Donatello – With Michelozzo, And At Siena

AT the entrance of the third decade of his life, Donato stepped into the second period of his artistic career, that of his association with Michelozzo.

The works thus done in association were principally a series of tombs-those of Pope John XXIII., and of the Cardinal Brancacci aforesaid, and also, according to some authorities, that of the poet Bartolommeo of Aragazzi. In addition to, and following these, was the ” Pulpito della Cintola ” for the Duomo of Prato. At the same time Donato himself was employed by the Opera of Siena to execute a number of smaller works in bronze, among them the sportello rejected by it in the solemn deliberations which we noted at length on a preceding page.

The interest of this second period is naturally of a somewhat different nature from that of the first. It is not altogether so personal, for, in the associated works, the two men laboured side by side, in an apparently ideal partnership ; thus it is not always possible to determine absolutely which portions of these works belong entirely to Donato and which to Michelozzo. We are driven to general conclusions, such as those of M. Muntz, quoted above. It is indeed probable that Donato undertook the pure sculpture of these monuments, yet that he did not always execute the whole is clear. Much of the sculpture on the Aragazzi tomb in Montepulciano seems quite devoid of his characteristic touch, and is by some supposed to be entirely the work of Michelozzo ; this is in fact the opinion of M. Müntz ; while, on the other hand, Signor Milanese considers it probably the master’s entirely, and his greatest work. Again, Vasari attributes the ” Faith ” in the tomb of Pope John to Michelozzo. Donato, in his turn, we must remember, was a Magister of the Masonic Guild, and therefore a professed architect. Hence it seems reasonable to infer that the influence of both artists was brought to bear on all parts of the monuments which they worked together, though the actual execution of the architecture was mostly in the hands of the one, and that of the sculpture in those of the other.

The first of these co-operative works was, as already stated, the tomb of Pope John XXIII. in the Florentine Baptistery. This is a monument of singular beauty, and, further, of great historical importance. It marks a new departure in the character of Tuscan monumental sculpture. Arnolfo del Cambio’s tomb for the Cardinal de Braye in Orvieto, had been the great model for Tuscan artists since 1292. The tomb of Pope John is developed out of this older Pisan form, but transfused with the life of the early Renaissance. It is, as were the Pisan tombs, a mural monument, but is sculptured in a rich-toned marble, without any addition of mosaic in stone or enamel. The effigy of the Pope is in bronze, and except some indications of embroidery, in gilt, on the curtain suspended over the topmost member of the composition, no effects of colour are attempted. The figure of the dethroned Pope we may assume to be entirely Donato’s work. He lies, full of dignity, with the head turned to face the spectator, the expression being that of rest after a troubled and disappointed life. It is entirely grave and monumental, and yet Donato has known how to infuse into it a dramatic interest. Old Pope John XXIII., lying on his tomb, has his luckless history written on his face, yet with an art so consummate that the strictest sculptural severity is preserved.

The tomb of Cardinal Brancacci followed. This is a much more elaborate work architecturally than the preceding monument, and is enriched by seven full-length figures, and four half-length, not including the recumbent effigy of the dead Cardinal. As in the tomb of Pope John XXIII. the architectural and sculptural elements are fused with a rare skill and art ; the whole forms a most noble work, and a definite step in the development of style from the older forms into the new. For our present purpose, the appreciation of Donatello alone, there is one feature in the monument of peculiar interest—a small panel in relief, which forms the centre of the front of the sarcophagus. It represents the Virgin enthroned in the heavens, while around her is a mist of baby angelic forms rising from, and melting back into the marble, which is made to appear as it were clouds encircling the Queen of Heaven. The whole is worked in the lowest relief, that degree known as stiacciato, which is so often associated with the name of Donatello.

