The New Science
( Originally Published 1912 )
WHILE Ghiberti was accomplishing the impossible as a painter in bronze, another sculptor, destined to exert, a far greater influence upon Florentine sculpture, was working out the sculptor's problem in a more normal manner. Donatello can never be long dissociated in thought from Ghiberti. At the time that the commission was granted for the making of the great doors, Donatello was still a youth in his teens. But for that, Ghiberti might have had a competitor that would have changed the history of Florentine art. He arrived on the scene a little too late, and just in time to be taken up by ' the disappointed Brunelleschi and pushed vigorously to the fore. Few men who have wrought at the sanie art, side by side, have differed more than Ghiberti and Donatello. Nor does the older sculptor seem to have been at all influenced by the Younger, as was natural both on account of the difference in age and the extreme concentration of Ghiberti's work. The influence upon the younger sculptor, in turn, was certainly not one of sympathetic imitation, yet Donatello's whole lifetime is explicable only with Ghiberti in the background of our thought.
We can best understand the contrast between the two men by comparing Ghiberti's St. Stephen (B 425)', one of the few full sized statues which he produced, with Donatello's St. George (B 434). Both were decorations of that strangest of Florentine churches, Or San. Michele, and on opposite sides of the same corner so that the observer passes from the one to the other with an interval of but a few steps. It is clear from our study thus far that Ghiberti was not primarily a maker of statues. We have called him a painter in bronze. How little his peculiar talent was suited to expression in full sized statues will be apparent from this example. We must recall briefly the character of St. Stephen, one of the most daring of the figures that stalk across the stage of the early Church. The Church was peaceable enough up to his time. It had won the easy tolerance of the unsympathetic, and was rapidly passing into harmless oblivion, when Stephen adopted an aggressive campaign and began arguing his case in the synagogues. He decidedly carried the war into Africa, with the result that might be expected. Brought up for trial before the Sanhedrin on the convenient charge of blasphemy, he is given a chance to state his case and begins with a long account of the history of the Hebrew people, which suddenly ends as he observes the hopelessness of his plea, with the sweeping condemnation, "Oh, Uncircumcised in heart and ears ! Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost ! As your fathers did, so also do ye ! " We all remember the result. Perhaps we have appreciated too little the daring character of this youthful saint. Certainly Ghiberti has failed to express it. The long, sweeping curves that he loves so well are not suited to the expression of aggressive self-assertion. The face is gentle, not to say timid. It is a figure instinct with grace but utterly lacking in the great qualities of St. Stephen.
Turning to Donatello's statue we have precisely the character which Ghiberti missed. Notice the poise, the weight borne upon the right foot, throwing the body well forward as though for aggression. How different would be the attitude if he fell back upon the other foot. He is on the aggressive, not the defensive. The eyes gaze with piercing intensity, emphasized by the knit eyebrow. The costume has no long folds that flow off into gentle curves, but is short and trim for action. His shield, with its rigid, straight lines, emphasizes the spiritual temper of the whole. It is the incarnation of virile young manhood, in its way a perfect thing. It is not decoration ; it is not pretty ; it is better than either — the beautiful expression of an eternally beautiful thing. Such is Donatello as we know him in his youth. A number of works, which we may conveniently group as of the first period, manifest this same character. Closely akin is the beautiful Annunciation carved in grey stone in Santa Croce. The Virgin here is first cousin to the St. George, splendid in wholesomeness and youthful strength. Still another we must account the beautiful terra cotta bust of St. Lawrence (B 446) in the church of San Lorenzo, Florence. It is doubtful whether Florence has ever given us a finer example of manliness and candor. The upturned head is confident and frank but not unpleasantly defiant. The garment is realistically rather than decoratively treated. It is perfect realism, but, after all, realism which shows a marked preference for the things that are really beautiful. As we gaze upon these works, to which we may add the St. Mark of Or San Michele, praised by Michelangelo, and perhaps other works, it is difficult to exaggerate the wholesomeness and fundamental character of the new sculptor's art. His interest is in character, not in clothes. He is giving us prose, if you will, rather than melodious poetry, but it is a grand and noble prose such as many will prefer to lyric verse.
