The medieval prince Louis of Anjou relinquished his rights to the throne of Naples. In 1296 he decided to join the Franciscan monastic order, thus giving up his worldly demands and ambitions. While his younger brother Robert wanted to succeed their father Charles II as King of Naples, Louis became Bishop of Toulouse, and after his death even a saint. This story plays a role in the way in which the Florentine sculptor Donatello of the fifteenth century refused to criticize those who intended to be incompetent in the execution of a larger than life gilded bronze statue he had made between 1418 and 1425 of Saint Louis. . According to the sixteenth-century artist biographer Giorgio Vasari, Donatello claimed that clumsiness was deliberate “because Louis the Holy had been so clumsy as to let his kingdom go to a monastery.”
The anecdote sounds like a very early example of a conception of art, where the chosen artistic form is a conscious expression of the personality of the person depicted. But in reality it is about an artist who justified his choices in a witty and self-conscious way, perhaps also to hide his wounded self-esteem. This befits the artists of fifteenth-century Florence, who admiringly and competitively, idiosyncratically and proudly shaped the art of the Renaissance.
Like few others, Donatello left his mark on early Renaissance art
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, better known as Donatello (1386-1466), has left his mark on the early Renaissance art like few others throughout his long career. Criticism of his work must have been rare: the prolific Donatello was one of the most successful and admired artists of his time and would always remain so. The supreme Florentine banker and art lover Cosimo de ‘Medici was not only an important customer for him, but also regarded him as a personal friend. In marble, terracotta, bronze and wood, Donatello made statues and reliefs for prominent places in Florence, such as the Duomo and Baptistery, the headquarters of the Florentine guilds Orsanmichele and the Medici church of San Lorenzo. From 1443, Donatello spent ten years in the northern Italian city of Padua, where he made a colossal equestrian statue of the army commander Gattamelata, and an ambitious decoration on the high altar of the Church of Sant’Antonio with large free-standing bronze saints and narrative reliefs.
Many of these monumental works are immobile, and anyone who is in Florence can easily visit a few. So much the more impressive is the beautiful exhibition Donatello, the Renaissance which can now be seen in two places in that city, the Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello Sculpture Museum. Based on works from Bargello’s own collection and loans from local and international collections, the exhibition provides an unprecedented overview of about fifty more or less handy, but sometimes also unexpectedly comprehensive works by the master. In addition, there are several dozen sculptures and paintings by famous contemporaries such as Masaccio, Andrea del Castagno and Verrocchio, which have drawn inspiration from Donatello’s works in style, composition or motifs.
The work of the young Donatello reflects the transition from late Gothic to Renaissance. Although the exact date is unknown, he must have been born in 1386. He was apprenticed to jeweler and sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, who himself long remained with one foot in the refined late medieval, ‘international’ style. One of Donatello’s earliest known works, which also opens the exhibition, is a marble statue of the biblical shepherd boy David, who defeated the giant Goliath with his simple sling (1408-1409). The free-standing statue is a little more than life-size and shows the young man with the opponent’s severed head at his feet. David stands in a pose as elegant as it is unnatural, with his left hand planted next to it, his delicate face fixed on a point in the distance.
It is only in the much more famous bronze edition, which Donatello made of the same theme at least 25 years later (ca. 1435-1440, Bargello), that the now largely naked figure is depicted in a natural pose, that the sculptor, like a true Renaissance artist, borrowed for the sculpture from classical antiquity.
In this way, Donatello became an exponent of the all-encompassing enthusiasm for the classics of 15th-century Florence, and the accompanying lifelike depiction of reality. Even a little earlier than Masaccio, known as the first to apply a scientifically sound one-point perspective to a painting, Donatello used it in a relief of Herod’s Fest (1423-1427). The gilded bronze panel, measuring two feet square, has for the first time ever left the place it was made for: the baptismal font in the baptismal chapel of the Cathedral of the Tuscan city of Siena. Since the heavily darkened panel has been cleaned specifically for this occasion, it finally reveals its qualities in every detail again. The spatial system has been cleverly constructed with arches arranged one after the other as wings. The biblical story of John the Baptist’s death unfolds from the dungeon in the background, where the saint has just been beheaded, via a procession on the central plane, to the foreground, where the royal meal takes place. In a dramatic scene in which emotionally charged dinner mates are pushed to the sides, the Anabaptist head is presented to King Herod on a platter.
