Donatello and Michelozzo: An Artistic Partnership and Its Patrons in the Early Renaissance Philadelphia)

by R. W. Lightbown
Harvey Miller Publishers, London (U.S. distributor: Heyden & Son Ltd.,, 2 volumes, 452, 145 illustrations pp., $90.00

There is no acknowledged rank order among the several arts that are the art historian’s domain. This equality, nevertheless, is belied in practice, if not in theory, at least by those—a clear majority within the profession—dealing with post-medieval art. Take any group of them chosen at random: seven out of ten are likely to be historians of painting, two of architecture, and one of sculpture. The most astonishing thing about this maldistribution of interest and manpower is not that it exists but that it should be accepted as a matter of course to such an extent that hardly anybody even talks about it. The primacy of painting can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth, it was firmly established. Wöfflin’s Principles of Art History, now fortunately forgotten but for many years a beginner’s bible in the field, is symptomatic: of a total of 113 illustrations, 94 are devoted to painting and the graphic arts, 12 to architecture, and 7 to sculpture; and the text is similarly proportioned.

That the history of architecture should be less well populated by scholars than the history of painting is easily explained. It has a large technical vocabulary that needs to be mastered in several languages; many of the monuments no longer are in their original condition or have disappeared altogether, so that they have to be laboriously reconstructed on paper; nor do buildings form part of the art market. They are, moreover, collaborative enterprises reflecting the pressures of social, political, and economic conditions as much as the interaction between patron and architect. Few indeed are the structures that represent an individual designer’s creative effort unhampered by these complicating factors. Finally, there is the problem summed up in the old cliché that “architecture is frozen music.” No one doubts that architecture has meaning, but what a given building “means” or “expresses” can be conveyed only in abstract language that is not readily accessible to the layman. Hence architectural historians find it far more difficult to communicate with a popular audience than do their colleagues in the field of painting.

Some of these difficulties also apply to the study of sculpture, yet they are hardly sufficient to account for its neglect among scholars. There is no getting around the fact that art historians, whether they realize it or not, tend to look upon sculpture as a “lesser breed,” awkwardly and uncertainly located somewhere between the sovereign domains of painting and architecture. Few of them would agree with Baudelaire, who in his essay of 1846, “Why Sculpture Is Boring,” calls it “an art of savages” that is at its best as an embellishment of architecture but does not deserve to exist independently because, unlike painting, it is incapable of imposing the artist’s subjective view-point on the beholder. Still, Baudelaire’s attitude would seem to have a lot of secret sympathizers; for it is just at the moment when sculpture regains its independence—i.e., the first decades of the Early Renaissance in the fifteenth century, the decades of Donatello and Ghiberti—that scholarly interest in it begins to wane. Not that these two great masters, or Luca della Robbia, have been treated as belonging to a “lesser breed” than the painters and architects of the time. Yet even they have attracted less serious study than is their due, and if we turn to the literature on less famous sculptors we cannot help being struck by its paucity compared to the plethora of scholarly monographs devoted to painters of the second and third rank. And the disproportion becomes ever more evident as we proceed from the fifteenth century to the sixteenth and beyond.

Lightbown’s book deals with a central and hitherto unresolved problem of those early years when Renaissance sculpture was still in the process of defining and establishing itself in an environment largely dominated by Gothic traditions. Between 1415 and 1425, in his niche figures for Or San Michele and the Campanile of Florence Cathedral, Donatello coined a new image of man; these statues, unlike their medieval predecessors, are no longer dependent for support on their architectural setting. They stand on their own legs, physically and psychologically, ready to step out of their niches and present themselves as independent, “inner-directed” beings. During the same decade, Donatello’s friend Brunelleschi created a radically new architecture based on rational proportions and the formal vocabulary of ancient buildings.

Beginning with the early 1420s, Donatello faced a new challenge: he received a number of commissions that called for sculpture within an architectural frame: three monumental tombs and a pulpit. Tombs and pulpits had been among the main tasks of medieval Italian sculptors, who had developed well-defined types for them. These traditional types now had to be transformed so as to relate the new sculpture to the new architecture, and patrons had to be persuaded to accept them in place of the designs they were accustomed to. It is the daring novelty of these works that makes them so important, historically and aesthetically, for each of them became the ancestor of countless later monuments.

At this point in his career, Donatello entered into partnership with Michelozzo, the future architect of the Medici Palace. Together they produced the pioneering designs that are the subject of Lightbown’s book. The problem they pose concerns the nature of the partnership—the division of labor between the two artists, their mutual benefit from collaboration—as much as it does the genesis of the works and the partners’ relations with their patrons. There have been previous attempts to resolve these questions, but all of them are tentative and incomplete. Lightbown for the first time provides full and persuasive answers. His study, based on a magisterial command of the subject, establishes a wholly new standard, in its methods no less than in its results.

