Donatello (Part IV)

Detail of the Equestrian statue of Gattamelata by Donatello, from 1453 (Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy). Here, Erasmo da Narni (Gattamelata) sits high on his horse, looking out to the distance. Donatello portrayed Gattamelata as a composed, alert and watchful leader.

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 Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, bronze, by Donatello, 1453, the statue: 3.40 x 3.90 m, the base: 7.80 x 4.10 m (Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy). Gattamelata served mostly under the Republic of Venice, which ruled Padua at the time. After his death in 1443, the Republic of Venice paid for a sculpture in his honor as a sign of gratitude and respect. This statue is the earliest surviving Renaissance equestrian statue and the first to return to the grandeur of Classical equestrian portraiture. As a consequence, this monument served as a model for later sculptures honoring military heroes. The statue was made using the lost wax method. In order to convey power, Donatello used emotion, position, and symbolism. Gattamelata was portrayed commanding a powerful horse as both appear ready for battle. The rider was portrayed as a warrior figure, carrying a baton symbolizing his military leadership and a lengthy sword. A comparison between this sculpture and that of Marcus Aurelius’ equestrian statue shows how closely Donatello studied the style and themes of classical art. The horse’s front left hoof rests on an orb, a cannonball, representing the power of the Venetian army, but mostly serves as a mechanical support for the statue, an element that Donatello took from ancient sculpture. This trick was later technically overcome by Andrea del Verrocchio in his Equestrian statue of Colleoni (1481-1495).
Gattamelata‘s horse echoes the alert, self-contained and courageous air of its rider. The realistic depiction of its muscular form shows the Renaissance concern with anatomical study that was later developed in Leonardo da Vinci’s studies for his own equestrian monument.
View of the Equestrian statue of Gattamelata in its context in the Piazza del Santo in Padua. The statue sits on a pedestal, and both the condottiero and his horse are portrayed in life size. The Equestrian statue of Gattamelata represented a bold departure from earlier non-Classical equestrian statues, such as the Gothic Bamberg Horseman (ca. 1237). While the Gothic sculpture also depicts a person in a position of power (a German emperor), it lacks the dimension, power, and naturalism of Donatello’s Gattamelata.

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.