Characteristic of Donatello’s desire for innovation is that, in addition to the revolutionary one-point perspective, which can give something to the forced interpretation of space in his marble reliefs, he also used another technique. In Italian, where ‘ch’ is pronounced as ‘k’, the tongue twists schiacciato (literally ‘flattened out’). The bottom line is that some parts of the performance are done in a very low relief, sometimes almost no more than light scratches. It is often about the landscape elements in the background, so that the paradoxical situation arises that the greatest depth is realized in the lowest relief. A good example of this is the depiction of the legendary battle of Saint George with the dragon, which is located under one of Donatello’s most famous statues, the marble of Saint George for Orsanmichele (1415-1417, the original is now in Bargello).
The simultaneous use of these different ways of representing spatiality is characteristic of Donatello’s multifaceted work. He is always looking for new challenges and solutions. The classical idiom of the Renaissance, which was so important to his contemporaries, does not always play the main role. An intriguing aspect of many of Donatello’s reliefs are, for example, the so-called spiritelli: winged creatures in loose robes reminiscent of classic putti, but without the good manners of these naked children, who usually smile benevolently. Donatello included them, among other things, in the reliefs he executed with his craftsman Michelozzo di Bartolomeo for a gallery on the outside of the Prato Cathedral, where the relic from the Virgin Mary’s belt is exhibited (1434-1438). He turned them into expressive characters, danced just a little too wildly and laughed a little too exuberantly to meet the classical ideal. It seems like not much is going to happen before these cute friends turn into evil tormentors. A warning of the type is already in an early terracotta Madonna (ca. 1415), where the Child Christ, though lovingly embracing his mother, at the same time with a laugh on his lips, turns his eyes away, as if to see if there is nothing nicer to do elsewhere.
Donatello turned about eighty years old and continued to work well into old age. At the age of seventy, for example, he made a bronze horse’s head almost two meters high (1456), with a carefully reproduced mane and veins lying just under the skin. The head was intended to be only the beginning of a much larger, but never completed, equestrian portrait of King Alfonso of Naples. The older he got, the less Donatello seems to have worried about the example of the classics or the unwritten rules of Renaissance art. In bronze and wood, he made images with an expressive power that is sometimes almost reminiscent of works from the Northern European Middle Ages. One of his last bronze sculptures is a depiction of John the Baptist as a repentant ascetic (1455-1457). Although the saint is in a classic contraposto position, the look on his bearded face is frighteningly hollow, and the whimsical shapes on the surface of his camel hair sack have an expressive effect.
The beautiful overview in this exhibition does not change the image of Donatello as an elusive artist who rarely signed his works and even less frequently dated them. Problems with attribution and dating are further complicated by a lack of linear style development. Donatello’s, though well-documented, portrayal of the Franciscan king’s son Lodewijk, for example, still remains confusing. The bronze statue with precious gilding shows the saint dressed in his monk’s robes, over which a choir hat is draped and with the bishop’s meringue over the still young face. With his right hand he makes a blessing, and with his left he holds the bishop’s staff. In the richly pleated robes, one can not know a little about the shapes of the body that were supposed to be underneath. The hands appear to be glued on like loose gloves.
The supposed clumsiness of both Donatello, who in his own words therefore reflected Saint Louis, contrasts with another anecdote from Giorgio Vasari: when Donatello was once asked to make a copy of an “old, clumsy statue”, he was the best to imitate it. very precisely. But in the end it turned out that he had no choice but to deliver a work of “usual quality and craftsmanship.”
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on May 5, 2022