Donatello’s transfer to Padua must be explained by the greater artistic and professional possibilities he envisioned he could potentially get there for the development of great monumental works. And indeed, in 1443, Donatello was called to Padua by the heirs of the condottiero Erasmo da Narni (better known as the Gattamelata, or “Honey-Cat”), who had died that year, to work on the two projected greatest artistic works in Padua during that time: the equestrian monument of the condottiero to be located in the square facing the Basilica of St. Anthony, and for this same Basilica, the great high altar involving many figures, which was long awaited and funded by the alms of wealthy faithful accumulated over the years. The Equestrian Monument of Gattamelata (completed in 1453) was the first example of an equestrian statue since ancient times. It was thought of as a tomb-funerary monument and hence the beautiful burial chamber formed the central part of the sculptural ensemble. The sense of upward movement conveyed by this monument is truly extraordinary, despite the horizontal blocks that give it a marked symmetry. Their unity with the bronze sculpture makes them both seem born from the same artistic impulse. In the figure of the general, the face reflects the “pathetic” style of portraiture displayed before in Donatello’s “Prophets”, although with a marked influence of the Roman commemorative portraiture. The winged Gorgon* fills his breastplate, thus giving him some touches of ancient Roman elegance, and the horse seems like a worthy emulator (perhaps somewhat more rigid) of the ancient horses of Saint Mark. However, in all the monument there is a Christian sense of the certainty of the final peace achieved by a just man. We could almost say, in simple language, that General Gattamelata ‘goes up to heaven on horseback’. The Monument of Gattamelata became the prototype for other equestrian monuments executed in Italy and Europe in the following centuries.
The high altar for the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua (which was Donatello’s most important work of decorative architecture) was demolished in 1580. With its 22 sculptures, an arbitrary and sloppy reconstruction was carried out in 1895. With its marbles scattered, without the aid of graphic documents, any authentic and accurate reconstruction now results almost impossible. In any case, it is supposed to have had the appearance of a pavilion, on eight columns and pilasters, with the bronze Crucifix (1444–1447), and the Madonna with Child accompanied by six saints constituting a Holy Conversation (Sacra Conversazione). This sculpture of the Madonna with Child portrays the Child being displayed to the faithful on a throne flanked by two sphinxes, allegorical figures of knowledge, and on the throne’s back there’s a relief of Adam and Eve. In another level, there were four episodes from the Saint’s life. In addition, it also included musical angels, evangelical symbols, etc. Its chromatic richness was extraordinary: touches of gold on the low reliefs, silver on the faces, inlaid of colored marbles… In short: it was a magnificent and totally new concept of architectural decoration. It was produced in short time, mostly between 1447-1448. In the statues, Donatello showed his talent as a maker of imaginary portraits: see for example the figures of Saint Daniel and Saint Justina, as well as in the four reliefs describing the events of Saint Anthony’s life (between 1446-1450), where Donatello described in a unique way populous and hectic scenes taken place within architectural spaces of preferably classic, but updated, elements, all with a vivid spirit and with a great power of suggestion. In this ensemble, Donatello displayed an incredible ability for representing a type of figurative art that reflected a clear understanding of the principles of ancient art, and in doing so, it represents a great display of artistry and talent, in which the portray of events and figurations of cities merge in a totally harmonic way.
Donatello left Padua when he was 65 years old. Even in his last years and until his death (on December 13, 1466), he worked on an important group of works for Florence and Siena, among which stands out the famous Judith and Holofernes (1457-1464, originally placed in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence), the Penitent Magdalene (1453-1455) and the bronze reliefs for the two pulpits of the Basilica of San Lorenzo (1460-1465).
