The Baptistery: Coscia tomb; the crucifixes of Brunelleschi and Donatello; the Cavalcanti tabernacle

The large tomb, which covers an entire bay between two columns, was made for IOANNES QUONDAM PAPA XXIII, Pope John the XXIII (Coscia) as can be read on the sarcophagus.108 This pope was expelled from Rome in 1413 and spent years in German captivity. With a large sum of ransom from Medici Giovanni di Bicci, the father of Cosimo the old, Coscia was released. Of course he had to promise to acknowledge his successor, Martin V, as pope, and so it happened. The Medici had close ties and a good relationship with Coscia. It was through Coscia that the Medici had become bankers of the papal court. Coscia spent his last years in Florence.

Baptistery
Baptistery Florence

photo: Jack Seikaly

Coscia had some important relics including a true masterpiece: the right finger of John the Baptist. His will was carried out by four important figures. Coscia preferred to be buried in the San Giovanni, the Baptistery. After some negotiations with the Calimala, in which the relic of John the Baptist’s finger must have played a role, Coscia was allowed to be buried in the Baptistery. However, strict conditions were imposed to be allowed to be buried in such a prominent place. The tomb was not allowed to enter too much space, was not allowed to be more than one bay wide and the colours had to be adapted to those of the Baptistery.109

Donatello and Michelozzo
Funerary monument to Pope John XXIII (Coscia)

photo: Richard Mortel

The work was probably made between 1424 and 1428. For nine years, the architect and sculptor Michelozzo and Donatello worked together. The proceeds of their collaboration were shared. During this period they also made the tomb of Baldassare Coscia.

Without the inventive and original canopy in the form of heavy canvases on a hook and two brackets at the columns, the top side would have turned out rather dull. The canvas turns the eye towards the corpse, where Donatello and Michelozzo depicted the bronze life-size Coscia in the oratory of a cardinal. Coscia’s face seems very realistic, which is why it is sometimes suggested that a death mask has been used as an example. On the other hand, the still vivid expression in the face can also indicate that the face was made after a drawing.110 The three main virtues are shown at the bottom: Faith, Love and Hope. The studio of Michelozzo and Donatello had so many commissions that not all the work was carried out by themselves.

For example, the three virtues were probably the work of one Pagno di Lapo.111 In the middle, slightly above eye level of the viewer, the bust of San Rossore would be placed. A reliquary made by Donatello.112 (The relic holder with the skull of Saint Rossore is now in the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo in Pisa). The bronze and gilded statue on the corpse is not clearly visible. The bar is four metres above the level of the floor. All kinds of refined and elaborated details are unfortunately not visible. We did try to improve visibility a little by tilting the apparent light forward, but many details remain invisible to the viewer below.

Donatello and Michelozzo funerary monument to Pope John XXIII (Coscia)
Donatello and Michelozzo funerary monument to Pope John XXIII (Coscia)) Baptistery

photo: Tiigra

The text on the roll, held by two putti, was absolutely not to the liking of Pope Martin V. He asked the city of Florence to change the inscription into: BALDASSARE COSCIA NEAPOLITANVS CARDINALIS. Especially the word cardinal seemed better to the pope who had followed the deposed John the XXIII than the word that can be read now: PAPA or Pope.113 Martinus V’s request did not spark much change at all, as you can see. Besides the inscription you can see another papal symbol between the consoles in the middle: the tiara, the triple crown.

The tomb of Michelozzo and Donatello had a great influence on later tombs. First we walk to the Santa Maria Novella and then to the Santa Croce to compare two crucifixes: one by Brunelleschi and the other by Donatello.

Two life-size crucifixes and a tabernacle (Brunelleschi and Donatello)

Two crucifixes one in the Santa Maria Novella (Gondi chapel) and the other in the Santa Croce (Bardi chapel): a comparison.

Vasari describes the struggle between the two artists, Donatello and Brunelleschi, both in ‘The life of Brunelleschi’ and in ‘The life of Donetello’

‘[…] Donatello wanted to hear from Filippo [Brunelleschi] what he thought of it; but he regretted it, because Filippo’s answer was that he had hung a farmer on the cross; the origin of the saying: take a piece of wood and make one yourself, as I will tell in detail in the Life of Donatello. That is why Filippo – who never got angry at what they told him, even though they tried to get him so angry – remained silent for months and made a crucifix as big as Donatello’s; this was so well designed and executed with so much care and craftsmanship that when Donatello, ignorant of his friend’s occupation, suddenly saw it, on a day when the other person had allegedly sent him forward by mistake, dropped the eggs and other things he wore in his apron for their joint lunch, and was ecstatic over the ingenious and artful way in which Filippo made the legs, torso and arms of the named figure. It was such a unity that he, Donatello, acknowledged defeat and and praised Filippo’s work and called it a miracle. It is now set up in the Santa Maria Novella, between the Strozzi chapel and that of the Bardi da Vernia, and it is still highly praised by the modernists.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part I 160-161 (original edition 1568).

