Donatello’s statues for the Orsanmichele 2/3

Donatello’s  Marcus and St. George

Donatello made three statues for the reccesses of the Orsanmichele. One statue, the Louis of Toulouse, was later removed from the middle recess on the Via dei Calzaiuoli. This statue can now be seen in the old refectory of the monastery, now a museum, at the Santa Croce. In the recess that Donatello designed, a sculpture group by Verrocchio was later placed: Christ and the doubting Thomas. We walk back to the Via de l’Amberti, where the left corner pillar contains the replica of Donatello’s Marcus.

The Marcus of Donatello: a true revolution

On 15 February 1409, the sculptor Niccolò di Pietro Lamberti was commissioned by the linen guild to take three blocks of marble with a height of 3.75 braccia from Carrara for a statue of Marcus: the patron saint of this guild.79 Five years later, on 29 April 1411, the guild, Arte dei Lianiauoli e Rigattieri (guild of linen makers and street merchants) commissioned Donatello to take the Carrara marble block and craft a statue for their recess in the Orsanmichele. The contract stated that the statue had to be completed in 19 months. Donatello promised to make the statue ‘gilded and with all appropriate decorations’.80 A few months after Donatello signed the contract, two stonemasons made the recess. The sculpture was almost completed around 1413.81 For a sculpture like this, around ninety florins was the usual price. Donatello got more than double: two hundred florins. The statue had to be finished quickly otherwise the rights to the recess would expire.82

Donatello Marcus in the recess inzoomen large
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Donatello Marcus in the recess replica Orsanmichele

photo: Linde De Volder

If you compare this statue with those we saw of Donatello, but also of Nanni di Banco in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and the Duomo, you can rightly speak of a true revolution. The style of Donatello’s prophet David and the David (Bargello) or Nanni di Banco’s Isaiah belong to the Middle Ages, particularly international gothic. If you start from the standard that artists and art critics from the Renaissance set for good art, then the statue of Marcus clearly falls under this heading. In short, the statue of Marcus is in all respects a picture in the new style: the Renaissance. Ten years later, the Masaccio would also for the first time paint in this style. We will be able to see this when we look at the Brancacci chapel on the days we cover painting. They were sculptors like Donatello and Ghiberti who started the Renaissance. Painting would only follow years later.83

The evangelist Marcus by Donatello: a buono maniera moderna?

The way Marcus stands is very natural. If you compare the clearly exaggerated attitude of the Prophet David by the hand of the same artist with this, you can clearly see how big the difference is. Marcus leans on his right leg, his shoulder above it is slightly retracted and the right arm and hand hang down. The other arm is also slightly bent. His left foot is placed on the extreme edge of the cushion. One knee is bent and the left shoulder is slightly forward. The heavy foliant of the gospel is held in place by his hand and supported by his hip.

Donatello ‘Marcus’ replica and original
Video Khan Academy Contrapposto 9.39 minutes
Video Khan Donatello Marcus 5.43 minutes
Donatello Marcus recess replica Orsanmichele

If you compare the dress of Donatello’s prophet David with Marcus’, you see big differences. With Marcus there is clearly a body under the dress. In fact, you get the impression that the artist started from a naked body and then added a dress and then another cloak. With the prophet David, it appears as if the dress was carved first to then just add a head, hands and feet. If you compare the folds with each other, there is a world of difference that can be summed up in three words: decorative versus realistic. Donatello dipped real clothing in plaster and used this as a model. Someone probably stood model for the statue of Marcus.84 The folds of the statue run parallel to the fluting of the columns. The folds in the leg, on the other hand, are irregular. This is therefore no longer a decorative pattern as is customary in the international or courtly style. The overcoat, which looks a lot like a gown, is made of a thin material, perhaps even the linen that the clients of this sculpture produced, while the more coarsely woven cloth has different pleats than the cloak.

Because of the realistically chopped hands and feet and the rotation of the head, it seems, at least as far as the posture is concerned, as if the evangelist makes contact with Marcus. Marcus’ gaze and head are very convincing. The incision in the pupils and the wrinkles in his forehead give the impression that this evangelist is in a state of mind of inner concentration. This gives this marble sculpture not only a natural posture, perfect proportions and realistic clothing with real folds, but also a human expression of mind. This Marcus could, so to speak, become alive at any moment. Michelangelo, who was not at all fussy with compliments for other artists, made an exception for Donatello and his Marcus, because according to Vasari in the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti:

‘And once he had stood by the Orsanmichele to see Donatello’s statue of Marcus, and when a citizen asked him what he thought of that figure, Michelangelo replied never to have seen another figure that gave the impression of being so righteous, and if Marcus was indeed so  righteous, he said, one could easily believe what he had written.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part II, p. 287 (original edition 1568).