The sculpture of Judith and Holofernes, which was originally gilded, depicts the assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes in the hands of Judith and is remarkable for being one of the first Renaissance sculptures to be conceived in the round, showing its four distinct faces. Judith stands powerfully raising a sword with her right hand, while with her left she holds the head of Holofernes by his hair. The base of the sculpture resembles a cushion, a naturalistic device first used by Donatello for his sculpture of St. Mark in the Orsanmichele. Inscribed on the cushion are the words OPVS . DONATELLI . FLO (“the work of the Florentine, Donatello”). The subject of Judith beheading Holofernes was a common subject in art and is associated with the Power of Women topos. The statue was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici as a decorative element for the fountain in the garden of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, reason why the statue rests on a triangular pedestal with holes for water to flow through. Around 1457, it was moved in front of the palace together with Donatello’s David, when Cosimo de’ Medici’s extended family decided to move into it. Both, David and Judith & Holofernes, became a symbol for the power of Florence. Whit this work, Donatello is credited with producing the earliest figural group to be devised as a truly three-dimensional work in concept and content as it can be seen from any angle.
The wooden sculpture of the Penitent Magdalene (ca. 1453–1455) was commissioned for the Baptistery of Florence and since its inception it has been highly praised for its unprecedented realism. To carve this figure of the Magdalene, Donatello (by then more than 60 years old) used wood from White poplar. In his portrayal of Magdalene, Donatello markedly departed from traditional representations of the subject that traditionally showed her as a beautiful young woman accompanied by her usual attributes: skull, cross and ointment jar. In this wood sculpture, Magdalene is shown to us as an emaciated, gaunt figure. Donatello represented her after she, according to the Legenda Aurea, spent 30 years repenting in the desert without food or clothing. The Penitent Magdalene was polychrome and gilded, and it was originally placed in the Baptistery of Florence, but today it can be seen in the Sala della Maddalena in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Florence).
The pulpits for the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence (1460-1465) are the last work by Donatello. Since he was too old to finish them, they were completed by his pupils Bertoldo and Bellano. When Donatello died on 13 December 1466 these two pulpits were not in place, and their final positioning, which followed a sketch made by Donatello, did not occur until 1515, when Pope Leo X visited Florence. These pulpits’ dramatic brevity, their essential forms, the certain meaning of the figures, all features that almost transport us to examples of early Christian reliefs and sculptures, but that here Donatello made dominated by dense narratives charged with emotion, in spatial and architectural settings that sometimes are of great vastness and, at other times, are oppressive and confined. A tragic spirituality flutters everywhere on these great reliefs, where each figure and each scene were re-interpreted by Donatello from the study of the evangelical texts.
Donatello wasn’t able to finish this great work that he had started when he was about 75 years old; many of its figures do not correspond to his style or to his chisel finishing and/or his decorative figures, while others remained as simple sketches. But all in all, this is an artistic work that should be more appreciated and taken into consideration, as undoubtedly Michelangelo (a then student of Bertoldo, whom we mentioned before and who was one of Donatello’s last assistants in Florence) did.
Donatello can’t be locked into a formula of some few words, since his incomparable prolific creative energy impregnated the artistic scene of his time creating a whole new way and a new world for interpreting old artistic repertoires. In the figurative arts, he was the first man and the most daring of that period so enormously complex that has been called, with irreplaceable terms, as Renaissance.
Gorgon: A mythical creature of Greek mythology portrayed in ancient literature. The term commonly refers to any of three sisters who had hair made of living, venomous snakes, as well as a horrifying visage that turned those who beheld her to stone. Traditionally, two of the Gorgons, Stheno and Euryale, were immortal, but their sister Medusa was not and was slain by the demigod and hero Perseus.
Janus: The god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings in ancient Roman religion and myth. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks both to the future and to the past. Janus presided over the beginning and ending of conflict, and hence war and peace.
Power of Women topos: (Weibermacht in German). A medieval and Renaissance artistic and literary topos (topic or line of argument), showing “heroic or wise men dominated by women”, presenting “an admonitory and often humorous inversion of the male-dominated sexual hierarchy”. In the visual arts, images are found in various media, mainly from the 14th century onwards, and becoming increasingly popular in the 15th century.