1. Ghiberti

The imitation of classic forms was more thorough in sculpture than in architecture. The sight and study of Roman ruins, and the occasional recovery of some Roman masterpiece, stirred the sculptors of Italy to an emulative ecstasy. When the Hermaphrodite that now lies in the Borghese Gallery—with its neutral back modestly turned to the spectator—was found in the vineyard of San Celso, Ghiberti wrote of it: “No tongue could describe the learning and art displayed in it, or do justice to its masterly style”; the perfection of such works, he said, eluded the eye, and could be appreciated only by passing the hand over the marble surface and curves.40 As these exhumed relics grew in number and familiarity, the Italian mind slowly accustomed itself to the nude in art; the study of anatomy became as much at home in artists’ botteghe as in medical halls; soon nude models were used without fear and without reproach. So stimulated, sculpture graduated from subservience to architecture, and from stone or stucco reliefs to statues of bronze or marble in the round.

But it was in relief that sculpture won its first and most famous triumph in the Florence of Cosimo’s time. The ugly striated Baptistery that fronted the cathedral could only be redeemed by incidental ornament. Iacopo Torriti had adorned the tribune, and Andrea Tafi the cupola, with crowded mosaics; Andrea Pisano had molded a double bronze portal for the south façade (1330–6); now (1401) the Florentine Signory, in conjunction with the Guild of Wool Merchants, and to persuade the Deity to end a plague, voted a generous sum to provide the Baptistery with a bronze door for the north side. A competition was opened; all the artists of Italy were invited to submit designs; the most successful—Brunellesco, Iacopo della Quercia, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and a few others—were commissioned and paid to cast in bronze a sample panel showing the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. A year later the completed panels were submitted to thirty-four judges—sculptors, painters, and goldsmiths. It was generally agreed that Ghiberti’s was the best; and the youth of twenty-five began the first pair of his famous bronze doors.

Only those who have closely studied this north portal can understand why it took the better part of twenty-one years to design and cast. Ghiberti was aided, in generous fellowship, by Donatello, Michelozzo, and a large corps of assistants; it was as if all were resolved, and all Florence expected, that these should be the finest bronze reliefs in the history of art. Ghiberti divided the pair into twenty-eight panels: twenty told the life of Christ, four pictured Apostles, four represented Doctors of the Church. When all these had been designed, criticized, redesigned, cast, and set in place on the door, the donors, not grudging the 22,000 florins ($550,000) already spent, engaged Ghiberti to make a corresponding double door for the east side of the Baptistery (1425). In this second undertaking, covering twenty-seven years, Ghiberti had as assistants men already renowned or soon to be: Brunellesco, Antonio Filarete, Paolo Uccello, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, and others; his studio became in the process a school of art that nurtured a dozen geniuses. As the first pair of doors had illustrated the New Testament, so now, in ten panels, Ghiberti presented Old Testament scenes, from the creation of man to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon; in the borders he added twenty figures in almost full relief, and varied ornament—animal and floral—of surpassing loveliness. Here the Middle Ages and the Renaissance met in perfect harmony: in the very first panel the medieval themes of the creation of Adam, the temptation of Eve, and the expulsion from Eden were treated with a classic flow of drapery and a bold exuberance of nudes; and Eve emerging from Adam’s flesh rivaled the Hellenistic relief of Aphrodite rising from the sea. Men were astonished to find, in the background of the actions, landscapes almost as precise in perspective, and as rich in detail, as in the best painting of the time. Some complained that this sculpture infringed too much on painting, and overstepped the traditions of classical relief; it was academically true, but the effect was vivid and superb. This second double door was by common consent even finer than the first; Michelangelo considered it “so fine that it would grace the entrance of paradise”; and Vasari, doubtless thinking only of reliefs, pronounced it “perfect in every particular, the finest masterpiece in the world, whether among the ancients or the moderns.”41 Florence was so pleased that it elected Ghiberti to the Signory, and gave him a substantial property to support his declining years.