Although the Marcus is not directly based on a classical portrait or statue, it is clear that it is based on an intensive study of classical statues and portraits. Donatello had visited Rome as mentioned before. However, the way in which the wrinkled forehead, beard, eyebrows and recesses in the pupils were carved is much freer than the classical sculptors did with portrait busts.85

Marcus does not have a usual pedestal as you can see with the other statues in the recesses of the Orsanmichele, but a pillow. This is an allusion to the linen guild. However, the pillow still has an important function. It shows that Marcus’ weight is tangible through his feet that lightly press the cushion.

The deep recess in which Marcus is placed makes it impossible to look at the statue from more angles. Although it is a freestanding statue, the recess makes it in fact a relief, albeit a very deep one. The back of the statue is therefore hardly worked out, as this would not be visible anyway. We have already seen this with John the Evangelist in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where the back is also kept rough and unfinished.

The recess is 2.4 meters above street level, sixty centimeters lower than the recess near the Duomo for the John. So you are watching Marcus from below. Here too Donatello makes the upper body, between the hips and shoulders, longer. Face to face with the statue this is very unsightly, but in the lower view it works very well. Vasari knew this all too well, as can be seen from his story about the statue of this evangelist:

‘[…] and for the guild of the flax merchants, the evangelist Marcus; he had started this last statue together with Filippo Brunelleschi, but then he finished it alone, with Filippo’s permission. This figure was so judiciously made by Donatello that, as long as the statue stood on the ground, those who were not competent did not see how good it was, so that the consuls of the guild did not want to have it placed; Donatello said that they had to give him permission to place it higher, because he wanted to show that they would then, after he had worked on it, see another figure. This happened, and he kept the work covered for two weeks; then, without having done anything about it, he revealed it and astonished everyone.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part I page 196 (original edition 1568).

During a major cleaning in the nineties, traces of gilded stamps (stencils) were discovered, particularly at the edges of the cloak and the cloth. In this respect Donatello therefore kept his own promise to make the Marcus ‘gilded and with all appropriate decorations’.

Donatello ‘Marcus’ Orsanmichele
Donatello Marcus recess replica Orsanmichele

Het volgende beeld dat Donatello voor de Or San Michele hakte was een legendarische heilige ridder.

The St. George by Donatello

We now walk to the south side of the guild building, to Via Or San Michele and look at the recess and the statue of St. George at the right corner pillar.86 The statue you now see in the recess is made of bronze. The authentic recess with the statue of marble will still be visible in the Bargello.

Donatello ‘St. George’  original Bargello

 

Donatello ‘St. George’ big size replica
Orsanmichele
Donatello St. George replica Orsanmichele

photo: aurelio candido

 
Two sides of Saint George replica
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two sides of Saint George replica Orsanmichele

St. George was made between 1415-1416 for the guild: the Corazzai. Donatello continues in the style of his Marcus. St George’s is also made in the new style, the buono maniera moderna. Unlike Marcus, George’s attention, which is on watch, is focused on something beyond him: a possible danger perhaps? Vasari describes the statue as ‘a particularly lively figure of an armored Saint George, whose head expresses youthful beauty, courage and skill in the military field, as well as an awe-inspiringly proud liveliness, and this stone statue contains a beautiful movement […].87

In 1552 Doni described in his, ‘I Marmi’, a short dialogue between Saint George and a sculptor from Fiesole: ‘Why, asked the narcissistic statue, do you reject my beauty? It is impossible that Donatello would portray me differently.’88 Through the individual traits in the face of Saint George, Doni had gone in search of the man who was depicted here. He failed to understand that it does not convey an individual, but an ideal, like Michelangelo would later do and something Greek sculptors did back in the 5th century B.C. The figure is quite unique in Donatello’s oeuvre: a young boy according to classical standards of beauty like the Greek sculptor, Polyclitus, had described it in his Canon from the fifth century BC. In the sixteenth century an erotic poem was made about this statue in which the poet called this St. George ‘my beautiful Ganymedes’.89 Donatello usually avoided any use of classical beauty as we have so clearly seen with the wooden statue of Mary Magdalene. The faces often look worried or are downright ugly.

