Museo dell’Opera del Duomo: Donatello’s Habakkuk and Mary Magdalene 3/4

The last statue Donatello carved for the Campanile was the prophet Habakkuk. This prophet, looking at the people below him from his recess, comes across as less threatening than Jeremiah. One arm is naked and his right hand is in a loop that runs over the hip. The heavy mantle on the left side is a counterbalance to the somewhat fragile other side of the body.

Donatello ‘Habakkuk’ large size       Backsite
Donatello Habakkuk Museo dell'Opera del Duomo Florence

If you think the cloak away, the body gets an unnatural length and the proportions are not right either. With a later Mannerist painter like Pontormo you see something similar, but this painter, unlike Donatello, does this very deliberately. It is a characteristic of Mannerism as we will see on the days of painting.

The large bald head of Habakkuk looks a lot like a pumpkin [It: zucca is pumpkin or dunce] hence the nickname Zuccone. The tendons in the neck run to the skull and are extremely realistic. The prophet’s lips are slightly open as if he were making his prophecy with an almost manic expression.

Donatello ‘Zuccone’
Donatello Zuccone detail head

Seen from the ground, Zuccone is ‘the most impressive speaker’ of the two prophets. This statue owes its many anecdotes to this.52 Vasari writes the following about the Habakkuk:

‘Because this last sculpture was considered something very special, and more beautiful than anything he had ever made, Donatello used the following words if he wanted to be believed: By my faith in my Zuccone; and while he was working on this statue, he kept looking at it and then he said: Speak, speak anyway, or get the plague!

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part I, p. 197 (original edition 1568).

We now look at a wooden statue of Donatello in this museum, the Mary Magdalene. This statue is quite different from what we have just seen. Donatello produced it at an older age, presumably sixty-six years old.

Donatello ‘Mary Magdalene’ front and back
new arrangement
mouseover
Donatello Mary Magdalene in Museo dell' Opera del Duomo

Typical for Donatello’s late work is his pessimistic view. Moreover, he no longer cares about the usual conventions of art. He is extraordinarily stubborn as we can still see when we look at his pulpits in the San Lorenzo. Antonio Billi’s Libro suggests that this statue was made in competition with a Magdalene by Brunelleschi.53

The statue Brunelleschi had made of Mary Magdalene was lost in 1471 by fire. According to the ‘LegendaAurea’ Magdalene lived in the desert for thirty years without food and clothing to do penance for her sinful youth. Her hair grew so much that it became a garment.

When you stand face to face with Mary Magdalene, it seems as if death is already announcing itself to her. Leathery skin, emaciated, hollow eyes, and a mouth that mumbles but cannot make an intelligible sound. The hair is dirty and full of tangles. And just like in the medieval legend she is wearing a dress that only consists of hair. Vasari was very enthusiastic about this statue:

Youtube Khan Academy Donatello Maria Magdalena (4.05 minutes)

‘In the same house of worship [Baptistery], opposite this tomb, one sees from the hand of Donatello a penitent Mary Magdalene of wood, very beautiful and very well made: an emaciated

front and side view
mouseover
Donatello 'head of Mary Magdalene' in Museo dell' Opera del Duomo

figure due to abstinence, while all her parts form a perfect whole of an anatomy that is very well understood in every respect.’54

Until 1966, the year of the great flooding in Florence, the statue stood in the Baptistery. After the disaster, the monochrome colour seemed to have polychrome colours underneath it. The skin was flesh-coloured and the hairs gilded.

This statue by Donatello was, like many other statues of Mary Magdalene, carved from wood in Tuscany. Old sculptors who worked with wood always applied a layer of lime (gesso). This was necessary to create a stable surface for the paint. Donatello sometimes used gesso with pieces of cloth to create the strands of the long hairs that run over her arms.55

The limestone layer is thus used as if it were clay to model. The restoration after the great flood showed that some hair strands consisted of only gesso. For example, the carving of wood has been enriched by Donatello with the possibility of modelling and adding something to the wood.

In Mary Magdalene (and John the Baptist) Donatello did not partly hollow out the wooden figures from behind as usual. He made sure that there was a space in the lower body so that the wood could work without causing cracks. Although both figures are not meant to walk around, they are much freer than similar statues of his predecessors.

The way Donatello treated the block of wood was novel (no longer a cavity at the back of the sculpture), but working with polychrome colours was not. The colours used are naturalistic. Donatello applied gold to the hairs so they are still visible even when it is quite dark. The effect of gold, gold plating, in a dark room is amazingly large. The gold stands out and because of the reflecting light it seems to change constantly.

To the next page