But as we go farther, it is clear that our artist's emphasis shifts. Take, for instance, the marble statue of St. John which is often spoken of as one of his masterpieces. A master-piece it certainly is in a way. The artist has made a pains-taking study of this lean and haggard youth, such a study as Ghiberti never made or was tempted to make. Plainly it interests him, but unless we are in the atmosphere of the studio it is a study which we shall not enjoy. Donatello has chosen this subject, not because it is beautiful or inspiring, but because, delving ever more deeply into the fundamentals of his craft, he is interested in mastering more completely the anatomy of the human figure, and that in different forms. The comely draped figure of St.' George or of the Virgin of the Annunciation he has handled well enough, but he realizes that there are more difficult problems and has chosen the half nude ascetic for that reason. One writer speaks of this as one of the most beautiful nudes of the Renaissance. With all deference, we beg to differ. One of the most masterly, if you will ; one of the most interesting ; anything but the most beautiful. Let us not pervert the wholesome instincts of mankind. Rude and ungainly figures like this are not beautiful. They may be beautifully portrayed, and if portrayal, that is, the problem of craftsmanship, absorbs all our thought, then in a sense this achievement may be beautiful, but the beauty is technical, not natural or human. We must be on our guard against the technical bias in the study of art. We are reminded of the enthusiast who described the advantages of a certain medical school, with "its learned faculty, its great plant, and its magnificent hospitals with their treasures of disease," all of it explicable enough, but implying a point of view which it is neither possible nor desirable that the layman should take. Donatello is getting interested in the study of anatomy, and has chosen an unbeautiful figure for the opportunity it offers.
But we shall go farther and fare worse. It was in this middle period that Donatello, already famed for his early work, was commissioned to prepare statues for the great Campanile which goes by Giotto's name. His bias at this period is best indicated by the so-called King David (B 438). It is with astonishment that we look upon the figure that bears this name, an astonishment which has led some to doubt whether the name was intended. The guess has been hazarded that the statue was put in a niche formerly occupied by another statue, and that the name was a holdover. But to have permitted the name was equivalent to having adopted it, and Donatello must certainly be held responsible for the name in the one sense or the other. Nor is it difficult to see that the name might express his mood. Why should a figure so uncouth, the very quintessence of the ugly, have been fashioned to represent this much-beloved king ?
The answer becomes plain if we remember our background — Ghiberti, and his hold upon the affections of the Florentines ; for it must be remembered that in these two very different developments of sculpture the Florentines, at the time, unquestionably cast in their lot with Ghiberti. And to a man interested in the study of the nude, in the mastering of the difficult problem of the human figure, to a man essentially a sculptor of statues and not of decorations, essentially realistic rather than poetical, Ghiberti was an influence both pernicious and seductive. Ghiberti, as we have seen in the case of St. Stephen, cares little or nothing for the historic verities, and now that we recall it, the great doors are full of like deviations from truth. Take the panel in which Isaac gives his blessing to Jacob. In the center of the picture is the youthful Esau receiving the commission to go and get the venison. Esau is described to us as a hairy savage born out of due season, in everything suggestive of the uncouth, yet here he is represented with the court dress and curly locks of a page of the Medici, graceful and charming but about as little of an Esau as we could possibly imagine. Now to Donatello, all this prettifying tendency of Ghiberti was rank heresy. We need not withhold our admiration from Ghiberti if we admit that there was some ground for his feeling. Art is not mere truth-telling, but it can never ignore the truth with impunity. It is not mere truth-telling, but in all its telling there must be truth, and in Ghiberti's art that truth was often lacking. This gulf between the two temperaments would have been less deep, however, had it not been that circumstances intensified the contrast. On the one hand was Brunelleschi, continually irritated by Ghiberti, with whom he was unfortunately associated in a most inappropriate art commission in the pay of the Florentine state. His influence cannot have been otherwise than disparaging to Ghiberti, and, by so much, encouraging to Donatello to go to extremes in opposition. Brunelleschi, it will be remembered, was savagely truthful, nervous and irascible, as manifested in every line of his work. He cared little for the grace which Donatello's realism might sacrifice. And to this must be added the still more important fact that these two men, confident in the rightness of their cause, saw the Florentines following their rival. There is food for thought in Donatello's remark long after. He had forsaken Florence for a time and worked in Padua. When he at last set out to return, he was begged by the Paduans to remain, but replied, "No, you are spoiling me. I must go back to Florence, where men find fault."
It is impossible to believe that Florence did not welcome such a work as the St. George, but it is easy to understand that they may have raved over it much less than over the doors of Ghiberti, and yet to Donatello and Brunelleschi it seemed worthy of an infinitely higher place. The result was that Donatello leaned to the opposite extreme, insisting that the correct rendering of fact was fundamental in art, and beyond doubt exaggerating this principle, he fell into the pitfall which continually besets the realist.
