Donatello in Venice

Donatello in Venice
01 February 2017 0 Comment

To visit the magnificent church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice is to enter a world of sublime art and history that no Hollywood movie could possibly begin to portray. It is the final resting place of four Doge’s, and the great Venetian artist Titian and home to masterpieces by Giovanni Bellini, Jacopo Sansovino, Paolo Veneziano, Girolamo Campagna, Alessandro Vittoria and Titian himself. Wander about the quiet corners of this ancient church in amazement and before long you will come across another masterpiece, a statue of St John the Baptist (1438), meticulously carved in wood and then painted, but not executed by a Venetian. This masterpiece was created by a Florentine, the greatest sculptor of his day, and one of the greatest sculptors that ever lived and his name is Donatello.

My first question after seeing this work is what is it doing in Venice and then began a series of running into dead-ends in trying to answer that question? We know the work was completed in 1438, almost twenty years before Donatello completed his better known and equally magnificent Mary Magdalene (circa: 1457 in Polychrome wood, on display in the Museum of Opera of Saint Maria of Fiore in Florence), proving, if proof was necessary that Donatello’s skill and dexterity in sculpture easily embraced the worlds of marble, bronze and the preferred Medieval medium in sculpture of wood. But how did this commission for this church in Venice come about and why was a Florentine chosen, producing the only work by Donatello in this city of great art and great artists? And when was the work completed, as there are many conflicting dates placing it during the ten years Donatello spent in Padua from 1443. This is when the story becomes confusing with historical sources contradicting themselves and when that happens, my interest grows and the hunt for answers begins in earnest.

We know that Donatello was invited to Padua in 1443 to begin work on decorating the high altar of S. Antonio. His many commissions in this city kept him busy for some ten years in Padua and it’s perfectly believably he would have made visits to Mantua, Ferrara and Modena and of course Venice, being just down the road. Venice overflowed with commercial wealth and artistic commissions that would have attracted any artist, including Donatello. We are told time and again that it was during one of these visits that he was offered the commission by the Fraternity of Florentines in Venice to sculpt John the Baptist. Quite believable of course when you consider that John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence and that since the late middle ages the establishment of religious fraternities in the bigger and more economically powerful cities of Europe was a means by which the church and its religious orders could and did maintain their legitimate presence, whilst receiving occasional financial assistance from the wealthy of the town. It always helped to keep in good with the church, particularly as one grew older!

It’s more than conceivable then that the powerful, wealthy and well-connected Florentine Fraternity in Venice commissioned this work to take pride of place in a chapel in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frary that they proudly maintained. But not when Donatella was close by in Padua from 1443 onwards? After a comprehensive restoration of the sculpture was completed in 1973, art historians discovered the signature of Donatello and its date of completion (1438) that had been painted over by earlier restoration attempts!

As early as 1415 Donatello had become, if not the first artist of Florence, certainly one of its most respected and sort after. He had already completed his St. George and the Dragon, having also finished some of the most important statues for the Duomo of Florence; all works that are revered today. Around 1430 the greatest art patron of the city, Cosimo de’ Medici, commissioned from Donatello the famous bronze David (now in the Bargello) for the court of his Palazzo Medici. I believe that he was so in demand that by 1430 his reputation had become widely celebrated amongst the many educated, well to do Florentines, whom for business reasons lived outside of their beloved city, who sort a work by this great artist’s hand. A statue in wood, not considered one of his most important pieces (and certainly would not have taken as long to complete as a work in marble or bronze) found its way to Venice and was proudly installed in the Florentine Chapel in a great Venetian church by 1438.

Today we can enjoy this piece for what it is; a masterwork by a sculptural genius who gave life to his medium, imbuing the work with the powerful humanity of a tormented soul. Here is Donatello’s John the Baptist, mortified by penance, clothed in a shaggy hide with a mantel thrown over his shoulders, with a limp arm raised to accentuate the admonishing power Donatello captured in the sad, desolate and confused expression of his Baptist. When you go to Venice and make your way to this splendid church, eventually you will find yourself standing before this work and when you do understand that Michelangelo himself knew that in Donatello lived his master.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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