Donatello – To The Year 1426

IT now becomes our business to fit the subject of this essay into his environment, the Florence which we have been endeavouring to realise to ourselves. Our aim will be to see him as a man, living and working among his fellows ; as comrade, friend, craftsman, and citizen. Genial in character, indeed lovable, we find this Donato di Betti Bardi to have been ; and all the world greets him, even to the present time, as it were, with a friendly smile, under the name of Donatello, the kindly Tuscan variation on his name, speaking of a general good-will.

The well-known and generally accepted story of his boyhood, preserved to us by Vasari, gives in charming fashion an indication of his disposition ; and to re-tell it seems to be the bounden duty of any biographer of the artist. The authorities of the church of Santa Croce in Florence, gave a commission to the young man to carve a life-sized crucifix in wood for their church. Already he had, in common with so many artists of the time, obtained his initial training in a goldsmith’s workshop. But to undertake a work of such magnitude must have appeared to him an event of great importance. When completed, he was elated by the result. In this mood, he called upon his friend Filippo Brunellesco, his senior by some years, to come and see the work. When Filippo saw the crucifix, we are told he remained silent, though unable to repress something of a smile. Donato, however, pressed impetuously for some expression of opinion, and being con-strained to speak, Filippo thus frankly summed up his estimate of the work : ” It is not Christ, but a peasant which thou hast crucified.” ” If it were as easy to do as to judge,” retorted the wounded Donato, ” my Christ would appear to thee to be a Christ, and not a peasant. Do thou take wood, and try to do one, even thou.”

Some while afterwards, Filippo, meeting Donato in the Old Market, where the latter had been buying provisions for his breakfast, asked him to return home with him. Donato agreeing, they turned in company towards Filippo’s lodging. Before arriving at the door, however, Filippo lingered, and, making some excuse, asked Donato to precede him. Unsuspecting any surprise, Donato opened the door, and saw, placed in the most advantageous light, another crucifix carved by Filippo. Such as it was, it may be seen today in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Donato, in a glance, recognised the excellence of the work. For-getting that in his apron, which he was holding up by one hand, was all his marketing, the eggs, soft cheese, fruit, salad, he spread both arms out wide and stood transfixed, until he heard Filippo asking where the breakfast was : ” O Filippo,” he cried, turning round, “eat thou the breakfast, I have had my fill. To thee it is given to sculpture a Christ, I can only carve peasants ! ”

Comment on this story would be superfluous.

Throughout the early years of Donatello’s career, a large part of the citizen interest of Florence was centred around the cathedral works, and those of the oratory of the Guilds, the church of Or San Michele. The fine group of buildings which now forms one of the most characteristic features of the city, was at that date but in the making. The Duomo stood without its dome and façade, the Campanile lacking its full complement of decoration, and the Baptistery had but one pair of bronze gates, those worked in the beginning of the pre-ceding century by Andrea Pisano.

In 1400 the authorities invited skilled artists to compete for the commission to execute a second pair of bronze gates for the Baptistery. The story of how, with others, Filippo Brunellesco and Ghiberti entered the lists and worked out the trial panel is too well known to be repeated here.* We know that Ghiberti was the successful competitor. As he himself naively records : ” The palm of victory was conceded to me by all the judges, and by those who competed with me. Universally the glory was given to me without any exception.”

Brunellesco, though frankly acknowledging the superiority of his rival’s panel, felt disappointed at the result of the competition, and, apparently as a direct consequence, left Florence and betook himself to Rome, whither, as is stated by most authorities, his boy friend Donatello accompanied him.

This statement is, however, absolutely rejected by M. Marcel Reymond, who contends that Donato’s first journey to Rome was the one taken in 1433. If this be so, it becomes very difficult to account for much that we find in the master’s work during the years 1406-16 ; while a closer touch with antiquity, such as a visit to Rome would have given, offers a key to those peculiar qualities. We accordingly give the story, feeling that the possibility of its truth is not to be altogether rejected from Donato’s life.

