The Florence Of Donatello

THE sculptor Donato di Niccolo di Betti Bardi, better known by the name of Donatello, was born, it is believed, in the year 1386, in the city of Florence, and died in the same city in 1466, his life thus covering a period of eighty years.

This statement, perfectly necessary in a biography, is at the same time singularly colourless and uninteresting unless accompanied by some realisation of the social and intellectual conditions which those years represent, and the general environment which Florence secured to an artist of that period. It will not then be deemed lost time, but, on the contrary, rather a reculement pour mieux sauter, if we preface the present study of Donatello by some slight survey of the world in which he lived, which made his life, and which he in his turn so potently influenced.

In the Proem to ” Romola,” George Eliot pictures to us the matchless prospect of the Arno valley as seen from the hill of San Miniato. There, enclosed, is the city of Florence, stretching along the river banks, linking them by her bridges, and with her outlying villas mingling almost with those of Fiesole on the opposite heights. The novelist notes the variations from this view which would strike the eye of an ancient inhabitant could he but return and look once again over his city, and see the modifications which time has brought about. And what these are, we may be helped to realise with some distinctness if we examine the background of a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin, attributed to Botticelli, and now in the National Gallery. In this we have, drawn by the artist, an actual picture of old Florence as it was in the fifteenth century. We see the city, not as yet stretching at her ease along the plain, but, lacking her suburbs, she is gathered up, as it were crouching ready for attack or surprise, and closely girdled by her still needed and unbroken line of walls and towers. This fact alone is infinitely significant, and indicates in a stroke the essence of mediaeval life as contrasted with that of our modern world.

The sketch of the city in this Assumption we may take as fairly representing the outward appearance of the Florence of Donatello. Within this contracted and walled Florence, however, we must not consider that life went on in chains, even as to outward conditions, or that what we now term “old Florence” was of a fixed and unvarying form. On the contrary, as to-day the modern Florence is developing itself out of the old, and we see, with who shall say what feelings, a Piazza Vittore Emanuele take the place of a Mercato Vecchio, so was it in the fifteenth century. The mind and needs of the city still expressed themselves in its outward form by the hands of its artists ; and all through our special period Florence was, within her walls, energetically re-expressing herself, and the still older Florence, the city of Dante, was changing step by step into the city of the Medici.

The mention of this name brings us into touch with one of the most potent forces of the time ; hence we must spare a few lines to consider in some degree the character and action of the first very prominent member of this great family,— Cosimo, the so-called Father of his Country.

So striking a contrast was this man’s personality to that of the majority of his contemporaries, that at first sight he appears almost an alien to his time. In the fifteenth-century citizen he would seem to have embodied the spirit of what we are accustomed to deem the special product of the nineteenth—to wit, the financier of colossal affairs, the simple citizen to all outward seeming, who yet, by his network of transactions and masterly management, virtually holds in his hands the fate of nations. Such in effect was Cosimo the elder, and, by his life and dealings with, and influence upon his generation, he transformed his city, and ushered in a new epoch of her history.

The family of Medici was an old and an honourable one, but at the time of the birth of Cosimo it did not perhaps enjoy a higher reputation than a score of other noble families in the city, such as the Pazzi, the Strozzi, or the Albizzi. Cosimo, however, inherited a notably large fortune from his father Giovanni, and with it the genius to manipulate it with a skill and foresight before unexampled in even the mercantile city of Florence, Luck, too, being added to his good management, his wealth steadily increased ; while at the same time it became manifest that his genius was double-edged, for not only could he gain skilfully, but he could spend nobly and with discrimination. He became seized with the passion for building, and not for himself alone, but for the Church and the city. As he was also keenly sensitive to all the other artistic and intellectual influences of the early Renaissance, it in time came about that almost any great undertaking in the way of art or learning which had its birth in Florence at that day asked and received from Cosimo its sinews of war, and also intelligent sympathy and encouragement. Scholars and antiquaries gathered around him. Was any rare discovery made of MSS., or in Art, he was applied to in order that the treasure might be secured ; was even any distant place in Greece or elsewhere deemed likely to reward a careful search by scholar or artist, Cosimo would finance the traveller, and rejoice with him in the spoil brought back ; and withal he was an active citizen taking his due part in all the political life of the day.