Brunelleschi ‘Crucifix’ Santa Maria Novella and the Gondi chapel
Brunelleschi crucifix Santa Maria Novella Gondi chapel
Donatello crucifix Santa Croce
Bardi chapel      big size
Donatello crucifix Santa Croce Bardi chapel

photo: Martinus Scriblerus

Brunelleschi Crucifix large size
Santa Maria Novella in full and in detail
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  Donatello crucifix large size
Santa Croce in full and in detail
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Brunelleschi crucifix Santa Maria Novella   Donatello crucifix Santa Croce

The crucifix of Brunelleschi hangs to the left of the main chapel in Santa Maria Novella and to the right we have Donatello’s Christ in Santa Croce. Both crucifixes were probably made between 1410 and 1415.115 The two friends and artists, Brunelleschi and Donatello, were at that time working together on a Hercules for the buttresses of the Duomo. In his, ‘Libro’, Antonio Billi describes the crucifix of Donatello in the Santa Croce. Crucifixes were often unsigned and many were made. According to Pope-Hennessy, but also Janson, there is no doubt that the crucifix in the Santa Croce was really made by Donatello.116 The body is heavy, only the nails in the hands and the footrest prevent Christ from not falling off the cross.

The Christ of Donatello is very similar to the Christ on the cross that Lorenzo Ghiberti made for the first few doors of the Baptistery. For example, there are clear similarities in the posture of the body, the long lectern cloth, the hair and the beard. The torso of the Christ of Donatello appears true to nature, the one by Ghiberti has a predominantly decorative one.117 From the way in which Donatello depicted the body, you can see that unlike Ghiberti, he paid a lot of attention to anatomical details. Is that why Brunelleschi perhaps spoke of ‘a farmer on the cross’?

Nevertheless, a closer comparison of the two life-sized figures reveals that Donatello’s Christ is more graceful in relation to Brunelleschi’s.118 Brunelleschi’s knees bend abruptly to the right. He does not use loincloth, but real genitals are not visible either. Michelangelo later depicted his Christ on the cross Casa Buonarroti; today: again in the sacristy of the Santo Spirito) with genitals.

Donatello’s Christ on the cross hangs above the altar in the Bardic Chapel. The Christ figure on the cross was occasionally placed on a corpse or at Easter on a grave as part of religious ceremonies. If the sculpture is later placed in the Bardi chapel, the movable arms are redundant. In the sixteenth century, the hinges on the arms were not removed during a restoration. It is unclear why.119 The Christ in the Bardic Chapel of Santa Croce consists of five different parts. For example, the arms of the ‘peasant Christ’ have been made separate. After all, the thickness is determined by the tree. On top of that, cracks or tears can quickly appear if a part is too thick.

You have to see for yourself if you agree with the judgment that the ‘peasant Christ’ is surpassed by the Christ of Brunelleschi. After having seen the figure of Christ in the left transept, we now see another work by Donatello in the right aisle of the Santa Croce.

In 2008 another crucifix of Donatello was discovered. Not in Florence, but in the Santa Maria dei Servi in Padua. The discovery of a handwritten note in an edition of Vasari’s Lives made it clear that there was a crucifix of Donatello in the church of Servi. Much later the statue was covered with a thin layer that resembled bronze. During the restoration the original layer reappeared.

Donatello ‘Crucifix’ after restoration Santa Maria dei Servi Padua
youtube restauration 5.58 minutes     Before the  restauration


The Cavalcanti Tabernacle in the Santa Croce

The tabernacle was probably made for the family Cavalcanti (Click here for an overview of Santa Croce architecture, sculpture and painting). The whole is carved from macigno: a local sandstone. This stone is quite soft and only suitable for an interior where the material is not exposed to weather influences. The tabernacle that we now see is one of the few works of art by Donatello that has remained in its original place.120 Announcements were a grateful subject for art criticism in that time. For example, Leonardo da Vinci complained that in painting the angel seemed like an invader, as if he were trying to work Mary out of the window; and that she was frequently depicted as if she was about to jump out of the window in extreme despair.121 This is not the case with Donatello now. Mary is partly turning away from the messenger, yet the angel and Mary look at each other. At the same time, however, the gesture of her right hand seems to accept the happy message of the angel.122 Mary’s face has already overcome fear, as opposed to her body, which betrays an attitude of fear and flight.

