Donatello (Part III)

By 1433, Donatello made a second trip to Rome, where he produced few works: the Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and the Ciborium at St. Peter’s Basilica, both showing a strong classical influence. The carved stone slab commissioned for the tomb of Giovanni Crivelli, archdeacon of Aquileia, is the only signed work of Donatello from his Roman period (between 1431-1433). On the slab, which originally was put to lay on the ground (reason why its surface is so worn-out), the body of the deceased is represented within a niche with a shell-shaped vault. His head, resting on a pillow, is reclined, his hands crossed, his figure appears stretched out with a rather monotonous drapery. At the top, two flying angels hold a clipeus* with the family crest of the deceased, now almost illegible. The signature “Opus Donatelli Florentini” is engraved on the upper left edge. The Ciborium at St. Peter’s Basilica was possibly inspired by ancient Greco-Roman models; this work is characterized by an architectonic composition with pilasters that frame a painting of Our Lady with Baby Jesus (known as Madonna della Febbre) attributed to Lippo Memmi, and the pediment with small figures of reclining angels, other angels are placed on the base. The ciborium is topped with a high attic resembling Roman triumphal arches, which is decorated with a relief representing the deposition of Christ. This relief is framed by curtains drawn back by two putti to reveal the image.

Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli, marble, by Donatello, 1432-1433, 2.13 m height (Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome).
Ciborium, Carrara marble, by Donatello, 1432-1433 (Treasury Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City).

This trip to Rome also led him to further study other aspects of ancient art that he had missed during his youth trip with Brunelleschi. After his return to Florence, in May 1434 he signed a contract to work on the marble pulpit for the facade of Prato cathedral, the last project he executed in collaboration with Michelozzo. This unique and stunning pulpit for the exterior facade of the Cathedral of Prato, was begun in 1428 and after long pauses it was finished ten years later. It was executed by Donatello together with Pagno di Lapo and Michelozzo. Donatello was responsible for the architecture and the seven putti reliefs decorating the parapet, whose joyous movements with a passionate, pagan, rhythmically conceived bacchanalian dance, were forerunners for those of his great Cantoria, or singing tribune, for the Cathedral of Florence. The original reliefs with putti are now displayed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo di Prato, and they have been replaced by copies in the actual pulpit.

Pulpit, marble, mosaic, bronze and wood, by Donatello, Michelozzo and Pagno di Lapo, 1428-1438, ca. 2.10 m height (without canopy) (Cathedral of Prato, Italy). The purpose of this exterior pulpit was to be used to display a famous relic: the girdle of the Virgin Mary (the Sacra Cintola). In fact, to this day, the relic is shown there twice a year.
Exterior Pulpit of the Prato Cathedral (detail), marble on mosaic background, by Donatello, 1428-1438, 74 x 79 cm (each relief) (Cathedral of Prato). According to some scholars, there are qualitative and stylistic differences noticeable on closer examination of these individual reliefs on the pulpit, and this assumption have led to the belief that Donatello certainly did not produce all the work by himself. The motif of the dancing and music-making putti (see a close-up in the picture below) is similar to that Donatello used for the decorative panels of his Cantoria for the Florence cathedral.

The Cantoria, or singing tribune, for the Cathedral of Florence was carved by Donatello intermittently between 1433 to 1439 and was inspired by ancient sarcophagi and Byzantine ivory chests. It was precisely during his second trip to Rome that, by studying Roman ancient stuccoes, Donatello could produced those for the Old Sacristy, and simultaneously, his interest in Cosmatesque works, with their kaleidoscopic shapes and colors, led him to create that masterpiece that is the Cantoria for the Florence Cathedral.

In 1431, Luca della Robbia was commissioned to produce a large marble Cantoria (singers’ gallery) over the entrance to the north Sacristy in the Florence Cathedral. Two years after Luca began his work, in 1433, Donatello was commissioned to design another Cantoria to be placed over the south Sacristy where it would be a counterpart to the one made by della Robbia. Both were completed in 1439. The austerity showed in Donatello’s earlier works was replaced here by a vivacious, almost orgiastic sense of movement.