The experiment of obtaining an atmospheric effect in marble is repeated by Donato in only one other instance, the panel representing Christ giving the keys to Peter, preserved in the South Kensington Museum. These two panels being so very similar in style, we may assume that they belong to the same period. Both are universally accepted as genuine, and, from the peculiarly ‘marked character of their workman-ship are guides of extreme value to the critic who undertakes to settle those difficult questions of attribution which beset the study of this great master. While there is generally sufficient proof of the authenticity of the monumental works attributed to him, and few of these have been lost to us, havoc has been played by time and carelessness among his smaller works, notably his reliefs. Many of these are indubitably lost ; and there have been perhaps as many falsely attributed to him ; among these is a number which the more discriminating criticism of today ascribes to Desiderio da Settignano. Desiderio, following after Donato, greatly affected stiacciato relief; a careful comparison, how-ever, of one such genuine work of his with the two above-mentioned genuine Donatellos will disclose a radical difference between the two sculptors in the manner of treating such relief. In Desiderio, we have layer under layer most delicately but obviously cut, with straight edges apparent, such as we see in the principal outlines of Donato’s reliefs on a large scale. In these smaller works of his we have plane under plane, as delicately preserved as those of Desiderio, but, as it were, inflated, not cut. That sense of air and recognition of section which we noted above in his treatment of drapery, appear in his relief, and are entirely characteristic of his manner.

To return for the moment to the question of atmospheric effect produced in marble, it is interesting to note that just at the time of the execution of the Brancacci tomb, Ghiberti was engaged on the second pair of gates for the Baptistery. The first panel of these depicts the Creation, and is a marvel of delicate execution and aerial perspective. It will be remembered that one of the features of this panel is also a trailing line of angels melting softly into the background, in a method which Ghiberti made peculiarly his own. If we may assume that the panel which comes first in order on the gates is the one first done, it becomes interesting to note that the two greatest masters of the early Renaissance together * experimented on the same problem, that of translating atmospheric effect into plastic form. Ghiberti, we know, was pleased with his experiment, and such effects became a part and parcel of his future artistic stock in trade. By Donatello, evidently, the problem was dismissed, the severity of pure sculpture appealing to him more strongly. Though from time to time he executed, in accordance with the fashion of the day, storie in relief, in none, at least of those still in existence, did he repeat the experiment of the panels on the Brancacci tomb and in S. Kensington. He introduces perspective, it is true, but for the most part sparingly and always by way of architectural forms and lines.

One such storia belongs to about this date, and forms a panel of the font in the Baptistery of Siena. The group of works for the Opera of Siena was executed during the years 1426-28 ; thus one may conclude that, while labouring at Pisa on the Brancacci tomb, Donato went backwards and forwards between that city and Siena.

These works for Siena may, for the sake of convenience, be noticed all together at this point ; they include the storia representing the Baptist’s head brought in a charger to Herod ; a bronze memorial relief to Bishop Picci, in a chapel of the Duomo ; two bronze statuettes representing Faith and Hope, placed at two corners of the great font of the Baptistery ; and three bronze putti, also for the font, at corners on an upper member of it. This is a curiously representative group of work, comprising ordinary relief in the storia; stiacciato in the tomb ; draped figure sculpture in the Virtues ; and the nude in the three putti.

The storia claims our attention first. Ghiberti was the composer par excellence of storie in bronze; he passed his long life in doing hardly any other form of work. He made a style all his own, as unmistakable in its mannerisms and delicate grace as was that of Perugino. A Ghiberti panel would be unmistakable among a thousand others. Composition of line and aerial perspective were the two leading characteristics of his method. A panel of his, representing the baptism of Christ by John, is in the Sienese font. The contrast to this, which we find in Donatello’s storia, is as marked as it is interesting. Donato is no less removed from the traditional symbolic relief than was Ghiberti, but his manner was equally original ; composition is secured rather by grouping and massing, than by sweeping lines ; but obviously his first concern has been his subject. With the concentrated energy of true sculpture he has set himself to present the spirit of his story. As regards the technique of his composition, he has allowed himself three planes, marked by receding architectural lines ; dramatically, each plane serves as a distinct and separate emphasis to the master’s idea—that of absolute horror at the unkingly deed. The whole is drawn with the utmost restraint ; there is not one irrelevant detail ; all that is there is needed in order to convey the idea ; and, in effect, the storia thrills with a righteous indignation. On the furthest and lowest plane, we have an unwilling servant bearing almost at arm’s-length the charger with its ghastly burden, while three profiles of men, on the same plane, express eloquently both reprobation and disgust. On the next plane, a musician unmusically grinds on his viol the dance music that he is for the moment loathing ; while two attendants look scorn on his slave’s obedience. In the front we have the principals ; to the left, Herod at the head of his table, at the foot Salome ; her dancing step is just checked, and she looks intently before her, while the group behind her leans eagerly forward ; for kneeling by the king is a soldier bearing the charger ; every line of his form is eloquent : ” Only as a soldier I obey,” he seems to say, “as a man, I scorn.” Herod in his turn is conscience-stricken, now that he sees the deed accomplished. One of his guests covers his face ; another addresses some word of condemnation to his host ; while two little children shrink back into a corner, with fear and horror quivering, as it were, down their little supple limbs.