Donatello Head of Saint George and  rear head

What is remarkable about the recess is that it is very shallow. This is because there is a staircase on the inside of the building so there was little space left for a recess. Donatello makes use of this handicap. He almost places the sculpture out of the recess, so that his St. George can in part be seen as a three-dimensional sculpture. What is new is that, although the statue is placed frontally, as a viewer you can still see the face of Saint George from multiple angles. This also explains why the artist has worked out the head completely on all sides in contrast to his Marcus or John. In this respect Donatello is clearly a forerunner of later developments in sculpture. For example, the sculptors of the sixteenth century were very keen on keeping a sculpture viewable from several angles and had to therefore make a beautiful impression on several sides. If you walk along St. George, you get to understand the statue well. Because St. George is positioned in front of the shallow recess, it approaches the viewer, which also increases the impact.

The position of the legs is dictated by the way soldiers on guard held their shield standing on the ground in front of them. The vertical line of the cross on the shield and the right arm hanging down lead the eye upwards to the head which is slightly turned to the left. This was highly appreciated by sculptors in the sixteenth century for its beautiful design.

Originally George wore a helmet and wore a sword or a lance in his right hand. He also had a sword sheath around his belt, the drill holes for this are still visible at his right hip.90

When St. George is placed outside the recess, the statue appears stiff and the alert pose changes into a rigid posture. The architecture and the statue are therefore precisely attuned to each other. From the pediment of the recess God is looking at you. Up close, God is distorted, but not in situ, then God bends his head perfectly to the viewer. Here Donatello appears to consider the place of the work in relation to the viewer.91 The halo overlaps the frame and through his head bending forward, a relationship is also created between God and the watchful knight St. George in the recess. The head of Christ may be in shallow relief’, but it is far from as printed as in some parts of the relief at the bottom of this recess. After all, it had to be clearly visible to the spectator below.

The relief and legend of Saint George on the predella

In the predella, the underside of the recess, almost at eye level of the viewer, Donatello for the first time uses strongly printed or shallow relief, the so-called rilievo schiacciato. Here, St. George, the dragon and the princess are depicted. Shallow relief is an extremely difficult technique, even for an accomplished sculptor. Michelangelo would also use this technique, drawing in stone, in his early years, as we will see in a relief of his Madonna in the Casa Buonarroti. Michelangelo’s so-called Madonna of the stairs was not really successful.

Donatello  relief with the legend of Saint George big size      Detail

foto: daniel_philpott

The legend of Saint George (Georgios) with the story of the dragon first appears in the eleventh century. The city of Silene in Libya had a dragon in the nearby marshes. The inhabitants tried to keep the fire-breathing monster calm by giving him two sheep a day. When the sheep became scarce, the dragon was given one sheep and one child. The child was chosen by fate. Unfortunately for the king one day fate fell on his daughter. The king hesitated, but eventually had to yield to the people. Sobbing, he accompanied his daughter to the ominous place and left his daughter alone. The knight St. George passed by and asked the frightened daughter why she was so scared. After hearing the story, the knight jumped into his saddle and killed the dragon. Saint George is the patron saint of knights and scouts. No wonder the guild wanted this legendary saint in their recess.

The image on the relief of the plinth is not consistent. Some parts are carved in rather high relief such as the horse, the knight and the princess. Other parts, on the other hand, almost seem to be drawn in stone like the cave, the loggia or the trees. The whole is a mixture of the traditional high relief and rilievo schiacciato. In this relief, the depth and the story are subtly connected. The manifest parts like dragon, knight, killing and the princess stand out immediately. The background, trees, landscape, loggia are cut into very low relief so as to give more depth to the whole. These last elements are therefore serving and do not dominate. The relief and the statue of St. George fit well together in terms of the story, but this does not apply to the style. The relief of some parts such as the knight and the princess clearly resemble the style of Ghiberti for his first few doors to the Baptistery. Donatello even used the young beardless soldiers that you can see on some panels of the first doors, such as the capture of Christ or Christ for Pilate.92

Relief with the legend of Saint George and a detail
Donatello detail: relief with the legend of Saint George Orsanmichele

photo: daniel_philpott

In one respect, this relief has something you will never find in the international style, but only in the Renaissance. Although many writers speak of a correct perspective in this relief by Donatello, according to a writer like Janson, this is not really the case with the loggia to the right of the princess.93 In any case, this relief on the underside was the beginning of a development that led to the discovery of perspective. Made in 1416, years before Masaccio’s ‘Trinity‘, with the first correctly painted linear perspective. We will see this on the days of painting in the Santa Maria Novella.

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