The realist continually protests against the idealist that he tells but a part of the truth, that he picks out pretty things and leaves the great world of interesting fact unexpressed; he should tell truth impartially; and insisting upon this program he inevitably emphasizes the omissions. Certain things have been excluded from the beauty lover's program as being uncomely and unfit. The realist will have none of this, and so espouses their cause. Before he is done he has all unconsciously become the special pleader of the ugly. Witness a Zola in literature. Realism has thus become associated in the popular mind with the unsightly and the unclean. Following this perfectly natural line of development, Donatello rapidly becomes the exponent of ugliness in art. We can imagine his defence of the King David when asked if that was his idea of the king. How easy his sneering reply : . "Oh, yes, I know what you want. You want a pretty man with a crown on his head and clad in ermine, and on his throne ! Kingship to you inheres in paraphernalia. Is there not kingship in character ? Do you imagine that David was merely a king and not also a person? Do you think he always wore his crown? Can you not imagine him making himself comfortable about the house, nonchalant and negligé ? Was there not back of all outward symbols a personality, and that perhaps with its idiosyncrasies and unbeautiful traits ?" In some such way Donatello must have reasoned. The effort is to get away from the superficial and the emasculating tendency, to the fundamental, careless for the time being whether it be beautiful or not.
Now the tendency just in this form does not give us art. The King David is a masterpiece of study and of modeling. The arm is magnificent, the hand that reaches under the leathern thong, the drapery that defiantly refuses to conform to any scheme of decorative arrangement — all this is a masterly study, but it is not beautiful, it is not inspiring, it is not in any great sense significant. It is not art ; it is merely sculpture, a study from the life class dubbed King David in defiance. The study is valuable, the reaction against Ghibertiism is wholesome, but it is a tendency contributing to art, rather than art itself. Michelangelo was infinitely closer to Donatello than to Ghiberti, but Michelangelo never would have made this King David.
Unfortunately, the tendency does not stop here. The St. John in the Baptistery in Siena, and above all, the impossible Magdalen in the Baptistery at Florence, show to what abysmal depths of ugliness Donatello's reaction descended. . In this, all his earlier feeling for youthful beauty, as we see it in the St. Lawrence or the St. George, was utterly lost. The charm of childhood, which none understood better than he, the comeliness of youth and manly strength — these things were lost never to return.
But fortunately this is not Donatello's last word. Still a third period is to be noted — one of abundant ugliness, to be sure, but no longer of ugliness for ugliness' sake. In it there are some of the grander elements of that larger art of which Ghiberti never dreamed and which holds the promise of Michelangelo. He turns from a study of anatomy and meaningless detail to the study of emotion and feeling. It is no longer the human body; that, once mastered, becomes merely incidental to a larger purpose, and that larger purpose is life, with its varied action and feeling, as an interpreter of character.
To this period we may assign the lovely pulpit of Prato and the far-famed Singing Gallery (B 439), once in the Duomo of Florence and now in its near-by Museum. With infinite sprightliness these dancing genii race across the scene of action, not beautiful, it must be confessed, their faces, however vivacious, are totally without comeliness of feature, but there is an infinite vitality to their movement which in itself is a theme of beauty. We can imagine a dancer fascinating us with rhythmic movements who would not fascinate us for a moment by beauty of face. In turning to this larger theme Donatello seems to have outgrown the spirit of prejudice, perhaps because he outlived the period of Ghiberti worship. Absorbed in this new and larger theme where art deals with a beauty that is more than of figure or face, he again becomes an artist. Familiar as we are with incident in the work of Ghiberti, there is in his work nothing of the magnificent vitality and energy which characterizes Donatello in this later time. Draperies, too, no longer the servants of decoration, become instinct with life and motion and serve the purpose of the sculptor in this field where nought else can do their work.