Donatello Santa Croce
Cavalcanti Tabernacle with original predella by G. di Francesco
Donatello Santa Croce Cavalcanti Tabernacle with original predella by G. di Francesco

Donatello chooses the moment when the angel has just descended, as the position of his wings betrays. Gabriel’s mouth is slightly opened and he seems to utter the words of Luke 1: 28: ‘Rejoice, blessed one, the Lord is with you.’ At that moment Mary was holding the holy book, which she read, at least according to Saint Bernard. Mary would have just been reading the prediction of Isaiah. Who saith thus Isaiah 7: 14 Therefore the Lord Himself gives you a Sign: Behold, the young woman is pregnant, and she shall bring forth a son, and ye shall give him the name of Immanuel. This was referred to as a prefiguration: a prediction made in the Old Testament and later fulfilled in the New Testament. We see all four stages that Luke described: the arrival of the angel, then the announcement of Gabriel: ‘Be greeted’ or ‘Rejoice’, then the fear and anxiety: ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary’ and lastly the acceptance: ‘Behold the maidservant of the lord, for me it was done according to thy word.’123

This method of representation and Donatello’s interpretation are completely unique in the Florentine tradition. Usually the dove was depicted as a symbol of the Holy Spirit with its golden rays, the lily representing the virginity of Mary, the hortus conclusus and finally God. This can also be seen in Ghiberti’s, ‘Announcement’, at his first few doors to the Baptistery where God, the dove and the lily can be seen.

Ghiberti  ‘Announcement’ Baptistery north side
Ghiberti Baptistery  north side Announcement

According to Kauffmann, the hortus conclusus would not be visible in the tabernacle of Cavalcanti, but it would be the porta conclusa. Behind this closed gate lies the hortus conclusus, as is mentioned in Ezekiël 44 : 2. The closed garden was the symbol of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of Christ. If you look closely, you see a seam running in the middle between the angel and Mary. This is caused by the fact that the entire relief is carved out of two blocks, which come together here. It is unclear why Donatello does not make this porta conclusa clear as a real door for the viewer. According to Janson, this.124 It represents nothing more than a wooden back wall, which, like Mary’s chair, is decorated with vegetable motifs and inlaid with gold

The interior in which the Annunciation takes place is decorated with stylised foliage. You get the impression that the space behind the pilasters continues, where the wing of the angel and the left hip and elbow of Mary are placed behind the pilaster. The angel and Mary are cut into high relief, but the background with the figures in the foreground each come from one block. The upper body of Mary is completely detached from the background.

Donatello ‘Cavalcanti Tabernacle’  Santa Croce
Donatello Santa Croce Cavalcanti Tabernacle

photo: jean louis mazieres

Donatello ‘Cavalcanti Tabernacle’  Santa Croce

photo: jean louis mazieres

Both the angel and Mary are strongly classical, especially their faces. The strongly idealised head of Mary is something that is not often found in Donatello’s work. Michelangelo always idealised his figures, but he was strongly influenced by the golden age of Greek sculpture: the fifth century BC. The coat of Mary looks strongly Hellenistic. The way in which the garment is carved clearly shows that a body is underneath her garment.

Donatello Santa Croce Cavalcanti Tabernacle detail

photo: jean louis maziere

The protruding pediment with curls is derived from classical architecture, but also from urns. The frames are a mixture of all kinds of influences and own ideas. The capitals with the double heads can partly be traced back to Roman baths. The curly bases on which the pilasters rest also have their origin in urns. The base on which the relief rests is derived from the cornice of the temple of Vespasian.125

At the top of the whole, on and next to the segment shaped pediment, six terracotta putti are placed. These were made in 1433 after Donatello’s return from Rome. The two putti on the right were recovered in 1900. The putti originally held a wreath of flowers and fruit, a garland, through which they were connected. Vasari describes the top of the Cavalcantial altarpiece with the lively putti as follows: ‘[…] and crowned with a quarter circle to which he added six putti that hold up some festoons and that seem to secure themselves by holding each other firmly, as if they are afraid of heights.’126 The putti’s fear of falling off was not entirely unjustified as you can see with the mouseover below. The work is not an early work as Vasari writes, but was made between 1428 and 1432, Donatello was at least forty-four years old by then.

Putti Cavalcanti Tabernacle justified fear of heights
Donatello Cavalcanti Tabernacle Santa Croce angels detail

The altarpiece originally had a predella painted on panels with scenes from the life of Saint Nicholas by Giovanni di Francesco, which can now be seen in the Casa Buonarroti. We now walk to the San Lorenzo to see the work of Donatello and Desiderio da Settignano

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