacy almost of the degree called stiacciato. This method shows an exquisite fineness of workmanship, and, at the same time, the straight-edged outline secures a boldness necessary to work to be seen from a distance, giving, as it does, the opportunity to produce where needed emphatic and effective shadow. In the hands of Donato this method is admirable ; it is, however, one that may be more or less mechanically imitated with comparative ease, and thus it may be seen in work of many of his followers. Without the informing spirit of the master behind it, however, the method becomes a mere trick, and even wearisome in its lifelessness.

In the Cantoria for the Duomo of Florence, Donato carries on the mood of the ” Pulpito della Cintola.” Yet, perhaps, if anything, the qualities of the pulpit are intensified in the gallery. We have the same baby forms, neither angel nor child, but an almost entirely abstract playing with Form and Life. The special qualities of Donato’s work are perhaps more clearly discerned, when contrasted with the rival gallery by Luca della Robbia. This is full of Christian sentiment and human sympathy ; it is more restrained in line—one may almost say more refined. There is, however, not Donato’s absolute mastery over his material ; the drapery is stony, even when in most exquisite line ; the surfaces are almost too polished ; the anatomy is not so carefully realised, particularly may this be noted in the knees. Luca’s panels, in short, are pictures of life ; Donato’s are life itself; and yet a life which he has created, he has not imitated.

The decoration of the Old Sacristy is most original in design, yet can hardly be called an entirely successful experiment. The scheme is that of a frieze decorated with putti ; but these stand in complete relief against the background, supporting floral festoons, thus forming a connected line all round the chamber. It cannot but be felt that the effect is stiff and unhappy ; the little wooden putti, for the most part, look wooden, and one wonders if, indeed, they are ‘entirely by the master’s hand, or executed, for the most part, by some imitative, but not inspired, garzone.

Up to this point, as far as possible, we have considered Donato’s works in chronological order. There are, however, many undoubtedly from his hand, but to which no definite date can be assigned. Thus we read in Vasari that in the House of the Martelli were many storie in marble and bronze, and many other works by him, given in recognition of the kindness so constantly shown him by that family ; in the Casa Medici, also, was a bust of Cosimo’s wife, “and many other things of bronze and marble from the hand of Donato.” Other private gentlemen are also named as possessing reliefs, or busts, or other works of his, some purely decorative. Many of these are lost ; a few, however, happily remain, though, for the most part, dispersed among various galleries both in Italy and elsewhere. Vasari gives no clue to their exact date, but it seems very probable, judging from the style. that a considerable number of these isolated works belong to this period, the years elapsing between the return of Cosimo and the residence of the master in Padua.

Three works, still in the Casa Martelli, are of special interest. These are an unfinished ” David,” in marble, a youthful ” St. John the Baptist,” and a bust of the ” Baptist “represented at a still earlier age ; both of these are also in marble.

The ” David,” one cannot but conclude, was designed under classic influence ; it appears, indeed, to be a direct imitation of the antique, a most unwonted occurrence in work of Donatello. There is a distinct seeking after exterior beauty of form, as it were, for its own sake, and the figure has a grace and suavity which is absent even in the ” St. George.” The hair is bound with a fillet, which, with the regular profile, gives the young shepherd of Bethlehem a look of Hellas. It is, perhaps, significant that this graceful figure was left unfinished. Very different from the ” David ” is the young ” St. John,” in which we have a frank return of the master to his own proper style. It may be that he felt fortified by wider experience and opportunity for observation, and by additional years of practice and study ; but, beyond this, he appears to have flung aside exterior influences and foreign suggestion, and to have communed .but with his own soul as he set out once more to represent his hero. The figure is that of a youth about fourteen or fifteen years of age. He stands, looking forward, with parted lips, dressed in only his tunic of skin. The treatment is, on the surface, extremely realistic ; none of the angularities of growing boyhood are in any degree softened, and the first impression created is but that of intense vitality. The modelling is almost miraculous in its truth and mastery: the nude parts, hands, feet, knees, and neck are as life itself; and one feels the body, exquisitely turned in pose, as it were breathing under the skin tunic. The consummate art of Donatello is rarely more strikingly shown than in this figure ; he has given all the outward truth, so that he may wrest from it the inward significations and the spiritual beauty of his conception. Through this realistic boy form, he makes visible his ideal, the hero-prophet as he conceived him while still a youth. The delicate inward beauty of the whole presentation grows on one by looking ; in the parted lips is seen a breathless listening to the Divine Voice ; and the realistically portrayed boy is recognised as, nevertheless, one inspired. Donatello has realised his hero to himself, and it was given to him so to transfuse his marble with his thought that we, too, are made to see the ideal.

The bust of a child, also a “St. John,” is almost as beautiful in its way as the full-length figure. It represents the prophet at a still earlier age. The whole is kept, in sculptor’s phrase, extremely ” pale,” with all the delicacy of youthful flesh perfectly rendered. The modelling of the almost baby neck is calculated to reduce any other sculptor to despair by its exquisite mastery of delicate form.

In connection with this bust should be noted two other child busts attributed to Donatello, and preserved in the church of San Francisco dei Vanchetoni in Florence. The one is the head of a boy about three or four years of age. It is a tiny bust of an attractive child, the delicacy of whose modelling has delighted the eye and tempted the hand of the sculptor. The name now given to it of ” Gesù Bambino,” seems somewhat arbitrary, there being nothing about the bust to indicate that it is anything more than a very careful study of a charming child.

The other bust, on the contrary, with its little skin tunic drawn up over its shoulder, is clearly marked as another representation of St. John. In pose it is some-what pensive and exquisitely subtle it represents a later age than the ” Bambino Gesù,” probably about ten or twelve years ; and, whereas the later has merely the beauty of baby form, in the ” St. John,” to that of form, is added the beauty of intelligence. The two, in their own way, are masterpieces of sculpture. With reference to these and certain other busts of children attributed to Donatello, the critics vary much in their opinions. Some, notably M. Marcel Reymond, reject them one and all from the list of Donato’s works, and attribute them to Desiderio or Rossellino. The problem is doubtless one of grave difficulty ; at the same time the child bust in the Casa Martelli seems to offer a solution. It is hard to believe that the hand which sculptured the Martelli bust did not also sculpture, at any rate, the two busts of the church of the Vanchetoni. Certainly, no bust of child or adult at present in the Bargello, and ascribed to Desiderio or to Rossellino, can be compared in execution with the busts of the Vanchetoni. They have, it is true, a superficial resemblance, in that they have the same ” pale ” treatment in the matter of modelling ; but, at all those crucial points where the master sculptor’s hand most manifests itself, they fall absolutely short of the perfection of the Vanchetoni and Martelli busts.

In a ” San Giovanino” by Rossellino, for example, the delicate modelling of throat and neck is almost lost, while the hair is merely scratched into the marble ; and we know that in any and every work of Donato’s dating from perhaps his ” St. Mark,” the hair is conspicuous by its appearance of living growth. Thus there, seem to be strong grounds for retaining, at any rate, the above-mentioned three busts of children as genuine works of the master ; and with these may be grouped the exquisite little relief in pietra serena, a ” St. John,” preserved in the Bargello.

There does not, however, appear to be the same grounds for accepting that other group of works, upon the genuineness of which many doubts have lately been cast. These are certain stiacciato reliefs, notably the ” Madonna and Child,” in the gallery of Turin, and the exquisite ” St. Cecilia,” in the collection of Lord Wemyss. That these are for the most part works of another hand, probably that of Desiderio, appears probable ; and, as such, are omitted from the list of Donatello’s works which is given at the end of the present volume.

To the period now under consideration also, in all probability, belongs the ” Annunciation” of Santa Croce. The earlier opinion, that this exquisite monument was the outcome of the study during Donato’s first visit to Rome in 1403, is now pretty generally rejected by authorities. The style of the architectural setting of the group is too completely of the early Renaissance for that date ; and it is no merely tentative effort, but a masterly achievement. The same may be said of the two figures of the Madonna and the Angel ; both have that ” marvellous gesture of moving themselves within the stone ” which belongs to the ” St. George ” and succeeding works, but was hardly attained earlier in the sculptor’s career.

The “movement” of the Madonna is indeed “marvellous” in its complexity. She has risen from her seat, was moving away, is arrested, turns and listens. All this is indicated in the pose, which is nevertheless one of perfect grace. The Angel, having just touched the earth, with an exquisite lightness bends his knee, while the respective positions of the hands, and the slight backward tilt of the head, give a grace and expressiveness that is beyond praise.

The putti which decorate the entablature have also their own individual interest. It would seem that so overflowing with art energy was Donato, that it was impossible for him to treat the human figure as merely so much form to be used decoratively. Each of these putti is alive, and, while fulfilling its decorative function and duly subordinate to the design as a whole, yet each has a life of its own. Each is manifestly conscious of his elevated position on the cornice, and shows, according to his individual character, the effect it has on him, of wonder, or elation, or fear.

This ” Annunciation ” is of special interest ; it is, as it were, a parenthesis in the long career of the master, and is in its general character unique. It is his only work of any magnitude in which a woman’s form has a principal position ; nor is there any other large work which aims at and achieves such a general suavity of style and sentiment. It is a beautiful representation of a lyrical scene, executed in a mood entirely in harmony with it. The general mood of the master, as displayed in his other works, is, on the contrary, of a terribilità as great, or greater, than that of Michel Angelo.

In accordance with this more general mood, and taking us back in thought to the “St. John” of the Casa Martelli, is another representation of the ” Fore-runner,” now in the Bargello. The figure is life-size, and again we have the uncompromisingly realistic treatment of the subject, and absolute rejection of all external suavity and grace. The prophet is in this case sculptured as a young man ; his figure is lean, the hands large, the knees and shoulders are bony, just as would be those of a young ascetic sleeping in the wilderness, and feeding on ” locusts ” and ” wild honey.” But Donato sees in this unhandsome youth, his fearless prophet, and he succeeds finally in causing us to recognise him too. Gazing on a scroll which he holds in his left hand, while the reed cross is placed in his right, this young man steps, as it were, out from the wilderness, conning his message, wrapt up in his mission ; and in some strange manner, through his very lack of mere outward beauty, one is made to feel his spiritual grandeur.

To this period further belong, in all probability, the few examples that remain of Donatello’s purely decorative work. The ” Marzocco,” or heraldic lion of Florence, with its pedestal, both of pietra serena, is generally allowed to be his, as is also the marble fountain, now at the top of the fine new staircase given by King Umberto to the gallery of the Palazzo Pitti. This is the fountain which Vasari tells us was executed for the Casa Medici. In connection with it may be mentioned the font in the Baptistery of Empoli, locally attributed to Donato. It is in the form of a huge vase, and, judging from its general character, it may well have come from his bottega ; indeed, the putti which decorate the handles have a vivacity of pose which leads one to imagine that the finishing touches must have been given by his hand.

Among his purely decorative works are also certain coats-of-arms for noble Florentine families ; of these, two are specially noted—that of the Martelli, and of the Gianfigliazzi.

The decoration of the sacristy of San Lorenzo occupied the years immediately preceding Donato’s acceptance of the invitation to Padua.

The group of works comprised in this scheme of decoration is large and important. The principal are four medallions on the ceiling, representing the four Evangelists ; four other compositions, also on the ceiling, these being stories from the lives of the evangelists ; two large reliefs, each of two saints ; two pairs of bronze doors ; and the balustrade before the altar. To these structural decorations may be added, as probably belonging to the same period, the tomb of Giovanni de’ Medici, the father of Cosimo. This tomb is a marble sarcophagus, of fine proportions ; the sides and ends are decorated with putti carved in relief, and holding festoons. This work has a special historical value, as showing the complete adoption on the part of Donatello of classic forms.

In the other works above mentioned, the classic feeling is also very present, thus, as was just, harmonising with Brunellesco’s architectural design. The medallions of the four Evangelists are noble compositions ; in each case the figure of the Evangelist is seated, with his gospel before him, held or supported by his accepted symbol ; while resembling one another so far, a distinct character is, nevertheless, preserved to each. The figures are appropriately different, and infused with that vitality which is the sign manual of Donato’s work. The beauty of the stories is much marred at the present time by the numberless coats of whitewash which, through the centuries, have been applied. Apparently much delicate work is thus lost to us ; hence a just estimate of them is hardly possible.

Over the design of the frames of the bronze doors, we remember that it is said there occurred a difference of opinion between the two collaborators, Donatello adhering to some plan of his own in defiance of the architect Brunellesco. One cannot but query if such an unwonted event in the career of this most genial of artists determined in some degree the character of the doors themselves.

The decorative scheme of each door is simple, being a single row of square panels, with two figures in each panel. On the one pair of doors these figures represent apostles, on the other, martyrs. There is absolutely no perspective introduced, and the foundation is, for the most part, preserved flat, though, when necessary, the tool has entered well into the figures themselves in order to obtain an emphatic point of colour. The whole effect is thus produced by the varied treatment of these couples of men ; they are composed in every conceivable combination of position and action that is consistent with sculptural dignity ; they discuss, they dispute, they argue, they ignore each other. The whole gamut of human intercourse appears to be played through by them. It would seem, too, as if the series had been worked in a tempest of haste and feeling ; one almost sees the rapid fingering on the wax, and the quick drawing of line with the tool. The degree of finish on some panels is conspicuously better than that of others, notably the third from the top of the right-hand door of Apostles, which is remarkably fine, in pose and action as well as finish. In certain other panels Donato has neglected to consider the profiles of the design in working, with the result that even lines of drapery are not firm in their fall. Sometimes a hand is finished with the utmost delicacy, while others are merely sketched. The treatment of the martyrs, in particular, is conspicuous by its lack of serenity ; indeed, they appear to flourish their symbolic palms before each other in their heated disputations. With the tradition of the friends’ quarrel in mind, it is difficult to resist reading into these impetuously worked panels a record of the different stages of their dispute. The terra-cotta bust of San Lorenzo, preserved in the sacristy, is no part of the decorative scheme. It is Donatello’s own. The head is youthful, and of the utmost refinement of type ; the modelling is in his finest and most masterly manner. This ” San Lorenzo,” though a later work, is spiritually of the same family as the ” San Giorgio.”

Other works by Donato, of inferior interest, in the sacristy, will be found named in the list arranged at the end of this volume.