From this representation of motion in its manifold and pleasing characteristics, it was an easy step to the dramatic, that is, the study of passion. Of this we have manifold examples, like the Passion of the Saviour in the Pulpit of San Lorenzo in Florence, but none, perhaps, quite so expressive as the wonderful Feast of Herod (B 436), a little bronze panel on the Baptismal Font in Siena. This wonderful font is a symposium of the work of the best sculptors of the time, including, with lesser names, panels by Ghiberti, Donatello, and Jacopo della Quercia, the three greatest names in the art of this century. We can best appreciate the change that Donatello wrought in the portrayal of the dramatic by comparing this scene with the same theme treated by no less an artist than Giotto. Giotto is anecdotal, and in that respect infinitely clever, but the deeper passions that make the soul's tragedy were little to his liking and quite beyond his powers. They are now the great theme of Donatello. In-stead of the orderly group sitting behind the table, as in the work of Giotto or Andrea Pisano, we have the sudden disarray of the demoralized banquet, as, unannounced, the soldier brings in the head of the dead prophet. The king, his nerves shattered with wine, gazes upon the face of the man he dreaded, with superstitious horror. With dishevelled hair and forgotten dignity, he shrieks out in terror like Macbeth at Banquo's ghost. Off at the right the guests, starting from the tables, rush pell mell, yet after all, not quite forgetting their character. The one in the front covers her face with her hands to shut out the horrid spectacle which she cannot bear, but the one behind frightened and recoiling, none the less gazes with a curiosity not quite repressed, at the object of her fear. Off to the left children run screaming and falling over one another in their effort to get away from the terrible sight, while, behind the board, -- a masterly suggestion, — the queen, to complete the analogy with Macbeth, strives vainly to calm her frightened husband and to recall his forgotten dignity. The startling suddenness with which this motive of terror is brought like a thunderbolt in among this maudlin crowd is the very ideal of the dramatic. We have had until now, and shall have hereafter, no work more dramatically perfect.
But our artist is not yet at the end of his resource. In this panel there is a touch of the art which Ghiberti had carried so far but for which Donatello elsewhere shows little sympathy, namely, perspective. In an adjacent apartment, seen through the open arcade, are a number of musicians who, with unbroken decorum (for they are not privileged to forget their discipline), continue the music which before had guided the dancer's feet. Who knows what their emotions, who knows how conscious they may be of that which disturbs the banquet ? They must not show that they feel. The waltz goes on, uninterrupted. Picture it in your imagination. The dance suddenly terminated by this ghastly spectacle, and then, in startling contrast, this same rippling melody played as the accompaniment to this fearful scene. This is a fine example of the so-called dramatic foil, the heightening of effect by contrast, perfectly natural in this case, yet the whole range of imagination could not invent a motive better fitted to emphasize the startling transition. In the presence of these greater themes, how trivial seems the loss of facial beauty or draperied grace. The artist has opened wide the door of new possibilities in art, a door through which a greater than he was soon to enter.
It is difficult, as we contrast the work of Ghiberti and Donatello, to make our sympathies follow our judgment. There is an effortless pleasure in contemplating the lovely panels of Ghiberti which appeals not only to our love of beauty but to our love of indolence and ease. There is a forbidding ruggedness about the pathway over which Donatello would lead us that only the more determined will willingly traverse. Yet if we reflect for a moment on the influence exerted by such men, the superiority of Donatello can hardly be doubted. Ghiberti's work is beautiful, lovely, charming, but woe to that art in the hands of a weak follower, and the follower is sure to be weak. Where one great man points the way, hosts of little men enter. Ghiberti's art we may accept without protest, but in the hands of his followers it was both seductive and unsafe, — seductive because the weakest things about it were attractive ; unsafe because none but Ghiberti might maintain its charm. Under his lead Florentine art would have inevitably degenerated into revolting insipidity. Donatello's King David is not beautiful nor can we accept it without protest, but it stands for deep study and honest work, things needful to the artist whatever his goal. The weak things about it are not seductive and attractive. There was no danger that Donatello's followers would ever repeat the King David. His lesson, so far as they were likely td learn it, is the lesson of painstaking study and mastery of all the facts of life. That lesson was one that Florentine art, like every other, needed to be taught with all possible emphasis. But there is no danger in the long run that out of this vast repertory the artist will persist in choosing the vulgar and unbeautiful. It was the salvation of Florence that at this moment of Ghiberti enthusiasm and the diversion of sculpture from its normal channel, the powerful personality of Donatello appeared upon the scene to warn men of the dangers of superficiality and to urge upon them this deeper science as the condition of the expression of the larger beauty. It is Donatello and not Ghiberti who guides the farther develop-ment of Florentine sculpture. It is Donatello and not Ghiberti who is the spiritual ancestor of Michelangelo.
