Progression of Art
Saint John the Evangelist
The precise date for this early work by Donatello is not known, but between 1408-1415 the artist worked on this large-scale marble figurative sculpture depicting Saint John the Evangelist. Typically depicted as a young man, Donatello decided to portray the apostle as an aging prophet, holding the Bible, which was a departure from legend toward a more humanizing rendition. While the top half of the sculpture still represents an idealized point of view, the subject's facial expression is carefully considered, and the sculpting of the legs and hands points to a more realistic figuration. Donatello pays attention to the anatomy of the saint's legs, even though they are hidden under his robes, demonstrating a new preoccupation with representing the body with accuracy and naturalism. The work was displayed in a niche in the façade of the Duomo Cathedral in Florence, a project that brought together works by some of the city's most important artists over the course of two centuries.
This sculpture is seen as an important step away from the Gothic style that predominated in Florentine (and European) art at this point. Moreover, Donatello shows a new understanding of the requirements of perspective, compensating for the fact that viewers would see the sculpture from below and therefore making the body disproportionately longer than the legs. As the curator and art historian Daniel M. Zolli points out, Donatello was aware that the base of the sculpture would be set approximately four feet above human height: "Not only are John's proportions far closer to nature when observed from this angle, but his presence is much more formidable: the fabric of his raiment hangs heavily from the frame of his body, and the whole composition organizes itself into a stable pyramid."
Marble - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence
Donatello was commissioned by the swordmakers' and armorers' guild to carve this sculpture of their patron saint, St. George, for a niche on the exterior of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence. The work is a life-sized depiction of the saint standing atop a marble panel which is carved to illustrate the famous mythical moment when George slayed the dragon. Although the work was meant to reflect the Florentine spirit of holding strong against all adversaries, Donatello's meticulous rendering of the emotionality of the face also betrays a distinct vulnerability and softness. This expertise in portraying emotion, as is also seen in his equestrian statue of condottiero Erasmo da Narni, was a signature technique of the artist toward humanizing subjects that would traditionally be presented in a more idealized fashion.
The work marks an important moment in the development of sculpture because Donatello brought back the ideals of classical sculpture and married them with a new realism, departing boldly from the prior Gothic mannerism. The marble panel at the base is also an important work of art in its own right. It is a key early example of a bas-relief made using the principles of linear perspective, which was infiltrating painting at the time. The shift from empirical perspective to linear perspective is one of the key discoveries that contributed to the development of Renaissance art. Donatello would have been familiar with the experiments with perspective drawn by his friend Brunelleschi, and his skill was to apply them to the challenging medium of bas-relief carving.
Marble - Bargello Museum, Florence
Bust of Niccolo da Uzzano
Niccolo da Uzzano was an important figure in Florentine politics in the early decades of the 15th century, who acted as a respected intermediary figure between the city's powerful rival families. Donatello produced the bust (although its authorship is sometimes contested) soon after Uzzano's death in 1433. It was the first half-bust of a private citizen produced since antiquity.
Donatello's use of carefully molded terracotta clay, the unusual facial expression, and the choice of polychrome paint all suggest that this was intended to be an accurate portrait of an individual, rather than an idealized image representing an abstract concept of leadership or virtue. Donatello's craft emphasizes Uzzano's humanity and personality in a way that had not previously been seen, or felt credible in art. Yet alongside the Humanist movement in Florence at the time, artists were transitioning to a more authentic rendition of people, whether royal or plebian, that emphasized genuine expression.
The Florentine Renaissance expert Irving Lavin argues that presenting the figure as a half-bust is key to its power and highlights Donatello's revolutionary approach. By cutting off the figure at the bust and avoiding traditional presentation on an elaborate plinth, Donatello suggests that this is a true portrait, and a mimetic representation of a real human being: "The arbitrary amputation specifically suggests that what is visible is part of a larger whole, that there is more than meets the eye. By focusing on the upper part of the body but deliberately emphasizing that it is only a fragment, the Renaissance bust evokes the complete individual - that sum total of physical and psychological characteristics that make up the "whole man"."
