by Roderick Conway Morris

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Padua's Splendid Bronzes

By Roderick Conway Morris
PADUA, Italy 9 June 2001
Photo Alonso de Mendoza
Equestrian monument to Gattamelata by Donatello, 1447-53



Of all the art and artifacts of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, apart from ones of precious metals, those made of bronze fared the worst in terms of survival. The vast majority of bronze fine-art statues and smaller objects were subsequently melted down to make coins, weapons, tools, building materials and simple household fittings and utensils. A rare exception among monumental Roman bronzes is the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, now in the Capitoline Museums, which was spared because it was erroneously believed to represent the first Christian emperor, Constantine.

The revival of interest in antiquity that fired the Renaissance brought with it the desire also to emulate the classical past in bronze sculpting and casting. This raised acute technical and artistic challenges, but the greatest of the early Renaissance sculptors - Donato Bardi, known as Donatello - proved fit to face them at every level.

In the course of his long career, from the early 15th century until 1466, he worked in many materials, from terra-cotta and wood, to marble and stucco, but while in Padua he sculpted almost exclusively in bronze. His nearly decade-long stay left Padua with a school of bronze sculpting to rival Florence's, one that continued to thrive for 150 years.

A splendid array of the beautiful and varied works that Donatello and his followers produced in the city, many now in foreign collections, has been brought together for 'Donatello and His Times: Bronzes in Padua in the 15th and 16th Century,' at the Palazzo della Ragione, which is also the occasion for the presentation of the significant scholarly advances made in recent years in documenting this fascinating story. (The exhibition continues until July 29.)

Quite why Donatello, then at the height of his powers, migrated to Padua is not clear. But its internationally renowned university - a leader in the study of antiquity, not to mention science and mathematics - offered a highly receptive environment for an artist committed to reviving ancient skills and methods in sculpture, not to mention a pioneering exponent of geometrical perspective, which Donatello employed to brilliant effect in his low-relief, 'sculpted picture' friezes.

There was, in addition, the huge Basilica del Santo, the shrine of Saint Antony, which was still in need of sculptural adornment and was to provide a constant stream of commissions for Donatello's followers long after his death. The scale, difficulty and intensity of physical labor needed for the casting and finishing of substantial bronze pieces obliged Donatello to establish a factory-like workshop, which over the years gave numerous local apprentices, artists and craftsmen a golden opportunity to collaborate with the greatest sculptor of the age.

Donatello executed four mammoth projects in bronze in Padua. For the Basilica del Santo, he fashioned a life-sized crucifix, the realism of which departed decisively from prevailing gothic prototypes; an altarpiece of the Madonna and Saints, and a series of low-reliefs of the Miracles of Saint Antony, in which he brought this type of sculpted perspective scene to perfection. In the Piazza in front of the Basilica, he placed his equestrian statue of Gattamelata, the late captain-general of Venice's forces (paid for by a grateful Republic), the first such equestrian monument since antiquity.

This awe-inspring masterpiece, which has never been surpassed in its subtlety of observation, command of both overall line and minute detail, and in its sense of latent, contained power, was to become the model for equestrian statues of generals, princes and kings for centuries to come.

When Donatello returned to his native city he took with him a young Paduan, Bartolomeo Bellano, who served as an invaluable assistant in the Florentine's old age. According to tradition, Donatello left him many of his tools, drawings and models, and after the master's death Bellano collaborated with the local sculptor Bertoldo in completing the pulpits of San Lorenzo. Bellano went on to enjoy a successful career, making his own notable contribution to the Santo Basilica with 10 dramatic and strongly sculpted bronze reliefs of Old Testament scenes. He was also dispatched by the Venetian government to Istanbul, with Gentile Bellini, to the court of Mehmed the Conqueror, who had asked the Republic to provide him with a painter and sculptor.

Bellano's most influential innovation was his tomb for the Venetian philosopher and physician Roccabonella, in the San Francesco church in Padua, which with its combination of dignity, intimacy and condign classical and artistic reference, established a new style of monument ideal for the commemoration of the humanist scholar.

Just as Bellano had completed Donatello's outstanding commissions, so in turn did his pupil, Andrea Briosco, known as 'il Riccio,' bring the Roccabellona tomb to its conclusion after Bellano's death. Bellano and Riccio, as Charles Avery points out in one of the consistently readable and informative essays by several hands in the show's catalogue, are exemplary in the contrasting manners in which they drew on Donatello's legacy.

For, while Bellano developed the dramatic, expressionistic qualities of the Florentine's work, Riccio found the cooler, more strictly classical elements in it more congenial to his temperament and vision. In fact, it was an outstanding achievement of Donatello's Paduan school that, far from nurturing a tribe of mere clones, it gave rise to several generations of artists who took divergent, but equally productive paths.

There are nearly a score of sculptors represented here - the last of whom lived well into the 17th century - all of them worthy of study. Aside from the statues, statuettes, busts and reliefs, there is a good selection of the practical-decorative pieces, such as inkwells, lamps and incense burners that also became a Paduan specialty. These exotic, but useful objets are fashioned in forms ranging from sea-monsters and satyrs' heads to naturalistic spider crabs and croaking frogs. And so finely wrought are the best of them, it is hardly surprising that by the 18th century they were being mistaken for genuine antiquities.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024