The events of one notable year in Cosimo’s life will serve in a remarkable degree to give us an insight into the state of the Florentine world at that time, the nature of the changes in process of evolution, and the place which Cosimo personally held with regard to Art, and the artists whom he had gathered round him.

Florence would not have been Florence had she witnessed the growth of her citizen’s wealth and power with indifference, much less with an unquestioning approbation. Some of Cosimo’s fellow-nobles saw in his increasing greatness a menace to their civic liberties, others were animated by personal jealousy ; so, in good old Florentine fashion, a party was formed against him, the Council packed with his enemies, and in the year 1433 it passed on him a sentence of ten years’ exile.

Who knows with what feelings the future “Father of his Country” left his city, like many a predecessor—Dante among them—branded a fuoruscito?

But what a contrast is exhibited between these older exiles and Cosimo de’ Medici ! The former, full of cursing and bitterness, flew from city to city craving protection or help, in order that they might wrest redress from their enemies, and meanwhile ate their hearts out in hungry longing for return.

Cosimo betook himself quietly to Venice, where he had established financial relations, and being well received, there he waited, making no application for armed help, nor indeed for aid of any kind.

We find in connection with this event one or two significant passages in Vasari’s “Lives of the Painters and Sculptors.” In his life of Michelozzo the architect, we find the following :—” In the year 1433, when Cosimo was exiled, Michelozzo, who loved him greatly, and was ‘faithfully devoted to his person, voluntarily accompanied him to Venice, and would always remain with him the whole time of his stay there ; where-fore in addition to the many designs and models which he made in that city, Michelozzo constructed the Library of San Giorgio Maggiore. This was built by the command and at the expense of Cosimo. . . . Such was the occupation and such the amusements of Cosimo during that exile, from which, having been recalled by his country in the year 1434, he returned almost in triumph, and Michelozzo with him.”

A second passage from the same writer’s ” Life of Masaccio ” supplements the one above quoted : “Not finding himself at ease in Florence, and stimulated by his love and zeal for Art, the master resolved to proceed to Rome. . . . But having received intelligence that Cosimo de’ Medici, from whom he had received favour and protection, had been recalled from exile, he again repaired to Florence.”* Vasari’s chatty paragraphs serve to throw a vivid light upon the state of Florentine affairs during Cosimo’s absence, and much further may be read between the lines. Michelozzo was not the only artist loyally attached to his person ; nor was Masaccio alone in “not finding himself at ease in Florence,” and so betaking his active brain and skilful hands to other markets.

In short, the commercial and industrial, no less than the artistic life of the city was dislocated, in direct consequence of the decree of exile.

One of the notable works left at a standstill in this epoch-making year was Cosimo’s great new palace in the Via Larga, now known as the Riccardi Palace. This is a characteristic example of the manner in which Florence was re-expressing herself in outward form, Cosimo leading the van in the process of change. If we mentally compare this stately and spacious palace with the cramped fighting tower which had formerly been the nobles’ pride, and also their necessity, we are put in intimate touch with the character of the changing conditions. The old medieval life was dying ; the palace, though still iron-barred in its lower storey, was yet within stately and beautiful in aspect, a place where the lives of men and women might expand, and in themselves individually become gracious and an Art. The palaces were notable signs, outward and visible, of the inward and spiritual of the time ; while the novel and complex nature of Cosimo’s grip upon his city, whether present or absent, indicated the change of social conditions.

Under such circumstances, we see that the old-world Guelf and Ghibelline weapons which the conservative nobles had employed against this innovator,—the ten years’ exile, the condition of fuoruscito,—of necessity fell powerless to effect their object. The suffering city rose against the anti-Medici faction, the ten years compressed themselves into one ; as Vasari writes : “In 1434 he returned almost in triumph, and Michelozzo with him.” Into these last four words we may read a wider statement ; not Michelozzo alone returned, but with him the whole tide of humanism flowed again, and Florence rose on the crest of the wave.

War and the Church no longer, as in the earlier times, claimed the whole of the life of society ; all that which we understand by the word humanistic was beginning subtily to modify the conditions of daily life and thought.

In this transformation of existence in the city of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici was, as it were, in the hands of the gods, the most potent visible instrument. He prepared the way for the change, and gave opportunity for those specific and individual forces to operate, the aggregation of which brought in the full Renaissance.

Hence some realisation of this man, and his position in Florence is essential to a just appreciation of the period as a whole, or of any individual who took prominent part in the life of the period.