The High Altar of St. Anthony (front view), bronze, by Donatello, 1447-1450 (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua).  This sculptural ensemble included 29 pieces of sculpture. They were seven free-standing statues (Madonna Enthroned with Child, St. Francis, St. Anthony, St. Daniel, St. Justina, St. Louis, St. Prosdocimo), four bas-reliefs representing the miracles of St. Anthony, four bas-reliefs with the symbols of the Evangelists, another bas-relief of the Dead Christ supported by two putti, 12 reliefs with Musician Angels, and finally a relief depicting the Entombment. Today we don’t know of the true architectural arrangement designed by Donatello for all these pieces, because at the end of the 16th century this altar was dismantled to make way for another by Gerolamo Campagna and Cesare Franco. Later, in 1895 the present altar was designed as a reconstruction of Donatello’s altar, though without knowing the original placement of the figures and reliefs. This sculptural group was originally decorated with rich polychrome effects thanks to the use of colored marbles, of gold, silver and bronze. Up until this sculptural ensemble by Donatello, architecture had never played such a prominent part in helping with narrative scenes.
Crucifix, bronze, by Donatello, 1443-1449, 180 x 166 cm, part of the ensemble for the High Altar of St. Anthony (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). When completed in 1449, this crucifix was placed in the middle of the church, and therefore was not originally conceived as part of the group Saint’s Altar executed by Donatello ca. 1447-1450.
Madonna and Child between St. Francis and St. Anthony, bronze, by Donatello, ca. 1448, 147, 160 and 145 cm height (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). The center-piece of the High Altar of St. Anthony is the group of the Madonna and Child. Donatello represented the Madonna as an arcane priestess rising from between the faces of two smiling sphinxes at the base of her throne. It was probable that Donatello was inspired by some Byzantine icon or even a Etruscan statue, because of his unusual representation of the Virgin neither seated nor standing but caught in the moment of rising. The figure of the crowned Madonna is at the center of the altar. The two saints, Francis and Anthony, both Franciscans, are placed on either side of the Virgin.
Reliefs of Musician Angels, bronze, by Donatello, 1447-1450, 58 x 21 cm (each) (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). These reliefs are part of 12 on the same theme and executed for the High Altar of the Basilica. These small reliefs show musician angels and were arranged right around the altar at the sides of the large-format main reliefs.
Left: Symbol of the Evangelist Matthew, bronze, by Donatello, 1447-1450, 60 x 60 cm (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). Right: Symbol of the Evangelist John, bronze, by Donatello, 1447-1450, 60 x 60 cm (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). These reliefs with the four symbols of the evangelists could have been originally placed on the side walls of the High Altar of St. Anthony. The Angel (left) and the Eagle (right) are respectively the symbols of Evangelist Matthew and John.
Free standing bronze figures executed by Donatello between 1447-1450 for the High Altar of St. Anthony (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). Left: St. Daniel, 1.53 m height. The figures of St. Daniel and St. Justina (right) were probably related to each by means of their similar gestures and the way they position their heads. In contrast, the garments wore by the two figures were portrayed in a very different manner: while that of St. Daniel falls straight and down almost smoothly showing few folds, the dress of St. Justina is gathered at her hips and adapts to her body position in a gentle contrapposto stance. Second from left: St. Prosdocimus, 1.63 m height. St. Prosdocimus was the first bishop of Padua, thus he appears depicted wearing a mitre and crosier. Another of his attributes is the container which he is just supposed to have used to baptize St. Justina. The complicated folds of his cloak fall over the straight vertical strips of his lower garment visible close to his feet. Third from left: St. Louis of Toulouse, 1.64 m height. This is another representation of St. Louis of Toulouse by Donatello. Here again, he appears as a very young man. Beneath the clothing, the arms of St. Louis appear rather disproportionately large.
The Dead Christ, bronze, by Donatello, 1447-1450, 58 x 56 cm (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). Two angels with grieving expressions stand behind the torso of the dead Christ, while holding a cloth.
In the series of reliefs representing scenes with the Miracles of St. Anthony for the High Altar (see above and following pictures), Donatello employed flattened relief on a roughened surface which served to break up the light and diffuse it, thus achieving a luminous atmosphere in which the images appear to float. In these Miracles is the rhythm of the architecture that unites the jostling crowds and thus becomes a chief protagonist in the scenes. Above, the Miracle of the Ass, bronze, 1447-1450, 57 x 123 cm (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). An ass, which had previously stubbornly refused its food, falls to its knees in front of a host which Anthony holds out to it. The group of people around observe the miracle with the greatest amazement.
Scene with the Miracle of the New-born Child, bronze, 1447-1450, 57 x 123 cm (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). The Miracle of the New-born Child tells of the event when a baby spoke out in order to attest to the innocence of his mother, who was accused of adultery.
Miracle of the Repentant Son, bronze, 1447-1450, 57 x 123 cm (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). This scene depicts the passage in which, according to legend, the severed leg of a repentant youth was reattached by St. Anthony.
Miracle of the Avaricious Man’s Heart, bronze, 1447-1450, 57 x 123 cm (Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua). After he had died, the heart of a miser was found in the chest in which he hoarded his money while he was alive. This event is taking place on the left edge of the relief, while at the center of the composition, St. Anthony is in the process of opening the corpse’s rib-cage.

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.

Judith and Holofernes, bronze, by Donatello, 1457-1464, 2.36 m (without base) (Hall of Lilies, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence). In contrast to numerous paintings inspired on this same theme, Donatello’s main focus was not on the physical horror of Judith’s act, but in the sacrifice Judith made in order to rescue her people, meaning in the resulting inner conflict at having to offend God against the commandment of not to kill. As a result, at the moment of her triumph she is also a tragic heroine. In order to facilitate its gilding, the statue was cast in 11 parts cunningly joined together, probably using techniques that Donatello had discovered when studying ancient Roman works. A bronze copy of this statue stands now in one of the sculpture’s original positions on the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
Detail of Judith and Holofernes by Donatello (see picture above). Judith is considered the symbol of liberty, virtue and victory of the weak over the strong in a just cause. Simultaneously, in Christian symbolism, Judith’s actions over Holofernes represent a victory of virtue, particularly concerning self-control, chastity and humility, over promiscuity and pride. Her story also depicts the weak overcoming the assumed victor in an effort to protect her home. This was treated as a symbolic reflection of the city of Florence, who fought to protect their Republic from foreign powers and to the Medici specifically in order to keep their pride in the city. Donatello worked the head of Judith in a soft and perplexed way, which markedly contrast with the materiality of her cape and garment, covered with figural ornaments. Her facial features appear soft, graceful and gentle. But at the same time they reflect the inner conflict which she has had to experience as, in order to save her people, she has to behead Holofernes, the leader of the enemy army.
The three reliefs on the triangular pedestal of the Judith and Holofernes group contain depictions of bacchanalian scenes that remind us of the night that has just passed, and the drunkenness and dissolute behavior of the tyrant Holofernes as described in the Bible.

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).