The slender facts regarding the partnership have long been familiar. It began about 1425. Donatello by then was the leading Florentine sculptor of the new Renaissance style, rivaled in public esteem only by the somewhat older and more conservative Ghiberti; Michelozzo, a decade younger, still had to make a name for himself. He was a die cutter for the mint and had recently been a member of Ghiberti’s workshop. The four major monuments, each a landmark in its own way, which they undertook jointly were the tomb of Cardinal Baldassare Cossa, the deposed antipope John XXIII, in the Florentine Baptistery, with its magnificent bronze effigy in a marble setting of pure Early Renaissance architecture; that of Cardinal Rainaldo Brancaccio in S. Angelo a Nido, Naples (carved in Pisa and shipped by boat), famous for Donatello’s splendid marble relief of the Assumption of the Virgin; that of the humanist Bartolommeo Aragazzi in Montepulciano, remarkable for the cool classicism of its sculpture; and the outdoor pulpit for the Duomo of Prato, the ancestor of the two singers’ pulpits, by Donatello and Luca della Robbia, respectively, in Florence Cathedral.

The tombs were commissioned before mid-1427, when they are listed in the partners’ tax declaration. The Prato pulpit was contracted for in 1428. It and the Aragazzi tomb were finished in 1438. From then on the partnership, although never formally dissolved, became dormant. Its last echo is a letter by the two masters in 1455 to the authorities in Prato requesting a settlement of their account.

Of these four monuments, only the Cossa tomb and the Prato pulpit are in locations accessible to the general public. They are also in essentially their original condition. As a consequence, they have been studied more fully before. The other two are off the beaten path and known only to scholars. Moreover, the condition of the Brancaccio tomb in Naples poses problems; of the Aragazzi tomb, only the sculpture survives, not all of it in Montepulciano, and at least one piece is lost, so that its reconstruction poses almost insurmountable difficulties. There existed nonetheless a scholarly consensus on some aspects of each of the partnership enterprises which Lightbown could use as the starting point of his own research. No one doubts that the Cossa effigy was modeled in its entirety by Donatello, that the Assumption relief on the Brancaccio tomb is wholly by his hand, that he had no share whatever in the Aragazzi monument, and that he designed and to some extent executed the seven panels of dancing angels on the Prato pulpit.

This leaves us with a multitude of interlocking questions. What was Michelozzo’s role in the partnership? Was it constant or changing? Did he design any or all of the architectural framework of these monuments? Did he design and/or execute any of the marble sculpture on the Cossa and Brancaccio tombs and the Prato pulpit? Did he cast and/or chase any of the bronzes? How were the commissions obtained? To what extent did the patrons—and in the case of the three tombs, the deceased—determine the iconographic program and design specifications? What was the sequence and the date of execution for each portion of the monuments? How significant was the share of the lesser sculptors and skilled craftsmen employed by the two partners? Can the hand of any of them be recognized and identified with the names known from documents? Finally, and of overarching importance, there is the problem of determining the relation of each of the monuments to its medieval predecessors: which aspects of them are traditional, which innovative?

Attempts to answer these questions can be found in the scholarly literature before Lightbown’s book, but there were too many unknowns for the number of equations then available to permit satisfactory conclusions. What Lightbown had to do, and what he has done so impressively as to put all his predecessors to shame, was to supply the missing equations. He found them where they could have been discovered all along by anyone with his singular persistence and thoroughness—in the archives of Florence, Naples, and Montepulciano, and in the rich but little-known Italian literature on local and family history. The book contains no fewer than nineteen crucial new documents, all of them transcribed in extenso, and countless citations from books and periodicals hitherto neglected that supply needed information. This awesome array of data is so skillfully integrated with those previously known that the whole forms a seamless fabric, as compellingly logical as a well-constructed detective story.

The three tombs have been the author’s main concern. In each case, he begins with an inquiry into the life and character of the deceased, hoping to learn what links there might be between the monuments and their “inmates.” For Cossa, this proved a comparatively simple task: as the last schismatic pope, forced to abdicate in 1417, he played a major part in the history of his time, so that a good deal of information on him was readily at hand. Lightbown concentrates on his links with Florence, his refuge there during the final year of his life, the provisions of his will and the way they were carried out.

About Brancaccio, in contrast, very little was known, and the life and career of Aragazzi were an almost total blank. Lightbown provides a vivid and detailed account of both. He has unearthed a copy of the cardinal’s will and the exact date of his death, his links with Cossa and the Medici, who acted as his agents in commissioning the tomb, the reason the tomb was made for S. Angelo a Nido, and the relation of its design, probably specified by the cardinal, to earlier cardinals’ tombs in Naples. The relation, never before noted, is clear enough, yet the majestic Early Renaissance structure translates the local Neapolitan tradition into the new Florentine idiom, and the Medici must be given credit for having made this possible.