In Donatello’s Cantoria, five consoles support five pairs of corresponding columns, and these in turn are surmounted by a pediment decorated with acanthus and other ornamental motifs (like vases). Behind the columns is a frieze of running putti portrayed in a wide variety of movements. They run, leap and dance against a glittering background of Cosmatesque mosaic as a symbol of the infinite. Within each area framed by the two pilasters, children dance and carry tambourines and pipes, staffs, and generally jump around in joy, each group contained within a square defined by the columns. In the bottom, between the consoles, at the center are two busts in black bronze placed inside circles, these are in turn flanked by panels with reliefs depicting putti and other ornamental motifs.

Unlike in della Robbia’s Cantoria, Donatello didn’t choose a specific passage from the Bible to highlight his work. Though they appear similar at first glance and both were mainly decorated with putti, their styles are remarkably different. While della Robbia focused on portraying the realness of the children, Donatello was inspired by classical Greek and Roman motifs and styles, as a small example: Donatello’s children are all winged and wear scarce and simple clothing, also in Donatello’s Cantoria the entire surface is covered with a variety of antique and medieval decorative motifs including acanthus leaves, egg and dart, rosettes, seashells and vases. But what sets these two works apart is the way Donatello treated the scenes of the dancing putti: he ingeniously placed two architectural elements (the colonnettes) in front of the dancers so that for the viewer their movement continues behind the columns and around the entire gallery in one motion, they do not represent individual, isolated scenes.

Compared with della Robbia’s Cantoria where the scenes are individually isolated by the confined space defined by the built-in colonnettes, in Donatello’s work the effect is totally different: there is continuous rhythmic motion from right to left. In order to show believable motion in his figures, Donatello carved them in step sequence (a form of continuous narration). This is evident if we see the figures on the foreground of each “panel”: the wider spaces between the pair of colonnettes include a figure that stands out in highest relief right at the foreground. “Reading” the Cantoria in sequence from right to left: the putto steps on his right foot and swings his left foot up behind as he moves forward; in the next large space between the colonnettes, the foreground putto steps on his left foot and swings his right foot behind; the third space shows the putto now stepping with his right foot while another putto behind imitates him; the last space shows the putto facing back to where other figures come to join him, lifting up his arms and stopping with his right foot. As a result, the final effect is of one central figure running in space from left to right. On the side panels, Donatello followed the same motion scheme: beginning in the right side panel, he carved two putti running left under an arch formed by trumpets, in the left side panel he finalized the motion of the whole of the Cantoria, with another trumpet arch and a figure coming forward running in a left direction. As a backdrop for these major figures of the foreground are groups of putti in lower relief playing tambourines, holding up wreaths or smiling. All in all, while the intention of Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria was to represent the words for Psalm 150 relating his images directly to the Psalm’s text, Donatello’s intention for his own Cantoria was to represent the spiritual foundation of those words in a dynamic and fluid way, all in one continuous motion.

Above and below (detail): Cantoria, marble, by Donatello, 1433-1439, 3.48 x 5.70 m (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence).

In 1435, Donatello finished the Annunciation for the Cavalcanti altar in Santa Croce, and between 1428–1443, he worked on two doors and lunettes portraying saints, as well as eight stucco tondoes, for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo in Florence (see pictures below for more information). In the two bronze doors for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, Donatello again evoked his old figures of the Apostles and saints, producing 20 models, to create a beautiful series of reliefs of classical influence. Donatello placed these figures in dialogue, sometimes in lively attitudes, always showcasing great determination and nobility in their figures.