It would be difficult to say what exactly of Antique Art would meet the eyes of the young artists on entering the Imperial City. Much there would be that has since been destroyed ; much that we now have the privilege of seeing had not then been unearthed. But whatever there was or was not in detail, Rome was always Rome, even if in ruins, still the home of the ancient Empire, the idea of which held so large a place in the mediaeval mind, second only to that of the Catholic Church. There, more than in any other place, would our artist’s mind be roused to a pitch of exaltation. Vasari tells us how Donato and Brunellesco studied the Rome that they found. Everywhere they sought for what examples of Classic Art might be discovered, making sketches and notes of all their treasure trove. Literally ” treasure-seekers ” the Romans called them, as they saw the two day after day digging among the ruined mounds in the hope of finding some fragment of ancient art. Their money giving out, we are told that they returned to the craft of their early apprenticeship and worked as goldsmiths ; only, however, so far as to earn bare necessaries, all the time that it was possible to give being devoted to their study of antiquity.

Whether we accept this story of Donato’s companionship with Brunellesco or not, both men appear during this period to have definitely determined along which line of art they were respectively best fitted to work. Ideas were in a condition of perpetual change and development, then as now ; and these two among the first of their contemporaries realised that neither the one nor the other could become the encyclopedist in art that the elder masters had for the most part. aimed at being. Thus Andrea Orcagna painted pictures, and signed himself upon them Orcagna Sculptor, while upon his sculptural monuments his name appears as Orcagna Painter. Giotto, the fresco painter par excellence, was also the designer of the Florentine Campanile.

Donatello and Brunellesco, however, at the opening of the fifteenth century, saw that for them the path of art must be more strait and narrow. The latter, perhaps still under the influence of his disappointment in connection with the Baptistery gates, turned from sculpture, and determined to devote himself to the development of architecture. Donato remained constant to the art to which he had first given himself; and he elected still to carve, until to him it should be given to sculpture not only an idea but an ideal.

Donato’s choice drew him to the cathedral of his native city, and we find him from 14o6 to be closely connected with the Opera del Duomo or the cathedral Board of Works. For this body, and the authorities of Or San Michele, during the next fifteen or sixteen years, he was busily engaged, producing a remarkable series of works—large statues in the round, the discussion of which, however, it is proposed to undertake in the second section of this work.

Around the as yet unfinished Duomo, and working under the direction of its Opera, was a group of skilful and eager craftsmen. Among these Donato took his place, and thus working, gradually developed his own proper style, and made for himself, as an artist, a unique position.

We must not however, as yet, picture him to ourselves as the great master standing apart from his fellows, but rather to all outward seeming but a capable and indefatigable craftsman, working day by day in apron and wooden shoes, going in and out among the others of his calling, entirely one with them, competing with them, criticised by them, always, however, ready to help a less fortunate comrade, with either hand or purse, naïvely pleased with his own successes, temperate and blameless in private life, a dutiful son and kind brother.

The stories and notices on record of this and succeeding periods of his long life are all too few ; happily it is to the pen of Vasari that we owe most of the information that we possess. This prince of chroniclers knew, as few other writers have done, how, in a paragraph, or even a line, to make his characters stand out before his readers as living men. Thus through his pages, backed by some few notices in less picturesque documents, we may succeed in seeing Donatello in his outer man with something of distinctness.

We have already seen him in the story of the Crucifix of Santa Croce as a very simple citizen. Such indeed was his degree ; his father was but a carder of wool by trade ; and, owing to unlucky participation in civic politics, a far from wealthy man. In later years we find in a general declaration of property demanded by the city authorities that Donato’s house was of the simplest, and that his household consisted of his aged mother, a widowed sister, and her son. Of love and romance we find no notice in the artist’s life ; an unbroken reticence with regard to that side of his nature is preserved, from which a weaver of story might draw conclusions, but for the biographer there is nothing to record.

In a certain document relating to the building of the Duomo, we find a quaint entry to the effect, ” that it is awarded to Niccoló Piero di Lamberti, Donato di Niccolo Berti Bardi, and to Nanni d’Antonio (di Banco) to each a figure in marble, for the four evangelists, on condition that the fourth figure shall be executed by him who shall best have completed that here assigned to him.”

Here we have Donato presented to us as a work-man among his fellows. The above-mentioned Lamberti was a sculptor of old standing among the band of cathedral workers. His was the whimsical brain that conceived, and his the skilful hands which executed, the rich ornament surrounding the south door of the Duomo ; he was reckoned an inspiring master by the rising artists of the time. Nanni di Banco appears to have been a younger man ; some say he was a pupil of Donato’s ; be that as it may, the relations between them were cordial, as the following pleasant story given us by Vasari abundantly shows.