2. Donatello

Vasari thought that Donatello had been among the artists chosen to make trial panels for the Baptistery doors; but Donatello was only a lad of sixteen at the time. The affectionate diminutive by which his friends and posterity named him denoted Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi. He learned his art only partly in Ghiberti’s studio; he soon struck out for himself, passed from the feminine grace of Ghibertian relief to virile statuary in the round, and revolutionized sculpture not so much by adopting classic methods and aims as by his uncompromising fidelity to nature, and the blunt force of his original personality and style. He was an independent spirit as tough as his David, as bold as his St. George.

His genius did not develop as rapidly as Ghiberti’s, but it reached greater scope and heights. When it matured it spawned masterpieces with reckless fertility, until Florence was populated with his statues, and countries beyond the Alps echoed his fame. At twenty-two he rivaled Ghiberti by carving for Or San Michele a figure of St. Peter; at twenty-seven he surpassed him by adding to that edifice a St. Mark so strong and simple and sincere that “it would have been impossible,” said Michelangelo, “to reject the Gospel preached by such a straightforward man as this.”*42 At twenty-three Donatello was engaged to carve a David for the cathedral; it was only the first of many Davids made by him; the subject never ceased to please his fancy; perhaps his finest work is the bronzeDavid ordered by Cosimo, cast in 1430, set up in the courtyard of the Medici palace, and now in the Bargello. Here the nude figure in the round made its unblushing debut in Renaissance sculpture: a body smooth with the firm texture of youthful flesh, a face perhaps too Greek in profile, a helmet certainly too Greek; in this instance Donatello put realism aside, indulged his imagination richly, and almost equaled Michelangelo’s more famous figure of the future Hebrew king.

He was not so successful with the Baptist; it was a dour subject alien to his earthly spirit; the two statues of John in the Bargello are lifeless and absurd. Far finer is a stone relief of a child’s head, named for no good reason San Giovannino— the youthful St. John. In the same Salone Donatelliano St. George unites all the idealism of a militant Christianity with the restrained lines of Greek art: a figure firmly and confidently poised, a body mature and strong, a head Gothically oval and yet prefiguring the classicBrutus of Buonarotti. For the cathedral façade at Florence he made two powerful figures—of Jeremiah and Habbakuk, the latter so bald that Donatello called him lo Zuccone, “the big pumpkin.” On the Loggia dei Lanzi Donatello’s bronze Judith, commissioned by Cosimo, still brandishes her sword over Holofernes; the wine-drugged general sleeps placidly before his decapitation; he is masterfully conceived and cast; but the young tyrannicide, overwhelmed with drapery, approaches her deed with inopportune calm.

On a brief trip to Rome (1432) Donatello designed a classic tabernacle in marble for the old St. Peter’s. Probably in Rome he studied the portrait busts that had survived from the days of the Empire; in any case it was he who developed the first significant portrait sculpture of the Renaissance. His chef-d’oeuvre in portraiture was his bust, in painted terra cotta, of the politician Niccolò da Uzzano; here he amused and expressed himself with a realism that offered no compliments but revealed a man. Donatello made his own discovery of the old truth that art need not always pursue beauty, but must seek to select and reveal significant form. Many dignitaries risked the veracity of his chisel, sometimes to their discomfiture. A Genoese merchant, dissatisfied with himself as Donatello saw him, haggled about the price; the matter was referred to Cosimo, who judged that Donatello had asked too little. The merchant complained that the artist had taken only a month for the work, so that the fee demanded came to half a florin ($12.50) per day—too much, he thought, for a mere artist. Donatello smashed the bust into a thousand pieces, saying that this was a man who could bargain intelligently only about beans.43

