The Hall of Donatello: bringing Florence’s Art to Life

The Hall of Donatello: bringing Florence’s Art to Life

Join me as, together, we discover the beautiful pieces of art which make up the Hall of Donatello..! Located within Florence’s renowned Bargello Museum, these masterpieces are some of the most culturally and historically significant in the world. From the innovative sculpture of Donatello to the detailed depiction of Brunelleschi, discover the Hall of Donatello with your Expert Florence Guide..!


St. George and the dragon by Donatello


Although he created two statues of David himself, Donatello’s piece which inspired Michelangelo to create his own world-renowned David was actually St. George and the Dragon. It was this piece that would later inspire Michelangelo to mould the marble in a way that made him look alive. Dating back to 1417, St. George and the Dragon is incredibly different to other late Gothic statues. Donatello’s piece was originally created to be placed on the northern wall of the symbolic church of Orsanmichele as the patron Saint of the Armourers, where a copy now is to be found.

Unlike other Gothic statues, which were designed to blend into the building, the St. George seems to “burst out of the stone”. If you look into the eyes of the statue, you will see the same fierce glance portrayed by Michelangelo’s David. Both artists also promote the idea of ‘obliqueness’ in their statues. In Donatello’s St. George, the right arm hangs by the body, whilst the left arm is bent stiffly in the foreground. It was with this sculpture that Donatello invented the concept of ‘stiacciato’ perspective (or ‘flat relief’).

St. George and the Dragon's predella was the first piece of artwork to ever use Brunelleschan linear perspective (or perspectiva artificialis). This was a major innovation in the way space was represented in art! Donatello decided to use this technique almost as an experiment: the virtual pyramid rays meet at the vanishing point in the middle of the composition, allowing the central image of the saint charging towards the dragon him to be emphasised. The motion of the knight’s sword is conveyed by his fluttering mantle, a ‘medieval’ component which is also the fulcrum of the composition.

For the first time – before even Da Vinci – Donatello also attempted ‘atmospheric perspective’. This allowed him to create a sense of endless open space, with trees fading into the distance and clouds floating across the sky. These elements can all be found carved into the background using ‘stiacciato’ (flat relief) technique. Donatello was so forward-thinking that he was able to combine the effect of atmospheric space with geometrical depiction (the flattened porticoes) in this piece.


Amor/Attis by Donatello


Donatello was inspired by the genietti of Classical Rome, the nude winged putti, and the childlike Renaissance spiritelli, which appeared on many of Florence’s most important monuments from the early 15th Century. Donatello used this concept throughout his career, and was known as the artist who “first endowed the putto with flesh and blood”. He also depicted them on Goliath’s helmet, which lay at the feet of his bronze David statue. There, the putti play with the coins/balls/roundels adorning the Medici family coat of arms.

Assumed to have been commissioned by Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni before it went to the Doni family, no one knows whether Donatello’s Amor/Attis was originally placed indoors or outdoors. It is known as one of the most peculiar, charming, and intriguing works of Renaissance sculpture. The name is derived from Amor (Love/Cupid/Eros), because of the child’s chubby cheeks, wings, and the rose on his forehead – a token from his mother, Venus/Aphrodite. The statue also pays homage to the god’s presumed father, Mercury/Hermes, in the poppies on his belt and in his winged sandals. This representation of Amor also relates to the Middle-Eastern God Attis, who would wear trousers fastened down the front to allow for the ritual of self-emasculation. However -luckily- this ritual isn’t represented in Donatello’s statue!

The statue is stepping on a snake, which is often considered a symbol of evil in Christian and Western societies. This identifies Amor as being ‘good’. Despite this, the statue’s tail stump makes it even more fascinating, revealing a sense of ambiguity when it comes to the figure’s morality. He is a half-angel, half-demon, imp-like creature, divided between pagan sensuality and heavenly spirituality. In this way, the statue also represents a transition from paganism to Christianity: this is considered a true cultural fusion.