Nanni was an enthusiast in the art of sculpture, and occasionally achieved a marked success ; to him we owe the beautiful relief of the Madonna in a mandorla which crowns the north door of the Duomo. He does not, however, appear to have been always so happy as in this instance, nor, indeed, to have been in any way a man of much resource in times of emergency. On the occasion of the story to be related, Nanni had undertaken to fill one of the great series of niches on the exterior of the oratory of Or San Michele. The Companies of the Bricklayers, Smiths, Carpenters, and Masons had given the commission, and the subject selected was the Santi Quattro. These were the patron saints of the great Masonic Guild of Italy. Nanni proceeded to sculpture his group ; only when the work was almost completed did he discover that he had made some miscalculation as to the size and space, and that by no means which he could command might the Santi Quattro be accommodated in the niche for which they were intended. Almost in despair, he sought out Donatello, and, making his humiliating confession, asked his help. ” Go you into the country for a day or two, and take some measurements which I require at Prato,” said the rival sculptor, ” and I and my assistants will see what we can do; only,” added Donato, “we shall expect, if we succeed, a good supper from you for our pains.” Nanni agreed, and leaving his reputation as a sculptor in Donato’s hands, he went, as suggested, into the country. Donato’s keen eye soon grasped the situation, and his wit devised a way out of the difficulty. A piece judiciously chiselled off here, a shoulder compressed there, with absolute comprehension of the necessities of the position which the statues were to hold, soon reduced their bulk, and made it possible to place them in the niche. And there they stand to this day, the Santi Quattro works of Nanni di Banco, adding much to his reputation as a figure sculptor, and at the same time a monument to the resource and good fellowship of Donatello.

Again, in connection with the same Nanni di Banco we have another charming and most characteristic anecdote given to us by Vasari. It is as follows :

” There is from his (Nanni’s) hand in Florence a ‘St. Philip’ in marble on the exterior of the oratory of Or San Michele, which work was in the first instance allotted to Donato by the Guild of the Shoemakers, and then on account of their not being able to agree as to price, re-allotted to Nanni almost by way of slight to Donato The former promised to take in payment whatever the Guild should decide to give him, but in the event did not do so, for, the work being finished and placed, he asked from the Council a greater price than the one, in the first instance, asked by Donato. On this, both parties referred the matter to Donato, the Consuls of the Guild believing assuredly that out of spite for not having had the work he would value it at less than if he had himself done it. But they were mistaken in this belief, for Donato judged that a much greater price should be paid to Nanni for the statue than the one he had asked. —To this judgment, no one of the Consuls was willing to stand, crying out upon Donato : ‘ Why hast thou, who wouldst have done the work for a less price, estimated it at so much more when from the hand of another, and press us to give him for it more than that which thou didst ask, the more so as it would have been better done if executed by thy hands.’ Laughing, Donato replied : Truly this good man is not what I am in the Art, so for him the fatigue of labour is by so much the greater ; therefore you are obliged in order to satisfy him, and being honourable men as it appears to me, to pay him for the time which he has expended.’ And such was the effect of the judgment of Donato that a compromise was effected which pleased both parties.”

Of Donato’s naïve satisfaction in his own work Vasari gives us in a line a vivid picture. He was commissioned to execute a statue for one of the niches of the Campanile, and chose for his model an old and singularly ugly man. His figure was ungainly, his head absolutely bald, and the features forbidding. All this was scrupulously reproduced in the statue ; Donato made an unflinching and uncompromising study of his model. At last it stood completed, a living likeness ; such as the model was, so had Donato made his copy, and with the same impetuousness with which he had in his boyhood hailed Brunellesco to come and see his crucifix, he now was heard to apostrophise his work, which seemed to him but to lack breath : ” Speak, speak ! ” he cried. ” Plague. take thee, why dost thou not speak ? ” The statue was indeed a marvel of realism, and obtained the name, by which it is still known, of ” Il Zuccone,” the big pumpkinreference thus being made to its baldness. Donato seemed to consider it in its own line one of his most satisfactory achievements, and was wont even to swear by its excellence. “By the faith which I have in my ` Zuccone’ ! ” became his accustomed expression.

The fifteen years during which Donato was for the most part employed by the Opera of the Duomo and the authorities of Or San Michele gave him his opportunity for practice and discipline in that special line of his art which he had marked out for himself; his peculiar skill and manner now developed, and differentiated him from all others of his craft. We indicated above something of the spirit which was moving over Florence at this time, and of the changed ideals which were gradually resolving themselves one out of the other —ideals of thought and art. Donato’s work came to have that in it which marked him as one who could think with, or even ahead of, his time, or as one who intuitively went behind the veil of tradition and found the heart of things, the secret this of all profound originality. Thus scholars as well as artists found his companionship sympathetic.