The cities of Italy appreciated him better, and competed for his services. Siena, Rome, and Venice lured him for a time, but Padua saw him fashion his masterpiece. In the church of St. Anthony he carved a marble screen for the altar that covered the bones of the great Franciscan; and over it he placed moving reliefs and a bronze Crucifixion most tenderly conceived. In the piazza before the church he set up (1453) the first important equestrian statue of modern times; inspired, doubtless, by the mounted Aurelius in Rome, but thoroughly Renaissance in face and mood; no idealized philosopher-king, but a man of visibly contemporary character, fearless, ruthless, powerful—Gattamelata, “the honeyed cat,” the Venetian general. It is true that the chafing, foaming horse is too big for his legs, and that the pigeons, innocent of Vasari, daily bespatter the bald head of the conquering condottiere; but the pose is proud and strong, as if all the virtu of Machiavelli’s longing had here passed with the fused bronze to harden in Donatello’s mold. Padua gazed in astonishment and glory at this hero rescued from mortality, gave the artist 1650 golden ducats ($41,250) for his six years of toil, and begged him to make their city his home. He whimsically demurred: his art could never improve at Padua, where all men praised him; he must, for art’s sake, return to Florence, where all men criticized all.

In truth he returned to Florence because Cosimo needed him, and he loved Cosimo. Cosimo was a man who understood art, and gave him intelligent and bountiful commissions; so close was the entente between them that Donatello “divined from the slightest indication all that Cosimo desired.”44 At Donatello’s suggestion Cosimo collected ancient statuary, sarcophagi, arches, columns, and capitals, and placed them in the Medici gardens for young artists to study. For Cosimo, with Michelozzo’s collaboration, Donatello set up in the Baptistery a tomb of the refugee Antipope John XXIII. For Cosimo’s favorite church, San Lorenzo, he carved two pulpits, and adorned them with bronze reliefs of the Passion; from those pulpits, among others, Savonarola would launch his bolts against later Medici. For the altar he molded a lovely terra-cotta bust of St. Lawrence; for the Old Sacristy he designed two pairs of bronze doors, and a simple but beautiful sarcophagus for Cosimo’s parents. Other works came from him as if they were child’s play: an exquisite stone relief of the Annunciation for the church of Santa Croce; for the cathedral a Cantoria of Singing Boys—plump putti violently chanting hymns (1433–8); a bronze bust of a Young Man, the incarnation of healthy youth (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art); a Santa Cecilia (possibly by Desiderio da Settignano), fair enough to be the Christian muse of song; a bronze relief of the Crucifixion (in the Bargello) overpowering in its realistic detail; and in Santa Croce another Crucifixion, a gaunt and solitary figure in wood, one of the most moving representations of this scene, despite Brunellesco’s criticism of it as “a crucified peasant.”

Patron and artist grew old together, and Cosimo took such care of the sculptor that Donatello rarely thought about money. He kept his funds, says Vasari, in a basket suspended from the ceiling of his studio, and bade his aides and friends take from it according to their needs, without consulting him. When Cosimo was dying (1464) he recommended Donatello to the care of his son Piero; Piero gave the old artist a house in the country, but Donatello soon returned to Florence, preferring his accustomed studio to the sunshine and insects of the countryside. He lived in simplicity and content till the age of eighty. All the artists—nearly all the people—of Florence joined in the funeral that laid him to rest, as he had asked, in the crypt of San Lorenzo, beside Cosimo’s own tomb (1466).

He had immeasurably advanced the sculptural art. Now and then he poured too much force into his poses and designs; often he fell short of the finished form that exalts Ghiberti’s doors. But his faults were due to his resolve to express not beauty so much as life, not merely a strong and healthy body but a complex character or mental state. He developed sculptural portraiture by extending it from the religious to the secular field, and by giving his subjects an unprecedented variety, individuality, and power. Overcoming a hundred technical difficulties, he created the first great equestrian statue left to us by the Renaissance. Only one sculptor would reach greater heights, and then by inheriting what Donatello had learned, achieved, and taught. Bertoldo was Donatello’s pupil, and the teacher of Michelangelo.

3. Luca della Robbia

The picture that takes form in our minds, as we read Vasari’s biographies of Ghiberti and Donatello, shows the studio of a Renaissance sculptor as the co-operative enterprise of many hands, directed by one mind, but transmitting the art, day by day, from master to apprentice, generation after generation. From such studios came minor sculptors who left to history a less imperious fame, but in their degree contributed to give to passing beauty a lasting form. Nanni di Banco inherited a fortune, and had the means to be worthless; but he fell in love with sculpture and Donatello, and served a faithful apprenticeship under him until he could set up his own studio. He carved a St. Philip for the niche of the shoemakers’ guild in Or San Michele, and for the cathedral a St. Luke seated with the Gospel in his hand, and looking out with all the confidence of fresh faith upon a Renaissance Italy just beginning to doubt.