Annunciation, gilded pietra serena, by Donatello, ca. 1435, 2.18 x 1.68 m (Church of Santa Croce, Florence). Placed near the altar of the Cavalcanti Chapel, the main scene unfolds within an architectural setting influenced by the Classical style Donatello witnessed while in Rome; this scene is in turn surmounted by a quarter-circle, six putti and garlands. The figure of the Virgin appears frightened by the unexpected appearance of the angel, and she makes a modest reverence showing a charming, timid movement towards him as he makes his salutation. Donatello’s mastery is again evident in the way he treated the folds of the garments, suggesting the form of the bodies underneath.
Donatello work on the decoration for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo in Florence between 1428 to ca. 1443. This decoration which included pieces in bronze and polychrome stuccoes, includes two arched reliefs above the bronze doors of the altar wall (one representing St. Cosmas and St. Damian, the other St. Stephen and St. Lawrence), eight tondoes in polychrome stucco with the figures of the four Evangelists and four episodes from the life of St. John, and two bronze doors divided into ten compartments each with the figures of the Apostles and of the Martyrs. Top left: John The Evangelist (polychrome stucco, 1428-1443, 2.15 m diameter), this is one of four tondoes representing the evangelists, all realistically dressed, seated at their desks, and lost in contemplative isolation. All of them appear in three-quarter length and in profile, and showed in bold perspective and foreshortening. In contrast to the more colorful tondoes with the episodes from the life of St. John, Donatello restricted the Evangelists’ tondoes to a contrast between the blue of the background and the figures, which are in white, plus there is a minimal use of ornamental gilding to highlight some details. Top right: Ascension of St. John (polychrome stucco, 1428-1443, 2.15 m diameter), in the tondoes placed on the pendentives, Donatello played with perspective, thus creating large spaces in which human figures and architectural details take on dramatic effects of light and shade. In this particular tondo, the actual main events are taking place on the upper edge of the relief, the rest of the composition is dominated by a complicated depiction of architectures, within which a diverse gathering of observers is watching the miraculous events with astonishment, the power of the ascension is being emphasized by the fore-shortenings. Bottom left: St. Stephen and St. Lawrence (polychrome terracotta and stucco, 1428-1435, 2.15 x 1.80 m), perhaps being the first works executed by Donatello for the Sacristy, the two arched reliefs in polychrome terracotta placed above the bronze doors represent a charged and uneasy atmosphere, Stephen is identified by the attributes of his book and palm frond (left), and Lawrence by the grill on which, according to tradition, he was martyred during the reign of Emperor Valerian (right). Bottom right: View of Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy dome with the tondoes by Donatello.
Also for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo in Florence, Donatello produced two bronze doors. The Door of the Martyrs (left) and the Door of the Apostles (right, both between 1440-1443, each 2.35 x 1.09 m). These represent the last work Donatello executed for the sacristy, and were produced while Ghiberti was working on his second Baptistery door, the Gates of Paradise. The doors include each 10 panels with a total of 40 figures of Apostles and Doctors of the Church who appear meeting, engaging in discussion, and while in the heat of their arguments they appear to detain and pursue one another, reflecting dynamic tension.

Another works of this period included the wooden statue of St. John the Baptist (1438) carved for the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice and around 1450, the bust of a Young Man with a Cameo now in the Bargello, the first example of a lay bust portrait since classical antiquity. The wooden statue of St. John the Baptist is the only statue by Donatello left in Venice and is now part of a sculpted triptych with two other saints not by him. The figure was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence after he returned in 1432 from his exile in Venice. Cosimo chose John as the subject for a Florentine chapel since he is the patron saint of Florence. Donatello’s shows us a St. John mortified by penance, clothed in shaggy animal skin with a mantel thrown over his shoulders, while maintaining his force of expression and raising his right arm. In his left hand he holds a scroll reading “Ecce agnus dei” (“Behold the Lamb of God”) identifying himself as the prophet who recognized Christ as the Messiah. Presumably in his right hand he would have originally held a wooden cross staff, one of his attributes. The original tubular shape of the piece of wood used by Donatello is reflected in the skinny body of the Baptist, who has fasted and prayed, eating very little while wandering in the desert. His mouth is open as if he is saying the words he points to on his scroll. In this image of St. John, Donatello didn’t give us a pretty image to contemplate, but rather a person difficult to look at.

St. John the Baptist, painted wood, by Donatello, 1438, 1.41 m height (Chapel of the Florentines, Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice).
Left: Bust of a Young Man with a Cameo, bronze, by Donatello, ca. 1450–1455 (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). Right: Bust of Niccolò da Uzzano, polychrome terracotta, by Donatello, 1430s, 46 cm height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence), This distinguished politician and public figure, Niccolò da Uzzano, died in 1433, he had led the party which opposed the Medici, and was portrayed posthumously in polychrome terracotta by Donatello following a Classical model from antiquity. This bust reveals the physical and moral individuality of the portrayed as well as Donatello’s extraordinary ability to sculpt in color. It has been described as the oldest half bust portrait of the Florentine Renaissance.

