Donatello and His Sources

Donatello and His Sources

Donatello and His Sources

Donatello and His Sources

Excerpt

This book was written to clarify the range of antique and mediaeval sources which were at Donatello's disposition, and which he might have used in producing his sculpture. It is no more than that: I do not maintain, for example, that any study of sources can 'explain' the nature of an artist's inspiration or of the creative process in general. By the same token, this is not an investigation into Donatello's stylistic development -- even assuming that this can be deduced from the 'laws' of style which, like Ames-Lewis (1979), I very much doubt. I have no wish to indicate those occasions on which Donatello was either 'classical' or 'un-classical' in style (cf. Nicco 1929), although it is often the case that he uses antique motifs in a non-antique manner. For my purposes, I consider Donatello as an artist who is strongly conscious of tradition, and whose use of antique and mediaeval motifs makes his art new and exciting -- a case of 'reculer pour mieux sauter'.

Nor is this book a review of the whole of Donatello's oeuvre, but only a part of it, and works about which there appears to be little to say have been omitted. The Coscia Tomb is the most important omission, because this requires more detailed treatment than I feel competent to give. Other works such as the Marzocco and the Amor Atys are omitted because, even if their interpretation is difficult, their sources are clear and need no discussion.

This study encounters many problems. The greatest concerns long-lived motifs (such as the acanthus scroll, or the putto) which have been available for reinterpretation over hundreds of years: it is often very difficult to know whether Donatello picked up such motifs from Western mediaeval, from Byzantine, from early Christian or from Roman art -- and equally difficult to know whether he was aware of what distinguished the art of one period from that of another. It will be seen that the range of material to which he turned is very broad indeed.

We must treat with care, therefore, the 'pervasive and pernicious concept of influence . . . [which] . . . marches through the world of scholarship summoning all our attention to the elucidation of sources' (Cutler 1968, 84). At Cutler's urging (he is writing of the mediaeval centuries -- but the problem is the same for the Renais sance), 'the essential problem will remain the particular information sought by the mediaeval artist in his antique model' (ibid., 85). It is at this point, of course, when we pass from the externals of mere forms and styles to the realms of iconography, that more difficult problems confront us. For example, when Donatello uses a certain type of nude for his bronze David, are we to register the fact of his knowledge of that specific class of antiquity, and then pass on? Or should we investigate whether he was also aware of the various meanings of nudity among the ancients, and test whether he might have intended to clothe his own work in one of these meanings? When Donatello makes the Gattamelata as antique in appearance as he possibly can, how far should we investigate his knowledge of the meaning of the equestrian statue in antiquity and, perhaps, in the Middle Ages?

If the wide range of Donatello's sources is evident from study of his works, their exact nature is often a matter for doubt. When we find him using a putto, can we ever know whether he took it from a statue, a relief, a bronze or a terracotta statuette -- not to mention paintings, vases or coins? Indeed, so . . .

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