Painted terracotta - Bargello Museum, Florence
In the early 1430s, Donatello's friend and peer, Brunelleschi, was finalizing his ambitious design for the dome of Florence Cathedral. The Opera del Duomo, which was the body responsible for decorating and maintaining the building, turned its attention to interior decoration. They commissioned Luca della Robbia to design one of the internal organ lofts, and then, in 1433 when Donatello returned from Rome, they immediately commissioned him for the other.
Donatello's project contrasted greatly with della Robbia's. Whereas della Robbia's divided the cantoria's panels into separate scenes illustrating the different verses of Psalm 150, Donatello's consisted of a continuous narrative that flowed around the three visible sides of the loft. This resulted in a sense of animation and movement for the viewer. What also made his work innovative was its inspiration taken directly from the classical friezes and ancient sarcophagi he had encountered in Rome.
The work also reflects Donatello's mastery of sculpture and his signature techniques, cultivated to manipulate the viewing experience. As the art historian Timothy Verdon notes, "the sculptor's design took carefully into account his cantoria's principle light source: mere feet below the work was a group of torches and candles elaborately ordered atop an architrave". Instead of polishing the marble to a customary sheen, Donatello left parts rough so that when hit by the candlelight coming up from below, various shadows, textures, and points of luminosity would add another element to the overall composition. It is interesting that Donatello took such pains over the materiality of marble in this work, as it was the last major commission that he completed in this medium.
Marble - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence
This small but exquisite bronze is one of Donatello's most famous works. It is a five foot, freestanding bronze sculpture of David, from the classic story David and Goliath. He stands in contrapposto, a traditional classical stance of bearing more weight on one leg than the other. Instead of being depicted as a powerful man, he is presented as a young, nude boy wearing an unusual hat wreathed with laurels (a motif of victory), and a pair of elaborately gilded boots. This unconventional arrangement, combined with the figure's long hair, delicate features, and slim figure make the work a provocative, coquettish and effeminate piece. Another strange factor is that one wing of Goliath's helmet is considerably longer than the other, and points up the figure's leg to the groin. The work has been a key touch-point for arguments over Donatello's sexuality.
These speculations aside, Donatello's David is important both in technical terms and in terms of the artist's treatment of his subject matter. It was the first free-standing male nude sculpture produced since antiquity, and controversial for a non-pagan, biblical figure. Beyond the bold reintroduction of the nude in art, art historian Dr. Beth Harriet also pointed out about this Early Renaissance period, "sculpted figures have finally been detached from architecture and are once again independent in the way that they were in ancient Greece and Rome. And because he's freestanding, he's more human, more real. He seems able to move in the world, and of course the contrapposto does that too. It's easy to imagine this figure in the Medici palace garden, surrounded by the ancient Greek and Roman sculpture that they were also collecting." Indeed, due to its small stature and location, the statue was designed to evoke an intimate experience for visitors of the family.
Bronze - Bargello Museum, Florence
Donatello's life-size depiction of Mary Magdalene wandering through the desert in penitence is one of his most moving works. The level of realism and emotionality achieved by the artist was unprecedented. Like with many of his works, Donatello veered from legend and preconceived notions about his subject and depicted Magdalene as an old, starving woman rather than the more common young and beautiful nude fed by angels. He cloaked her in either her own hair or a hair shirt, emphasizing her complete renouncement of her former life as a prostitute. Even though, art historian Bess Bradfield points out, "The bare flesh of the saint is exposed as much as it is hidden by this hair..."
In this work, Donatello emphasizes the humanity of biblical characters, presenting Mary Magdalene as a relatable figure to be pitied and admired on a human level as a well as idolized on a saintly level. The use of wood demonstrates Donatello's facility with multiple materials, and in this stunning choice, the grain of the wood helps to create the agonized texture of the saint's skin. The work was also painted, adding an unprecedented level of detail and realism, especially seen in the whites of the eyes and the pupils.
The 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari saw this work when it was situated in Florence's Baptistery, and he commented: "a statue from Donatello's own hand can be seen, a wooden Saint Mary Magdalene in Penitence which is very beautiful and well executed, for she has wasted away by fasting and abstinence to such an extent that every part of her body reflects a perfect and complete understanding of human anatomy."
Painted wood - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence