Bronze Beauties

Donatello e il suo tempo: Il bronzetto a Padova nel Quattrocento e nel Cinquecento

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Davide Banzato and Gian Franco Martinoni
an exhibition at Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, April 8–July 15, 2001.
Milan: Skira, 376 pp., L80,000

Art historians, like tourists, tend to think of Padua as a stop between other destinations. But during much of the Renaissance, Padua—not Florence or Venice or Rome—was the major center for bronze sculpture. For some eighty years, beginning in the 1440s, it was the site of one work after another of extraordinary scale and ambition, including both the first bronze equestrian statue and the first monumental bronze altar since antiquity and one of the tallest and most complex bronze sculptures of the Renaissance. It was in Padua, too, that bronze statuettes for domestic display first became popular and were produced in significant num- bers, thus revitalizing a kind of personal collecting that had been dormant since the end of the Roman Empire.

This exceptional flowering of work in bronze came about principally because of one artist, Donatello, and two institutions, the University of Padua and the Basilica of St. Anthony in the center of the city. Donatello moved from Florence to Padua in late 1443. He was fifty-seven years old and arguably the most famous artist in Italy. A less enterprising person might have chosen to remain in Florence, where he was celebrated. But Padua offered Donatello new challenges, and during the next ten years he changed the history of sculpture.

In Florence, Donatello had worked in wood, terra cotta, stucco, marble, limestone, and bronze. In Padua he concentrated almost exclusively on bronze. This was an immensely significant development. Bronze was the most expensive and prestigious material for sculpture, admired both for its classical associations (it was well understood that bronze had been the most important medium in ancient sculpture) and for its permanence and monumentality. It was also the most demanding medium technically, and the process of casting in the fifteenth century was crude and difficult. Few artists and patrons were willing to face either the technical difficulties or the financial risk. Between 1409 and 1443, only four large free-standing bronze sculptures are known to have been made in all of Italy. (Three were by Lorenzo Ghiberti and one was by Donatello.)

By contrast, in Padua between 1443 and 1453 Donatello made at least nine monumental bronze figures, more than doubling the entire output of the previous three decades. At the same time, he produced at least twenty-one bronze reliefs, whose total area was equivalent to about one quarter of all the bronze reliefs that had been made in Florence since the beginning of the century. Donatello’s intense concentration on bronze sculpture enabled him to discover artistic possibilities that had never before been recognized. The bronzes he made in Padua show an unprecedented profundity and sensitivity in psychological description and a new and more powerful ideal of narrative expression. They were to have enormous influence on the history of Italian art.

Donatello’s first documented work in Padua is a large bronze crucifix in the Basilica of St. Anthony, on which he began work in January 1444. In its normal position, above the high altar of the basilica, it is hard to see, but it was recently on view in Padua as the centerpiece of the exhibition “Donatello e il suo tempo” and the impression it makes is unforgettable (see illustration on page 10). The figure is life-size (seventy-one inches in height) and perfectly proportioned. The heroic musculature of the torso and abdomen is contracted in agony, and the mouth is open as though he were exhaling or even panting in the struggle of death. If one stares at the Christ figure, he appears to breathe. The gash in the right side of his chest is pierced right through the bronze, and the beautiful but grim features of the head are cut into the metal, the hair quite roughly so. The first life-size bronze crucifix, it is one of the most deeply moving images of Christ from the Renaissance.

At the same time that Donatello began work on the crucifix, he also started the equestrian monument of the Venetian condottiere Erasmo da Narni, better known as Gattamelata. It was, along with the bronze monument to Niccolò d’Este III in Ferrara, (destroyed in 1796), one of the first bronze equestrian statues since antiquity. It was commissioned by Gattamelata’s heirs, with the support of the Venetian government, and the monument commemorates his loyal service to the Republic. Of all Donatello’s Paduan bronzes, only the Gattamelata monument is still in its original state and location, outside the basilica. Clad in all’antica armor with winged putti, Gattamelata looks like a “triumphant Caesar”—to quote Michele Savona-rola, the Paduan humanist. In the exhibition, the sculpture was represented by a gesso cast of Gattamelata’s head. The entry in the catalog suggests that the cast dates from circa 1450 and was made either from the bronze before it was erected or from one of the models, a plausible hypothesis.

Donatello simultaneously worked on a third colossal project, the high altar of the basilica. The church, commonly called the Santo, is the burial place of Saint Anthony of Padua, the thirteenth-century Fran- ciscan friar renowned for his divine eloquence. From the moment of his death in 1231, his body began to work miracles of healing and salvation. His tomb immediately became a shrine for pilgrims from all over Europe. It is still one of the most important religious sites in Italy.

Then as now the cult of Saint Anthony would from time to time get new impetus. Around 1435 several celebrated miracles occurred and a new biography of the saint was commissioned from Sicco Polentone, the author of the first history of Latin literature. In the early 1440s it was decided to renovate the choir of the church. As part of this project in 1446 Francesco Tergola, a prosperous wool merchant, gave a large donation for a new altarpiece; additional donations soon followed.

The work Donatello conceived for this commission is among the most remarkable sculptures of the Renaissance. It consists of seven nearly life-size bronze statues, and almost two dozen reliefs. Unfortunately, the altar was dismantled at the end of the sixteenth century, and the present arrangement of the figures in the choir gives a dull impression. Visual and documentary evidence shows that the statues originally stood on the altar in a kind of marble portico, much like the figures in Mantegna’s San Zeno altarpiece in Verona. Despite a great deal of scholarly effort, the exact details of the altar’s design remain uncertain. While we know that the Madonna and Child formed the center of the group, it is not even clear if they were flanked on the altar by four saintly figures, as the earliest source testifies, or six.

Some of the main features of the altar are nonetheless indisputable. It was the first monumental bronze altar since antiquity, a fact that was certainly known in humanist Padua. Its scale was impressive. To judge from the reliefs for its predella, it must have been approximately fourteen feet wide, and thus one of the largest altars or altarpieces of the Renaissance. Moreover, in 1446 the idea of the sacra conversazione, a depiction of the Virgin and Child with saints in a unified space, was still very new. If one compares Donatello’s altarpiece with the sacre conversazioni that precede it, for example Fra Angelico’s San Marco altarpiece or Domenico Veneziano’s Saint Lucy altarpiece, both in Florence, one is struck by how much more forcefully Donatello’s saints seem to be engaged in a profound and silent communion of prayer. Donatello’s altarpiece was one of the first sacre conversazioni in northern Italy, and it was immensely influential. Mantegna’s San Zeno altarpiece and Giovanni Bellini’s altarpieces for San Giobbe in Venice and for San Francesco in Pesaro derive directly from Donatello’s example.

Donatello’s figures are particularly powerful because of their finish and chasing. He completed the statues at extraordinary speed and with the aid of many assistants. The bronzes are consequently more uneven in finish than any other sculptures of the fifteenth century. Highly polished and relatively rough areas are freely intermixed. Far from detracting from the beauty of the sculptures, this irregularity heightens their immediacy. One has the impression that a quickening spirit lies directly beneath the surface of the bronze. The effect is something like that created by the unfinished surfaces of some of Michelangelo’s marble statues.

Donatello left Padua before the altar was erected, and it is sometimes debated whether such irregularity of surface was intentional. But only one bronze on the altar—the Saint Louis of Toulouse—is finished according to the standard quattrocento practice, and it is also the only one that appears inanimate and insentient. Frederick Hartt and others have called Donatello the first modern artist. More than any other of his sculptures, the bronzes for the altar justify that claim. In their irregular finish and in their evident vitality, they attain the ideal that so much modern figure sculpture has aspired to.

The reliefs for the altar are also magnificent. They include four large narrative panels showing miracles of Saint Anthony, four reliefs of the animal symbols of the evangelists, one Pietà with angels, one Entombment, and twelve reliefs of angels singing and playing instruments. These are famous works, and yet, in a sense, they are little known. The choir of the basilica is closed to visitors; normally, either you cannot get in to see them at all, or, if you manage to do so, you must study them in a hurry and in the dark. Analysis of the reliefs has been based more on photographs than on examination of the originals. It was thus an important event that two of the narrative panels and two of the angel reliefs were temporarily removed from the altar and put on view in the exhibition. For the first—and perhaps only—time one could study the reliefs carefully and at leisure, and to do so was a revelation. One knew, for instance, that the narrative panels were planned according to Alberti’s rules of perspective. But no photograph could capture the impression they give of scenes taking place within vast spaces of profound depth.

The colorfulness of the reliefs is another surprise. Highlighting the bronze with gold, silver, and copper inlay, Donatello created a palette of tones that he used for dramatic effect. In the Miracle of the Miser’s Heart, for example, there is a chair in the right foreground, picked out in reddish copper inlay. In photographs, the chair fades into insignificance, but in the relief itself the chair is conspicuous and its emptiness is arresting. Clearly, Donatello wanted to emphasize that a member of the crowd had just leaped up from it in surprise—a sign of the shock aroused by the miracle of the saint. The gold, silver, and copper also give the reliefs an exotic splendor. In the darkness of the basilica, moreover, one could never really see all the subtle details of the chasing, such as the decaying skin on the torso of the miser’s corpse, the weight of his flesh where his thorax is peeled open, the hair on the hide of the beast in the Miracle of the Mule, the short grizzled beard on the peasant behind the mule, and so on.

The legends of Saint Anthony uniformly emphasize the reaction of crowds to his thaumaturgic powers, both before and after his death. To depict this, Donatello populated the reliefs with surging masses of agitated and astonished figures. The sense of urgency and excitement is palpable. The faces in the crowd register responses ranging from mere curiosity to anxious anticipation and profound religious awe. In Della Pittura Alberti had written that an istoria, or narrative image, “will move the soul of the beholder when each man depicted there clearly shows the movement of his own soul.” But the conventions of Florentine art dictated a high degree of decorum and reserve. For variety, intensity, and accuracy in the description of emotions, Donatello’s Paduan reliefs were unparalleled. The sculptor had already demonstrated his gift for narrative in works such as the Banquet of Herod in Siena. In the Paduan reliefs, however, he fully explored for the first time a new ideal of expressiveness and drama. This was to have a major influence on later artists, especially Leonardo, whose Adoration of the Magi would have been inconceivable without Donatello’s precedent.

Donatello returned to Florence in 1454, and until his death in 1466 he continued to work primarily in bronze. In his late masterpieces he pursued with increasing abandon the ideals of the art he had realized in Padua. One sees this, for instance, in the gaunt Mary Magdalene, the heroic Saint John the Baptist, and the expressionistic relief of the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence on the bronze pulpits in San Lorenzo.

The principal assistants on Donatello’s pulpit reliefs were the Florentine artist Bertoldo di Giovanni and the Paduan sculptor Bartolomeo Bellano. In the 1480s, when the Santo decided to continue the work on the choir by installing a series of ten bronze reliefs on its exterior walls, it turned to these two artists. The contract was initially awarded to Bertoldo, but he proved unsatisfactory, and by 1485 Bellano won the commission. As before, the Santo’s patrons were extraordinarily ambitious. The series is comparable in scale to Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise. Indeed, the only larger group of bronze reliefs in the early Renaissance are Filarete’s doors of St. Peter’s in Rome.

Like Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise, the panels show ten scenes from the Old Testament. But unlike the Doors, it has a strong emphasis on heresy. This is clearest in the relief of The Adoration of the Golden Calf. The struggle of the faithful against unbelievers is a theme of The Crossing of the Red Sea, Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Cain and Abel, and David and Goliath. These subjects can be interpreted in light of Saint Anthony’s own war against heresy. It was the hope of being martyred by heathens that led him to join the Franciscan order, and heresy was a major topic of his sermons. Moreover, in the fifteenth century, many friars at the Santo were missionaries to the infidels.

The bronzes are now installed on the inside walls of the choir and like the altar they are virtually inaccessible. Two reliefs, Samson Destroying the Temple and Jonah and the Whale, were removed from the choir for the exhibition and they provided an opportunity to reassess Bellano’s work. Historians have tended to be critical of Bellano, but Vasari praised the reliefs for their dramatic power. In particular, he singled out the Samson panel,

where among other things is Samson breaking the columns, showing the falling pieces, together with the death of that great throng, with a great variety, some perishing by the ruins, and some by fear, all marvellously expressed by Bellano.

As Vasari suggests, Bellano was especially good at creating a sense of tumult and chaos. Terrified figures dash in different directions beneath the falling blocks of the building; they flail their arms in gestures of prayer or protection, and their faces are contorted in horror and anguish.

More than any other early Renaissance sculptor, Bellano stressed the clamor made by the activity he has depicted. In the Samson relief, all the figures are yelling or screaming, and a small dog is barking in the foreground. One can even imagine the crash made by the collapse of the temple. Likewise, in the Jonah panel, the figures on the deck of the ship shout to one another to save Jonah as he falls overboard; and there is a mast loudly cracking at the center of the relief. There is nothing like this in the narrative works of Ghiberti and Donatello. Bellano’s statuettes also show an unusual concern with sound. In the beautiful small bronze Saint Jerome and the Lion, the saint appears to be speaking to the lion, as if gently advising him to be more careful. Bellano was exceptional in taking seriously the Renaissance ideal that sculpture should be so lifelike that it lacked only voice.

Trained by Donatello, Bellano in turn trained the greatest bronze sculptor of the next generation, Andrea Briosco, better known as Riccio. His masterpiece, the Paschal Candlestick, was made for the choir of the Santo between 1507 and 1514; it stands immediately adjacent to Donatello’s statues. Nearly thirteen feet high, it is among the tallest sculptures of the Renaissance. It is divided into eight levels; each level is decorated on all four sides with classicizing reliefs; and the reliefs are separated by sphinxes, centaurs, satyrs, and other mythical beasts that project from the corners. The patron of the candlestick was Giambattista de Leone, who was one of the lay overseers of the basilica and professor of philosophy at the university. (His most famous pupil was Reginald Pole, the future Archbishop of Canterbury.) De Leone personally devised the iconographic scheme for the candlestick, and by the end of the sixteenth century its significance was obscure. It seems generally related to the themes of fire and sacrifice, as befits Easter Vigil. But the imagery contains a daunting mix of pagan and Christian symbols, including masks, mirrors, musical instruments, rudders, snakes, and oil vases.

The dedicatory inscription of the candlestick refers to it as a “pyramidem” and in its general form it re-sembles an obelisk in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an allegorical romance published in Venice in 1499.* In the text, the obelisk is also called a pyramid and it is decorated with pseudo-hieroglyphics including some of the same elements that appear on the candlestick. The obelisk is dedicated to the Trinity, and Greek inscriptions on the obelisk declare it “indescribable” and “hard to catch”; Poliphili calls it “so mysterious, so ineffable.”

Similarly, the Paschal Candlestick was made to celebrate one of the central mysteries of Christianity. Roughly ten years before it was commissioned, Pico della Mirandola wrote that “the Egyptians had sculptures of sphinxes in all their temples, to indicate that divine knowledge…must be covered with enigmatic veils and poetic dis-simulation.” Furthermore, he argued that pagan religions used hieroglyphic imagery, “showing only the crust of the mysteries to the vulgar, while reserving the marrow of the true sense for higher and more perfect spirits.” The candlestick, guarded by sphinxes and covered with pseudo-hieroglyphs, was conceived exactly in this spirit.

The Paschal Candlestick was among the most classically erudite works produced up to that point. References to ancient statues, coins, and sarcophagi abound; it is a kind of visual encyclopedia of archaeological learning. Yet Riccio’s use of this knowledge was creative, not pedantic. The sphinxes, griffins, centaurs, and putti that cover the candlestick look like creatures from another realm, melancholic and mysterious.

The Padua exhibition featured a selection of Riccio’s most famous bronzes. Some of these, such as Moses and Youth with the Goat Amalthea, are elegant and refined illustrations of humanist learning; their emphasis is on intellect, not emotion. In the relief of Saint Martin, for example, the beggar’s body is perfectly formed, and looks like the Torso Belvedere; his head, too, has all the ideal classical form of a portrait of Trajan. The beggar does not appear hungry or cold; he is a personification of Poverty in a moral treatise. Yet some of Riccio’s most powerful statuettes represent satyrs as creatures of instinct, enslaved by their passions. Lost in thirst or lust, they are grotesque, subhuman, but sympathetic nonetheless. John Pope-Hennessy commented, “Riccio seems to express all the incoherent aspirations of some species towards a state it cannot attain.”

Riccio and his contemporaries, especially Severo da Ravenna, helped to make bronze statuettes popular among both aristocrats and intellectuals. This is a noteworthy difference from the rest of Italy, where bronze collecting was rare and mainly limited to princely courts. At a time when almost no one in Florence owned bronze statuettes, they were common in the homes of the learned and wealthy in the Veneto, chic objects that could be used to accompany paintings by Giorgione, Titian, and Palma Vecchio. Most Paduan bronzes are functional: lamps, bells, inkwells, incense-burners, and the like. In De Scultura, written in Padua in 1504, Pomponius Gauricus, a friend of Riccio and Severo, says that sculpture is perfect at depicting “the gods, men and all of nature,” and indeed the range of subject matter is very broad: Christian, classical, poetic, pornographic. The Padua exhibition and its catalog included inkwells decorated with satyrs, lamps in the shape of bulls’ heads, incense burners as the Mountains of Hell, not to mention casts from nature of frogs and snakes. Some of the imagery is serious and moralizing, but more often it was intended for pure pleasure.

A second generation of talented masters followed Riccio and Severo. After about 1550, however, the center of energy in making bronzetti shifted from Padua to Venice, where Jacopo Sansovino and his pupils took command. Nevertheless, the types and models first devised in Padua were to be a staple of houses in northern Italy well into the seventeenth century. Five hundred years after their creation their power to delight is still undiminished.

  1. *

    Thames and Hudson, 1999; reviewed by Ingrid Rowland in The New York Review, June 15, 2000.