In 1406 the authorities in Florence order the guilds to commission statues for the niches already allotted to each of them in the outer wall of Orsanmichele, a building erected in the mid-14th century as a combination of trading place and shrine (in honour of a miracle-working image of the Virgin Mary which is housed here). Any guild which has not provided a statue within ten years will lose all claim to its desirable and prestigious niche.
The larger-than-lifesize St Mark stands in a completely relaxed pose, with his weight on one foot. Folds of loose drapery vividly suggest a projecting knee and jutting hip. The figure has the solid and uncompromising quality of Roman portrait sculpture, even though the beard and long robes seem to echo the saints on the façades of Gothic cathedrals.
Donatello's next work for Orsanmichele, probably completed in 1417, has much more openly a classical quality. St George, a clean-shaven young man scantily clad in Roman armour, confronts the viewer with a direct look closer to the heroic quality of Greek sculpture than to the brutal realism of Rome.
The same openness, amounting now to a positively provocative sense of physical confidence, is characteristic of Donatello's most famous statue - the astonishing bronze David, a boy in a saucy hat with the head of Goliath at his feet.
Done in about 1430, to stand in a courtyard of the Medici palace, this is the first life-size nude sculpture since classical times. It reintroduces one of the great themes of Greek sculpture in a burst of glorious confidence, and with a new mood of wit and playfulness.
Donatello revives yet another ancient tradition, in a work of lasting influence, when he is commissioned in 1443 to provide an equestrian portrait for Padua of the Venetian condottiere Erasmo da Narni, known as Gattamelata. The work is completed in about 1450 and is set up in Padua in 1453.
The massive composition (horse and rider together stand more than 11 feet high) harks back to the mounted statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. This is the predecessor of every dignitary riding in bronze through the streets of modern cities, but few have the stern severity of this uncompromising soldier of fortune.
The statue of St. Mark
was commissioned by the linen guild, one of the poorer guilds in Florence whose patron was St. Mark. They decided to hire the sculptor Donatello for the commission, who created a larger than life-size work (it is 7’9” tall). The work itself was placed into a niche that was already in existence in the building called Orsanmichele, and probably because this meant only the front would be visible, the back side of the statue was not completely carved.
The result of Donatello’s work was profound, to say the least, as he revived the use of the contrapposto stance in freestanding sculpture. Contrapposto had been employed by many ancient Greek and Roman sculptors, dating back to the Classical period of Greek art beginning around 480 B.C. After the fall of the Roman empire, however, it was largely forgotten by Europeans in the Middle Ages. When medieval sculptors depicted the human figure in reliefs (and less frequently, in free-standing works), the figures would often times be given stylized body parts and rigid postures. Donatello starts to change this in large-scale freestanding sculpture by giving St. Mark a much more natural look through the use of contrapposto. He would have known about this sculptural device through the trip to Rome that he probably took with Brunelleschi early on in his career. In Rome, the remains of reliefs and freestanding works would most certainly have been more prevalent than in any other part of Italy (or Europe for that matter), giving artists an opportunity to study them first-hand.
Because the guild for which St. Mark was made was the linen guild, Donatello emphasized the garments on the figure. Here, the cloth covering his body falls over him like it would fall over an actual body with clothing on it. This way of modeling a body with garments is quite different from the way it had been done at times during the Middle Ages, when artists would depict a body hidden inside a mass of garments. Here, we can see how St. Mark’s right leg carries the weight and is made column-like for emphasis, but his left knee and leg are clearly detectable under his robe. Meanwhile, as his left hand holds the Gospel book, his right hand grasps at his side as if he is receiving divine inspiration to write the Gospel. He stands atop a pillow, which is typically a symbol of holiness; here, however, it also puts some emphasis on his weight and conveys to us the idea that he is a real person because the physical world around him reacts to his body.
This is the first time in the Renaissance that a statue like this is made where garments echo the body’s form like this. It signals a break from the International Gothic style that preceded it, and helps to usher in a new era of increasingly natural figures carved and cast in life size or larger.