Penitent Magdalene, polychrome wood, by Donatello, ca. 1453-1455, 1.88 m height (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence). Donatello presents us with a figure of the Magdalene after she spent 30 years fasting and living as a hermit in the desert. Her long, tangled hair wraps around her body acting as a garment. Beneath it, as typical of the perfection and realism sought by Donatello in his works, the shape of her body was depicted with anatomical precision.
In this detail of the Penitent Magdalene, her sunken eyes, broken teeth and bony face and hands all emphasize the exhausted, emaciated and ascetic appearance that Donatello wanted to convey.
Above and below, details from the arms and feet of the Penitent Magdalene. Vasari wrote in his “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” (1550) about the statue: “… a finely executed and impressive work. She is portrayed as wasted away by her fasting and abstinence, and Donatello’s expert knowledge of anatomy is demonstrated by the perfect accuracy of every part of the figure.”

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.

The Passion Pulpit, marble and bronze, by Donatello, 1460-1465, 1.37 x 2.80 m (San Lorenzo, Florence).  The southern pulpit of the Basilica of San Lorenzo is known as the Passion Pulpit. It includes reliefs representing the Flagellation, St. John the Evangelist, Christ in Gethsemane, Christ before Caiaphas and Pilate, as well as the Crucifixion, Deposition of Christ and Burial of Christ. The reliefs on this pulpit are extraordinary thanks to their expressionistic, occasionally violent, portrayal of these events.
Christ before Pilate (detail), bronze relief from the Passion Pulpit, by Donatello (Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence). This relief represents the moment Christ was brought before Pilate and is strongly reminiscent of Donatello’s earlier relief in Padua, the Miracle of the Ass (see pictures before). This scene is separated from the adjacent scene (Christ before Caiaphas) by a historiated column (to the right) similar to those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. The figure below and in the middle in front of the column with the right hand at his forehead is probably Longinus, and is where the lines of perspective meet for the two consecutive reliefs. Pilate sitting on his throne stretches his arm out to Christ. Directly next to Pilate kneels his wife: she tries to persuade him not to kill Christ. Slightly higher than the woman stands a younger two-headed servant, a Janus figure, offering a bowl to Pilate to wash the guilt from his hands. With this acute psychological device, Donatello visualized the inner conflict of Pilate: to yield either to his wife’s plea for clemency or his own desire for expediency. Here the meaning of the double head of Janus is obvious: Pilate will of course use the water that the boy brings to wash his hands after the verdict. Christ stands in the middle with a halo in his head and his face is not visible.
The Deposition of Christ (detail), bronze relief from the Passion Pulpit, by Donatello (Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence). In this detail, a ladder is visible which is being used to take Christ’s body down from the cross. Mary is leaning towards the body of her dead son, and some of the bystanders are lost in thought and mourning, while others are also using emotional gestures to express their pain.
The Burial of Christ, bronze relief from the Passion Pulpit, by Donatello (Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence). The scene of the burial of Christ is flanked by two men who are standing on the right and left before the framing columns, but who here in relationship to the main event suggest the impression of spatial depth. In addition, they serve as starting points for the semi-circular composition that meets the central motif. It is probable that this relief was completed after the death of Donatello, by his assistants Bellano and Bertoldo following the master’s designs.

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.

The Resurrection Pulpit, marble and bronze, by Donatello, 1465, 1.23 x 2.92 m (Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence). The actual chronology of these pulpits is known because the date “1465 adi 15 Gug” (on 15 June 1465) was traced on the ledge of the Resurrection pulpit. In the 1970s, art historians Herzner and Beccherucci discovered that the reliefs of the right pulpit were originally made for the tomb of Cosimo the Elder.
The Ascension of Christ, 1460-1465, bronze relief from the Resurrection Pulpit, by Donatello (Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence). Behind a balustrade with vines occupying the foreground, Christ is rising up to heaven, with his right hand raised in blessing, and surrounded by some tiny angels.
The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, 1460-1465, bronze relief from the Resurrection Pulpit, by Donatello (Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence). The choice of this motif, unrelated to the context of episodes from the Resurrection of Christ, was probably due to the fact that the church where the pulpit stands was dedicated to St. Lawrence.
The Women at the Tomb (detail), 1460-1465, bronze relief from the Resurrection Pulpit, by Donatello (Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence). The relief depicts the moment at which the women discover Christ’s empty tomb and an angel tells them about the Resurrection. The dramatic scene takes place in a narrow, loggia-like room, behind the roof of which we can even make out some trees as an indication of a landscape. To the right of the picture is a sarcophagus: the tomb of Christ. The three women are: Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome. In their hands they carry the herbs to embalm Jesus. While the woman coming down the steps on the left still appears to be mourning the death of Christ, the one on the right is already leaning over the empty sarcophagus and looks hysterically into the empty grave. Meanwhile, an angel (giving us his back) is using sweeping gestures to inform the woman in the middle of the Resurrection of the crucified Christ. She looks incredulously and grabs the column placed before her, as if she is about to faint in the face of the miraculous events.

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 pastJanus 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.