Aragazzi turns out to have been an important official in the Curia, a confidant of Martin V, and a close friend of Poggio Bracciolini and other humanists. He was an avid and successful hunter of classical texts in transalpine monasteries but had no interest in ancient art. Like Brancaccio, he commissioned his tomb while still alive, but in mid-1427 the project was a very recent one, and little work had been done on it when Aragazzi, in his mid-forties, died unexpectedly two years later. It was to be a double tomb for Aragazzi and his father (who survived him by three months). Apart from the fact that there were to be two effigies, it seems likely that neither the design nor the iconographic program of the tomb had been specified by Aragazzi, who could not have expected to die quite so soon.

Michelozzo thus had a free hand in designing the monument and its sculpture. Donatello, busy with other commissions undertaken independently, left everything to him. Yet he contributed indirectly, for the extraordinary classicism of the Aragazzi sculpture is prepared for in the marble sculpture of the Cossa and Brancaccio tombs, designed if not executed by Donatello. In mid-1430, as we know from a scurrilous letter by Leonardo Bruni, some of the architectural parts and the two effigies were on their way to Montepulciano. Lightbown gives plausible reasons why Bruni wanted to blacken Aragazzi’s reputation. The effigies (only Aragazzi’s own has survived) were probably shipped in a semifinished state, he suggests, to minimize the risk of damage during the journey by ox cart, and the same must have been true of the rest of the Aragazzi sculpture. Michelozzo completed the fine detail and the surface polish once they had safely arrived. The Brancaccio sculpture, Lightbown points out, was also sent off in semifinished condition (except for the Assumption relief, whose carving is so shallow and delicate that it might almost be termed a “drawing in marble”). But it remained semifinished; neither artist, it seems, ever went to Naples to give it the necessary final touch. There is evidence that the carving in Pisa, again excepting the Assumption relief, was done in considerable haste, much of it being relegated to assistants.

The conception and design of all the Brancaccio sculpture, however, Lightbown argues with impressive force, must be Donatello’s, while the architecture, for equally cogent reasons, is entirely by Michelozzo. I, for one, am fully persuaded that he is right. He has rescued an important set of sculptures from the limbo of “collaboration” and restored them to their rightful author. Unfortunately, the topmost part of the very tall monument has not yet been adequately photographed and cannot be seen on the spot without a scaffolding, so that for the time being it remains difficult to say how close to Donatello the sculpture in that region really is.

The reconstruction of the Aragazzi tomb offered Lightbown his greatest challenge, and he has met it in a way that can only be called triumphant. He begins with an insight so simple that one wonders how it could have escaped all his predecessors: the two free-standing figures are not virtues, but angels holding tapers (see illustration). The one wearing Roman military boots must be St. Michael, the guide of souls. Were they virtues, they would have been placed below the sarcophagus, as are the virtues in the Cossa and Brancaccio tombs and all their medieval antecedents; being angels, they must have stood next to the sarcophagus, gazing down on the effigies. Here Donatello’s two angels on the Brancaccio tomb, although less monumental and significant in the ensemble, offer a clear precedent.

The key to Lightbown’s reconstruction, however, is a report he discovered by a Counter-Reformation bishop who inspected the cathedral of Montepulciano in 1584, before its demolition and the dispersal of the Aragazzi monument. From this report Lightbown gained a partial description of the tomb and, more important still, its exact location: above and behind the altar of the chapel that contained it. In Italy, such placement was not uncommon for important sepulchers before the Reformation. With this basic information in hand, everything else—the relation of the surviving pieces to each other in accordance with their actual measurements and the iconographic program, centered on a majestic image of the Risen Christ as physically perfect and powerful as an ancient god—fell into place. Lightbown’s reconstruction is so detailed that only his innate caution has kept him from presenting it as a drawing.

The book is clearly a landmark in the study of Early Renaissance sculpture, but it is also a good deal more than that. No review can convey the rich texture of religious, intellectual, social, and economic history the author weaves in the process of analyzing the genesis of the monuments and the role of the many individuals directly or indirectly involved with them. Every historian of Italian Renaissance culture, whatever his special field, will profit greatly from reading it. The attractive two-volume presentation makes the process as inviting as possible: one contains the text, the other the notes, documents, and illustrations. There is a useful glossary of Latin and Italian terms, a table of the popes of the Great Schism, and chronologies of documented dates covering the full careers of Donatello and Michelozzo. I have discovered only a single omission—a part payment, in September 1457, by the Sienese to Donatello for a Judith (presumably the famous bronze group). Two other documentary references to Donatello, in 1454 and 1455, were published too recently for inclusion in Lightbown’s list. The plates are ample and the photographs, with the one exception noted before, adequate or better, although some of the plates are too lacking in contrast to do them justice. But this is a minor complaint that hardly affects the high distinction of the book as an intellectual achievement, and of the physical shape in which it is presented.