In another studio the brothers Bernardo and Antonio Rossellino combined their skills in architecture and sculpture. Bernardo designed a classic tomb in Santa Croce for Leonardo Bruni; then, on the accession of Nicholas V he went to Rome, and consumed himself in the great Pope’s architectural revolution. Antonio reached his zenith at thirty-four (1461) with his marble tomb in San Miniato, at Florence, for Don Jayme, Cardinal of Portugal; here is the victory of the classic style in all but the angel’s wings, the Cardinal’s vestments, and his crown of virginity—for James had startled his time by his chastity. America has two lovely examples of Antonio’s work—the marble bust of The Christ Child in the Morgan Library, and The Young St. John the Baptist in the National Gallery. And is there anywhere a nobler example of realistic portraiture than the powerful head—corrugated with veins and furrowed with thought—of the physician Giovanni di San Miniato, in the Victoria and Albert Museum?

Desiderio da Settignano came to Florence from the nearby village that gave him his cognomen. He joined Donatello’s staff, saw that the master’s work lacked only patient finish, and distinguished his own productions with elegance, simplicity, and grace. His tomb for Marsuppini did not quite equal Rossellino’s for Bruni, but the tabernacle that he designed for the church of San Lorenzo (1464) pleased all who saw it; and his incidental portraits* and reliefs augmented his fame. He died at thirty-six; what might he have done if given, like his master, eighty years?

Luca della Robbia was granted eighty-two, and used them well; he raised terra-cotta work almost to the level of a major art, and his fame out-journeyed Donatello’s; there is hardly a museum in Europe that does not display the tenderness of his Madonnas, the cheerful blue and white of his painted clay. Beginning as a goldsmith like so many artists of the Renaissance, and learning in that minuscule field all the delicacies of design, he passed on to sculptural relief, and carved five marble plaques for Giotto’s Campanile. Perhaps the wardens of the cathedral did not tell Luca that these reliefs excelled Giotto’s, but they soon commissioned him to adorn the organ loft with a relief picturing choir boys and girls in the ecstasy of song. Two years later (1433) Donatello carved a similarCantoria. The rival reliefs now face each other in the Opera di duomo or Works of the Cathedral; both of them powerfully convey the exuberant vitality of childhood; here the Renaissance rediscovered children for art. In 1446 the wardens engaged him to make reliefs for the bronze doors of a cathedral sacristy. These could not rival Ghiberti’s but they saved Lorenzo de’ Medici’s life in the Pazzi conspiracy. All Florence now acclaimed Luca as a master.

So far he had followed the traditional methods of the sculptor’s art. Meanwhile, however, he had been experimenting with clay, seeking to find a way in which this tractable material could be made as beautiful in texture as marble. He molded the clay into the form designed, covered it with a glaze of divers chemicals, and baked it in a specially constructed kiln. The wardens admired the result, and commissioned him to place terra-cotta representations of the Resurrection and the Ascension over the doors of the cathedral sacristies (1443, 1446). These tympanums, though in monochrome white, made a stir by the novelty of their material and the refinement of their finish and design. Cosimo and his son Piero ordered similar terra cottas for the Medici palace and for Piero’s chapel in San Miniato; in these Luca added blue to the dominant white. Orders came to him now in an abundance that tempted him to rapid facility. He brightened with a terra-cotta Coronation of the Virgin the portal of the church of the Ognissanti, and the portal of the Badia with a tenderly graceful Madonna and Child, between such angels as might reconcile us to an eternity of heaven. For the church of San Giovanni in Pistoia he attempted a large terra-cotta Visitation; it was a fresh departure in the aged features of Elizabeth and the youthful innocence and diffidence of Mary. So Luca created a new realm of art, and founded a della Robbia dynasty that would flourish till the end of the century.

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