Towards the close of this period of fifteen years we find Brunellesco again in Florence, and Donato associated with him in undertakings curiously diverse in their nature. Filippo was commissioned by the noble family of the Pazzi to build a chapel in the cloisters of Santa Croce, and this Donato adorned, as is generally supposed, by the admirable frieze of cherubs’ heads ; the two artists were further employed by the city government to superintend some operations of military engineering directed against the city of Lucca.

Of the companionship of Donato with Brunellesco Vasari writes as follows : He (Brunellesco) turned his attention to the Scriptures, and never failed to be present at the disputations and preaching of learned men . . . at the same time he gave earnest study to the works of Dante, nor indeed were his thoughts ever occupied otherwise than in the consideration of ingenious and difficult enquiries, but he could never find any one who gave him so much satisfaction as did Donato, with whom he often held confidential discourse ; these two artists found perpetual pleasure in the society of each other, and frequently conferred together on the difficulties of their art.” The quality of this friendship, as here described, in all likelihood gives a key to much of what was peculiar to Donato’s work. No scholar himself, yet living thus in the atmosphere of scholarship, he became attuned to the great thoughts prevalent at the time, and found himself to be in innate sympathy therewith. Speech to him apparently was not easy ; he could, however, listen, and then in his turn express himself through his art.

In the year 1412 we learn that he was received as a member into the Painters’ Guild of St. Luke, and presumably it was as such that, at a later period, he competed against Ghiberti in a design for a stained glass window to be placed in the Duomo. On this occasion the self-complacent Ghiberti was worsted, and Donato’s window may to this day be seen under the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore. Six years later, in 1418, he also attained the rank of master (magister) in the Florentine Lodge of the great Italian Guild of Masons, and we learn from the archives of the Duomo that his studio became actually the school of the Opera, and was itself in the Opera building.

Though personally confining himself for the most part to the practice of sculpture, that art must always have been in his mind closely allied to architecture. Compelled by his peculiar genius to specialise, he retained the encyclopedist’s ideal of the place of his art, and a large portion of his life’s work was done in close association with some one architect or another.

In 1426 began a long and close connection with Michelozzo Michelozzi, the architect whom we have had occasion to mention above.

In our endeavour to picture Donatello to ourselves, and the artistic life of old Florence, which was his world, we must take pains to realise how at that time intellect and learning were in no sense a class monopoly. The artists, those whom we call the Old Masters, were the master-craftsmen of the day, it being theirs, how-ever, to transmute their craft into art. We must conceive the “studio talk ” of the time taking place as it were in the workmen’s dinner-hour, under the rising walls of the Duomo, or in the botteghe situated near at hand. The “confidential discourse” between such as Donato and Brunellesco when they ” conferred together on the difficulty of their art,” discussed the pages of the “Divine Comedy,” or of the newly discovered Plato, must have taken place at such times—the hours of the siesta, or the short twilight after the working day, both men alike in the ” fustian” of the period, and neither dreaming himself to be socially either more or less than an honest citizen of Florence.

We have, on an earlier page, drawn attention to the fact that the new Humanistic influences were now beginning to touch and affect the nobles as well as the artists. Thus we find the House of the Martelli extending their patronage to Donato ; indeed, Vasari declares that Roberto Martelli had had a special interest in even his earliest efforts, and had afforded him protection from his childhood.

The year 1426 is given as the date of Donato’s first work executed in association with Michelozzo ; and it is only in harmony with the trend of events that the work in question was a commission from another noble house, that of the Medici.

It is not surprising that old Giovanni de’ Medici, and particularly his alert son Cosimo, should be attracted by the peculiar virility and novel spirit of the young sculptor. In the case of the latter, the regard extended presumably from the art to the man, and ripened eventually into a life-long friendship.

The first Medici commission to Donato was a tomb for Pope John XXIII. This unhappy Pontiff ended his days in Florence, discrowned and humiliated ; but the proud citizen who espoused his cause against his rival chose to honour his memory by a noble monument, and that in his city’s very heart, no less a place than the Baptistery, Dante’s “il mio bel San Giovanni.” With this monument Michelozzo and Donato were associated, and thus may the latter be said to have entered upon the second period of his career.