Important Art by Donatello
The precise date for this early work by Donatello is not known, but between 1408-1415 the artist worked on this large-scale marble figurative sculpture depicting Saint John the Evangelist. Typically depicted as a young man, Donatello decided to portray the apostle as an aging prophet, holding the Bible, which was a departure from legend toward a more humanizing rendition. While the top half of the sculpture still represents an idealized point of view, the subject's facial expression is carefully considered, and the sculpting of the legs and hands points to a more realistic figuration. Donatello pays attention to the anatomy of the saint's legs, even though they are hidden under his robes, demonstrating a new preoccupation with representing the body with accuracy and naturalism. The work was displayed in a niche in the façade of the Duomo Cathedral in Florence, a project that brought together works by some of the city's most important artists over the course of two centuries.
This sculpture is seen as an important step away from the Gothic style that predominated in Florentine (and European) art at this point. Moreover, Donatello shows a new understanding of the requirements of perspective, compensating for the fact that viewers would see the sculpture from below and therefore making the body disproportionately longer than the legs. As the curator and art historian Daniel M. Zolli points out, Donatello was aware that the base of the sculpture would be set approximately four feet above human height: "Not only are John's proportions far closer to nature when observed from this angle, but his presence is much more formidable: the fabric of his raiment hangs heavily from the frame of his body, and the whole composition organizes itself into a stable pyramid."
Donatello was commissioned by the swordmakers' and armorers' guild to carve this sculpture of their patron saint, St. George, for a niche on the exterior of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence. The work is a life-sized depiction of the saint standing atop a marble panel which is carved to illustrate the famous mythical moment when George slayed the dragon. Although the work was meant to reflect the Florentine spirit of holding strong against all adversaries, Donatello's meticulous rendering of the emotionality of the face also betrays a distinct vulnerability and softness. This expertise in portraying emotion, as is also seen in his equestrian statue of condottiero Erasmo da Narni, was a signature technique of the artist toward humanizing subjects that would traditionally be presented in a more idealized fashion.
The work marks an important moment in the development of sculpture because Donatello brought back the ideals of classical sculpture and married them with a new realism, departing boldly from the prior Gothic mannerism. The marble panel at the base is also an important work of art in its own right. It is a key early example of a bas-relief made using the principles of linear perspective, which was infiltrating painting at the time. The shift from empirical perspective to linear perspective is one of the key discoveries that contributed to the development of Renaissance art. Donatello would have been familiar with the experiments with perspective drawn by his friend Brunelleschi, and his skill was to apply them to the challenging medium of bas-relief carving.
Niccolo da Uzzano was an important figure in Florentine politics in the early decades of the 15th century, who acted as a respected intermediary figure between the city's powerful rival families. Donatello produced the bust (although its authorship is sometimes contested) soon after Uzzano's death in 1433. It was the first half-bust of a private citizen produced since antiquity.
Donatello's use of carefully molded terracotta clay, the unusual facial expression, and the choice of polychrome paint all suggest that this was intended to be an accurate portrait of an individual, rather than an idealized image representing an abstract concept of leadership or virtue. Donatello's craft emphasizes Uzzano's humanity and personality in a way that had not previously been seen, or felt credible in art. Yet alongside the Humanist movement in Florence at the time, artists were transitioning to a more authentic rendition of people, whether royal or plebian, that emphasized genuine expression.
The Florentine Renaissance expert Irving Lavin argues that presenting the figure as a half-bust is key to its power and highlights Donatello's revolutionary approach. By cutting off the figure at the bust and avoiding traditional presentation on an elaborate plinth, Donatello suggests that this is a true portrait, and a mimetic representation of a real human being: "The arbitrary amputation specifically suggests that what is visible is part of a larger whole, that there is more than meets the eye. By focusing on the upper part of the body but deliberately emphasizing that it is only a fragment, the Renaissance bust evokes the complete individual - that sum total of physical and psychological characteristics that make up the "whole man"."