A description of Donatello's life and work within the restricted space of these monographs is a particularly fascinating, but also a particularly difficult, task. Numerous problems force themselves upon the author. They concern the date of some of the master's most important original works and the authenticity of others passing under his name.
These questions can only be lightly touched upon. The chief aim of this book is to extract the most fruitful information about Donatello's art from those works whose authenticity has been established beyond doubt. The works themselves are to be placed in the foreground, for they are immortal possessions Their sequence will be determined not so much by reasons of the probability of traditional dating, as by their inner connection. "A biography is not a chronological table."
The firstborn among the great masters of Italy was a sculptor: Niccolo Pisano lived a generation before Giotto. In the 1 5^^ century, too, Italian art again first attains to its full development in sculpture. In painting, it commences with Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, but Donatello was the creator of the new race that now appears in Florentine art.
His statue of St. George stands at the gates of the early renaissance. This youthful hero is such an advance towards artistic freedom, that the entire world of the form of Florentine art at that period is suddenly relegated to the past. With freshness and strength, he materializes the most absolute balance of forces: the first act of deliverance. Heroical, like this St. George, Donatello himself enters the arena of art. He breaks the fetters of mediaevalism; he opens a new era. But he does not linger on the threshold.
The victor becomes the conqueror. He measures the whole domain of his art, taking in and harmonising the most contradictory ideas. With the equal right, Donatello is referred to by those who try to find in the early renaissance a triumph of Northern realism, and by those who understand it as the first manifestation of the regenerated antique.
A Prometheus of his time, he forms human beings of every type. He reflects physical life, exuberant with muscular strength and hot blood, and tottering to the grave in its decrepitude. He listens to the most subtle emotions of the soul and follows the wildest burst of passion. He promotes the individual in its quiet "existence" to a characteristic type. and dissects the meteor-like "occurrence" into personally effective forces.
His fancy gives an entirely new value to every task. Sometimes he borders on absurdity in his one-sidedness, sometimes he employs simultaneously all the means of artistic effect. The harmony of his work melts as in a fiery glow, and his personality — clearly outlined at first — grows demon-like into gigantic proportions out of the sturdy workshop -the tradition of the middle ages. One can understand that criticism followed him but with a painful gait.
The late renaissance still admired Donatello. Raphael paid him the greatest homage with which a master can honour his precursor: he learnt from him, he took from his figures and groups and breathed a higher life into them. Michelangelo, through his own work, professed himself his follower. Surely Fig. 2. Marble screen. Sacristy of S. Lorenzo. Florence. (Andrea Buggiano.) Vasari spoke the mind of these two when he praised Donatello as the first sculptor since the days of antiquity. But then his image begins to fade. In the I7thi century we hear but little about him, in the almost nothing, Cicognara, the first historian of Italian sculpture, resents, that Donatello is not nearly as highly esteemed as he deserves. He has reinstated him in his right place, but he sees only an aberration in his realism and excuses it in these terms:
"If Donatello had already achieved everything, what would have remained — for Canova?" Not much later Ruhmor wrote that Donatello's "spirit" is "as poor as it is crude". At that period "spirit" stood for the "spiritual"; — a generation later a new art taught, that it is the individually conceived element of "life": that force which seizes nature in a powerful grasp and places it before us in full freedom. Thus Manet became the leader of modern painting, and Rembrandt and Velasquez were placed at the head of the great masters of the past. It was then, that Donatello came into his own again. The celebration of his 5th centenary became his red-letter day in the history of art.
The work of his life, which Florence then saw in rare completeness, came as a revelation. The impression was, that Donatello had not been properly recognized before. For the future the largest hall of the Museo Nazionale Fig. 3. The original decoration of the facade of the Duomo in Florence. Old drawing at the Museum of the Opera del Duomo. (To pages 13 and 29.) in Florence was to be consecrated to him, — a greater homage than has hitherto been paid to anyone among the masters of the renaissance in Italy. This enthusiasm is still alive today, and international effort has endeavoured to give it a scientific basis. His latest biographer calls Donatello "il maestro di chsanno", the master of those who knows. But it seems as though Donatello's posthumous fame had again reached — perhaps even passed through — its zenith. A few years after the jubilee a clever pamphlet on him concludes with the statement: "Donatello is not to be looked for among the artists of purest nobility." The voices that warn against over-estimating him, are on the increase.
The book details :
Author: Alfred Gotthold Meyer
Publication date: 1904
Company: Bielefeld und Leipzig
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