Throughout all these years something was changing in Donatello’s psychology and this was reflected in his art: in his angels for the Cantoria, in his Attys and in his bronze David of the National Museum of Florence, in all there is a more publicly open hedonism with a more pleasant, sensuously joyous paganism.

Attys, bronze, by Donatello, ca. 1440, 1.04 m height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). The actual identity and meaning of this figure still poses questions for researchers to this day. However, in general terms it represents a playful young boy who bears numerous iconographical details. It has been thought that the decisive clue holding this statue’s identity and meaning rested upon the object the boy once held aloft, which has been missing since at least 1677. It is possible that Attys was the result of a specific private commission. In Greek mythology, Attys was a beautiful shepherd of the Phrygian town, Celaenae. According to Ovid, Cybele loved him so much that she made him her own priest on condition that he should preserve his chastity inviolate. Attys broke the covenant with a nymph and was thrown by the goddess into a state of madness, in which he unmanned himself. When he wanted to put an end to his life, Cybele turned him into a fir tree, which from then on became sacred to her, and she commanded that, in the future, her priests should be eunuchs.

His bronze statue of David (now in the Bargello Museum) is Donatello’s most famous work, and the first known free-standing nude statue produced since antiquity. David was conceived to be appreciated fully in the round, independent of any architectural surroundings, and probably representing an allegory of the civic virtues triumphing over brutality and irrationality. It has been considered as the first major work of Renaissance sculpture. The bronze was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici for the courtyard of his Palazzo Medici, sometime during the 1440’s.

Being the first free-standing, life-size nude since antiquity, Donatello’s bronze David is categorically recognized as one of the most important sculptures of the Italian Early Renaissance. The iconography of this bronze David follows that of the marble David also by him: a young hero who stands with sword in hand, while  the severed head of his enemy rests at his feet. Visually, however, this bronze is remarkably different from his marble counterpart. In this statue, Donatello departed from the traditional image of David by representing him nude. This unusual representation of the David, so different from the biblical text and from typical classical forms of heroism, suggests that Donatello intended to convey more than just the narrative of David and Goliath.

Displaying an androgynous sensuality, David places his left foot on the severed head of Goliath, whom he had just defeated in battle, while he’s also casually pressing it against the cushion he stands on. His right foot stands firmly on the short right wing of the giant’s helmet, while the left wing, considerably longer, extends way up his right leg to his groin. In his right hand he holds the sword of Goliath. David’s delicate physique contrasts with the large sword in hand, and shows that David has overcome Goliath not only by physical strength, but through God. Despite this, David’s gaze is directed downwards, seemingly lost in thought and almost gentle. His unusual, pointed hat makes him look exotic and conveys elegance to his profile. David’s head is believed to have been inspired by classical sculptures of Antinous, a favorite of Emperor Hadrian and renowned for his beauty. Goliath’s severed head wears a magnificently decorated helmet with large wings and his beard is full and abundant.

This bronze statue, most likely commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici and with undocumented dating, was originally placed in the courtyard of the Medici-Riccardi palace, but after the palace was confiscated in 1495, the bronze was moved to the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio and placed on a marble column. It remained there until 1555 when it was replaced by Verrocchio’s fountain and moved to a niche on the left of the door. In the 18th century it was moved to the Uffizi, and from there was transferred to the Bargello, where it stands today.

Above and Below: David, bronze, by Donatello, 1430s or 1440s, 1.58 m height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). Donatello’s bronze David shows the elegant handling of the idea of the human form practiced in antiquity by Praxiteles, but the gestures and the intention of the whole statue was entirely new. According to Vasari, the statue stood on a column designed by Desiderio da Settignano and placed in the middle of the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici, and an inscription apparently explained the statue’s significance as a political monument, though this meaning has been a matter of considerable debate among scholars.


Clipeus: (From Latin, meaning “round shield”). A large shield used by the Greek hoplites and Romans as a piece of defensive armor, which they carried upon the arm, to protect them from the blows of their enemies. It was round in shape and in the middle was a bolt of iron, or of some other metal, with a sharp point. As a decorative piece, it concerns a bust-portrait of an ancestor painted on a clipeus-type object, and having it hung in a temple or other public place.