The statue is standing in a peculiar, childlike way, and is giggling. Some scholars believed this was the position of a harpist, enjoying the instrument’s blissful sound. In this way, the creature could be a representation of universal harmony, like those in the Enneades..!


The Sacrifice of Isaac Contest: Ghiberti vs. Brunelleschi


In 1401 several candidates had to present a bronze panel depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac for the new bronze North Door of the Florentine San Giovanni Battista Baptistery. The artists were then judged upon their ability to solve “the difficulties of their art”, given that the story contained landscapes, figures (nude and clothed), and animals. The only submissions we know of today are those of Ghiberti and Brunelleschi.

Within each panel, shaped like spiked ‘quatrefoils’, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti competed with each other in their depictions of The Sacrifice of Isaac. Ultimately, Ghiberti won, and created the doors, which were installed in 1424. To the modern eye, Brunelleschi’s dramatic style would have been arguably preferred – we may feel slightly removed from Ghiberti’s interpretation. But the latter’s compositional elegance and technical skill meant that he deserved to win. Luckily, this meant that Brunelleschi spent the rest of his life working on the Cathedral’s dome. He built the world-famous, striking double-shell structure that we recognise today, later crowned by a marble lantern.

Unfortunately, Ghiberti’s panel was never installed as planned, as the project's iconography was changed. Despite this, it was displayed at the headquarters of the Arte di Calimala, before becoming part of the Medici collection. The most noteworthy aspect of the panel is its late-Gothic elegance, with its incredibly realistic rendering of the figures’ clothing. This can be found particularly within the depiction of the two servants, and within the character's robes. 


Ghiberti’s panel


Ghiberti’s true passion for antiquity can be identified in the boy who is about to be sacrificed. His figure, which torso is in a superb contrapposto position, has been modelled after Classical examples of nudes. At the bottom of the panel, beneath the figure of Abraham, there is a particularly interesting detail: a now-headless lizard or salamander. In the Bible, this animal is depicted as impure. This creature could have been included simply for decoration (such as those on the frames of the North Doors), but it could also be considered to have a deeper meaning. Traditionally, Abraham represents the power of faith and protection from evil (the salamander or lizard). But there is also a more difficult hypothesis, which suggests that Ghiberti’s inclusion of the lizard is an ‘encoded’ message for Sauro (lizard), one of the two architects of the Porticus Octaviae. From this theory, we can assume that the judging committee contained a humanist member – potentially Coluccio Salutati.


Brunelleschi’s panel


The panel that Brunelleschi submitted to the contest went on to become extremely famous, despite the artist not having been awarded the commission. Although, according to biographer Antonio Manetti, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti were declared joint winners..! Unlike the other submitted panels which didn’t win, Brunelleschi’s panel was not melted down to be used for the new Baptistery doors. Instead, it was preserved and returned to the artist. Later, the panel was set in the centre of the altar in the Sagrestia Vecchia in San Lorenzo.


When comparing Ghiberti’s and Brunelleschi’s panels, we can see that there is a differing conception of space. Ghiberti’s use of space is unitary and compact, while Brunelleschi’s is fragmented and centrifugal. The panels also depict a variety of places which characterised medieval theatre at the time. Brunelleschi reinterpreted ancient works, and decided to include Abraham’s two servants, who stand symmetrically on either side of the pyramid structure. He emphasised them further by extending their bodies outside the quatrefoil frame. The servant on the left, although dressed in contemporary clothing, is understood to be directly inspired by one of the Classical era’s most famous pieces: the Spinario (thorn-puller).


For a long time, there has been great interest in the three figures Brunelleschi used to adorn the altar. Cristina Acidini has recently suggested an interesting interpretation of these figures, claiming that they could represent Dioscorides offering mandrake leaves to Hippocrates.


The works of art in the Hall of Donatello are celebrated as being among the most important pieces in the world. Discover Florence’s artistic roots with your Expert Florence Guide, and book a tour now!



Lunedì 18 gennaio 2021

The Hall of Donatello: bringing Florence’s Art to Life