Donatello statues in Florence Baptistery
Generally, the Baptistery of San Giovanni hosts only one work by Donatello, that is the tomb of Antipope John XXIII (made in collaboration with Michelozzo). Since the Opera del Duomo Museum is closed for restoration until November 2015 (UPDATE: it’s open now, and the three statues are back there, but not close to each other), three more Donatello statues have been hosted in the Baptistery this year (after all it’s still in the Duomo complex), and they represent a very interesting pattern in the career of the famous sculptor. These Donatello statues were made to decorate Giotto’s Bell Tower; in recent years, after having been ruined by pollution, the statues underwent restoration and were replaced by copies. With the restoration work finished and the Duomo Museum closed, it was decided to temporarily place them inside the Baptistery. They are in chronological order, from left to right (click pictures to enlarge), and reveal a pattern in Donatello’s sculpture that, in my opinion, leads to what is considered the perfect statue: Michelangelo’s David.
The Profeta Imberbe (beardless prophet) was made in 1416-18, so it’s the most ancient of the trio of Donatello statues. Donatello already shows that he’s abandoning the gothic style to embrace the Renaissance. Gothic statues are elegant, thin, while this statue shows all the weight of the body. Some vague gothic element remains, like the long thin neck of the man, but if you look at the big hands you can see the realism of the Renaissance taking over.
The Profeta Barbuto (bearded prophet, 1419-20) is where Donatello fully embraces the Renaissance. Not only the statue looks like a real old man, but Donatello starts to inspect the personality of the character. His gesture reveals that he’s thinking: he’s a prophet, a man who had visions of the future, so being thoughtful makes sense. Another thing that differentiates this statue from the other is that Donatello is experimenting with a more difficult posture. When you work with stone, you have to be well aware of the center of gravity of the statue, or marble will break. The Profeta imberbe is fully sustained by his cloth while the Profeta Barbuto leans part on the cloth, part on his feet, so it’s much more difficult to do.
The most recent (1427-35) of the Donatello statues in the Baptistery is the Profeta Geremia (prophet Jeremiah). Here we can see a mature Donatello at work, now he’s a master of sculpture and the pattern started with the two previous statues continues. There is even more psychological inspection and there is even less surface under the statue. More human body is visible, not only the feet and part of the legs but also part of the chest and the right arm of the prophet are naked.
Michelangelo’s David – Donatello’s legacy?
This pattern doesn’t stop with the death of Donatello, but will be continued by Michelangelo. Look at the right arm of Jeremiah and look at the position of his feet; then look at Michelangelo’s David; of course, Michelangelo was inspired by Donatello statues. He worked hard on his skills but also on the work made by the previous generation, in order to reach perfection. We don’t know if Michelangelo would have been the same without Donatello, but most probably the answer is no.