Surely never was the spirit of a story more impressively and unflinchingly given, or was artist more absolutely sincere with himself in the telling of it. Here are no Ghiberti-like elegances of line, any more than there are old Guild archaisms ; Donatello is absolutely himself; as he himself feels his story, so he depicts it. Perhaps only in Duccio, who also laboured for Siena, does one meet with a similar frank revelation of the man in his work. With Donato, as with Duccio, one is made to feel, after careful study, that, despite the intervening centuries, his spirit is made known to us, and that his works have given him, in a sense not quite the ordinary, a veritable immortality.

We cannot but begin to recognise about this time, how the personality of St. John the Baptist seized upon the imagination of Donato, so that he became to the artist as it were an undying hero. As occasion arose, he represented him, again and again, in all phases of his career, and always with a marvellous sympathy and reverence. In the bronze figure for the cathedral of Orvieto we see Donato’s first conception, that of the inspired ascetic ; a quarter of a century later, in the ” St. John ” of the church of the Frari, we shall see the same conception again, but perfected, and one of the most triumphant examples of Donato’s peculiar power. Other representations of the Prophet we shall note in order when we reach the period to which presumably they belong. Considering their number, it would seem indeed that St. John became the ideal specially cherished in the sculptor’s mind throughout the later half of his life, thus taking the place of his earlier ideal, that of Heroic Youth.

But to return to the group of works for the Opera of Siena. The memorial slab of Bishop Picci has an interest of its own, differing from that of the storia. Such slabs, more often carved in marble, are common throughout Tuscany ; thus the style followed by Donato was not original, he but developed a very ancient model. The tomb of young Lorenzo Acciajoli, in the Certosa di Val d’ Ema near Florence, is an excellent and well preserved example of this Tuscan form of memorial. The grace of this youthful form, lying as it were asleep, with head turned slightly on the pillow, is exquisite, as is also the extreme delicacy of the carving. Absolute truth to the human figure is, however, sacrificed to decorative line, and the hands, though treated so as to be very decorative, are, as hands, impossible. Donato’s Bishop Picci also lies as if sleeping, with his head turned upon the pillow ; but decoration is here subordinated to truth ; the difficulties of relief are absolutely mastered ; figure, drapery, hands, features, all are true—soft in treatment, delicate in line, true in form they all are, and yet perfectly monumental in their restraint and dignity.

The ” Faith” and ” Hope,” belonging to the font, are small figures, the latter, in particular, very expressive in pose. The putti are figures to rank with others of the same nature from his hand. The classic Cupid Donato revivified, and perhaps no one achieved more wonderful success than he in treating baby form decoratively.

In the year 1428 Donato, with Michelozzi, received the commission from Prato to design and work for the exterior of the Duomo a new pulpit for the exhibition of a celebrated relic, the girdle of the Madonna. The execution of this work was, however, deferred until 1433, and in the interval was undertaken the tomb of Aragazzi in Montepulciano, about which there exists such differences of opinion among the critics. This monument, if at all the work of Donatello, was his last of any magnitude belonging to this period ; and we next hear of him in Rome during the exile of Cosimo de’ Medici.