The subject of Florentine sculpture can hardly be closed without a brief allusion to another name which, but for a single work, and a single personal association, might pass unnoticed, — Andrea Verocchio. That single work is the statue of Colleoni at Venice (B 493). That single personal association is the tutorship of Leonardo. Sculptor and painter alike, but sculptor in all his feeling, his pictures are forbidingly sculpturesque, as notably the Baptism of Christ, the one in which we first detect the hand of the more brilliant pupil. In sculpture, too, we discern in his lesser works the hand of an expert technician and a dignified taste, we do not detect the imagination of a master. Of his familiar works the little fountain in the Court of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Boy with the Dolphin, is graceful and pleasing, not ill-suited to its purpose, but art in lighter vein. Or again, the David in the Bargello, this theme which was becoming the conventional test of a sculptor. Verocchio's David is an interesting study in the figure of a youth in that scrawny period of adolescence with which all are familiar but with which few are charmed. It is simply realism, legitimate but not soul-stirring. Plainly Verocchio was interested in the scientific problem involved, as was Donatello in his similar study of the Youthful St. John. He seems to have saved himself for the single great work which is now the unique glory of Venice. This work of questioned, but hardly doubtful authenticity, is easily first among the equestrian statues of all time so far as they are known to us. It had been pre-ceded by Donatello's great statue of Gattamelata, the first great bronze of the Renaissance, which solved the difficult problems of casting on this large scale, much more than it solved the problem of interpretation. With this technical problem out of the way, Verocchio was free to give himself to the larger problems of art.
The statue is hardly to be dissociated from the familiar anecdote of Venetian craftiness to which its erection gave rise. Colleoni, a condottiere or hired commander and con-tractor for wars, had amassed a fortune in his profession, and dying, bequeathed this to Venice on condition that an equestrian statue of himself should be erected in St. Mark's Square. This request seemed to the Venetians a piece of effrontery. The greatest doges, even the great Dandolo himself, had not received such an honor, and to accord it to this hireling was out of the question. But, in turn, it was equally out of the question to lose this bequest, and the Venetian State, being the court of last resort, decided that the open square in front of St. Mark's Hospital, on the farther side of Venice, where no one ever goes save to see Colleoni, might be called a square of St. Mark's, and it was voted to accept the bequest and to erect the statue here. Seldom has craft been more worthily punished. The Venetians have no sculpture, and their great square lacks nothing so much as a statue like this. Nor is there in the world a statue more worthy of such a setting. Off in a distant place rises the statue of Colleoni, which even the most superficial tourist goes to see. It reminds us of the delayed justice which the French Academy paid to the eminence of Molière. When, too late, they found that they had excluded the greatest of French writers from their number, they erected a bust, and inscribed beneath it, "Nothing was lacking to his glory. He was lacking to our own." As St. Mark comes from his matchless Square and gazes upon this incomparable statue outlined against the blue sky far above the surrounding squalor, he might well add, "Our great square could add nothing to his glory; he could add the crowning glory to our square." It is inconceivable that the statue should not even now be moved to the place where both appropriateness and simple justice call for its erection.
It is impossible to analyze this unique creation. The condottiere, it must be remembered, had neither patriotism nor the love of a great people behind him. He was a hireling and his soldiers were men without a country. Only personal force and a genius for winning battles, whose booty his followers were sure to share, an unimpeachable integrity which made his word as sacred as his bond, and then, always and above all, the power to rule by the simple force of personality a rabble that had power in their hands and knew no other law, — such were the fundamental requirements for a great condottiere. Such is the idea which Verocchio has expressed with a force and with a clearness that thrills us through and through. Too often an equestrian statue, yes, even Donatello's Gattamelata, is a weight borne by the horse as the sumpter bears his pack. Here the horse is but the plaything of the rider's will. The feet are firmly in the stirrups, which are thrown forward in powerful self-assertion. The baton of command is gripped firmly in the hand, and the strong features of the face that come out with piercing distinctness against the blue sky, betray a set purpose and an indomitable will before which the most unruly spirit must quail in instant submission. There is not in the world a more splendid adaptation of great means to great ends. An equestrian statue, large and high-perched and out beneath the open sky, cannot portray the gentle virtues, — the tenderness and sweetness of character and life. Size and character and place all call for another theme. The theme must be one of majesty and power and the treatment must be heroic. Never have these conditions been met as in the Colleoni. Verocchio is elsewhere scarce more than a mediocrity, an admirable technician, a faithful plodder in the inexhaustible science of his art. Only here, for one moment, he gathered together the resources of his craft and the imagination of a life-time into one supreme endeavor. It is worthy of the teacher of Leonardo. It is worthy of the last predecessor of Michelangelo.