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Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574):

Lives of the Artists: Donatello


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FILIPPO'S friend Donato, who was always called Donatello, was born in Florence in the year I383, and produced many works in his youth; but the first thing that caused him to be known was an Annunciation carved in stone for the church of S. Croce in Florence. For the same church he made a crucifix of wood, which he carved with extraordinary patience; and when it was done, thinking it a very fine piece of work, he showed it to Filippo that he might have his opinion upon it. Filippo, who expected from what Donatello had said to see something better, when he looked at it could not help smiling a little. Donatello, seeing it, prayed him by their friendship to speak his mind truly, upon which Filippo, who was frank enough, replied that he seemed to him to have put on the cross a peasant and not Jesus Christ, who was the man most perfect in everything that ever was born. Dona tello, feeling the reproach more bitterly because he had expected praise, replied, "If it were as easy to do a thing as to judge it, my Christ would not look like a peasant; but take some wood yourself and make one." Filippo without another word returned home, and, saying nothing to any one, set to work upon a crucifix, and aiming to surpass Donatello that he might not condemn himself, he brought it to great perfection after many months. Then one morning he invited Donatello to dine witk him. Donatello accepted his invitation, and they went together to Filippo's house. Coming to the old market, Filippo bought some things and gave them to Donatello, saying, "Go on to the house and wait for me, I am just coming." So Donatello, going into the house, found Filippo's crucifix arranged in a good light; and stopping to consider it, he found it so perfect that, overcome with surprise and admiration, he let his apron drop, and the eggs and cheese and all the other things that he was carrying in it fell to the ground and were broken. Filippo, coming in and finding him standing thus lost in astonishment, said, laughingly, "What are you about, Donatello? How are we to dine when you have dropped all the things?" "I," said Donatello, "have had enough. If you want anything, take it. To you it is given to do Christs, and to me peasants."

After this he made for the facade of S. Maria del Fiore a Daniel and a S. John the Evangelist, and within the same church, for the organ gallery, those figures which, though they are only roughly sketched, seem when you look at them to be alive and move. For Donatello made his figures in such a way that in the room where he worked they did not look half as well as when they were put in their places. It was so with the S. Mark, which in company with Filippo he undertook for the joiners (though with Filippo's goodwill he completed it all himself). When the masters of the company saw it while it was on the ground they did not recognise its value, and stopped the work; but Donatello begged them to let him put it up and work upon it, and he would turn it into quite another figure. Then, having set it up and screened it from view for a fortnight, when he uncovered it, although he had not touched it, every one was astonished at it. For the armourers he made a S. George in armour, very full of life, with all the beauty of youth and the courage of the soldier.

For the faSade of S. Maria del Fiore he made also four figures, two of which were portraits from life, one young Francesco Soderini, and the other Giovanni de Barduccio Cherichini, which is now called the Zuccone, the bald man. This being considered more beautiful than anything he had ever done, Donatello used to swear by it, saying, "By the faith I bear to my bald man." While he was working upon it he would look at it and say, "Speak, speak!"

Duke Cosimo de' Medici admired his talents so much that he made him work for him constantly; and he on his part bore such love to Cosimo that he undertook what he wished at the least sign, and obeyed him. There is a story told of a Genoese merchant who, by the mediation of Cosimo, prevailed upon Donatello to make a bronze head for him. When it was finished, the merchant coming to pay him, thought that Donatello asked too much, so the matter was referred to Cosimo. He had it brought to the upper court of the palace and placed on the wall overlooking the street, that it might be seen better. But when he tried to settle the difference, he found the merchant's offer very much below Donatello's demand, and turning to him he said it was too little. The merchant, who thought it too much, answered that Donatello had worked upon it for a month, or a little more, and that would give him more than half a florin a day. Donatel]o upon that turned upon him in anger, thinking these words too great an insult, and telling the merchant that he had found means in a hundredth part of an hour to destroy the work of a year, he gave the head a sudden blow and knocked it down into the street, where it was broken into many pieces, adding that it was evident he was in the habit of bargaining about beans and not statues. The merchant repenting, offered to give him double as much if he would make it again, but neither his promises nor Cosimo's entreaties could make him consent.

In the houses of the Martelli are many works done by Donatello, and among them a David three braccia high, with many other things given to that family out of his love and devotion, particularly a S. John in high relief worked in marble, a most rare thing, belonging now to the heirs of Ruberto Martelli, who left command that it should never be pledged or sold or given away, under heavy penalties, in testimony of the kindness shown them by Donatello.

At this time the Signory of Venice, hearing the fame of him, sent for him to make the monument to Gattamelata in the city of Padua. He undertook it very gladly, and made the statue that stands in the Piazza of S. Antonio, with the horse chafing and neighing, and its proud, spirited rider. Donatello showed himself in this so admirable, both for proportion and execution, that truly it may be compared to any ancient work. The Paduans sought by every means to prevail upon him to become a citizen and to stay there, giving him much work to do; but finding himself considered a marvel, and praised on all sides, he determined to return to Florence, saying if he stayed there longer he should forget all he knew, being praised so much, and that he must return to his own city to be continually found fault with, for this faultfinding would be the cause of his studying more, and thereby winning greater glory.

To sum up, Donatello was so admirable in knowledge, in judgment, and in the practice of his art that he may be said to have been the first to illustrate the art of sculpture among the moderns; and he deserves the more commendation because in his time few antiquities had been uncovered. He was one of those who aroused in Cosimo de' Medici the desire to bring antiquities into Florence. He was most liberal and courteous, and kinder to his friends than himself; nor did he care for money, keeping it in a basket hanging from the ceiling, where his workmen and friends could help themselves without saying anything to him. When he got old, therefore, and could not work, he was supported by Cosimo and his friends. Cosimo dying, recommended him to Piero his son, who, to carry out his father's wishes, gave him a farm in Cafaggiuolo on which he could live comfortably. Donatello was greatly pleased, thinking he was now more than secure from dying of hunger. But he had not held it a year beforc hc came to Piero and gave it him back, saying that he could not give up all his quiet to attend to domestic matters and to listen to the troubles of the farmer~ who was at him every third day, now to complain that the wind had taken the roof off the pigeonhouse, now that all the cattle had been taken to pay the taxes, and again that the storm had destroyed his vines and fruit trees; that he was weary of the trouble, and would rather die of hunger than have to think of such things. Piero laughed at his simplicity, and taking back the land, made him a provision of the same value in money paid him every week, with which he was quite content, and passed all the rest of his life as friend and servant of the Medici without trouble or care.

One of his pupils was Nanni d'Antonio di Banco, who, although he inherited riches and was not of low birth, yet delighting in sculpture, was not only not ashamed to learn it and to practise it, but obtained not a little glory in it. He was by nature rather slow, but modest, humble, and agreeable in convetsation. The S. Philip in marble which is outside the Orsanmichele in Florence is from his hand. The work had been first allotted to Donatello by the guild of the shoemakers, but not being able to agree with him about the price, to spite Donatello they gave it to Nanni, who promised to take whatever they would give him. But when the statue was finished and set up, he asked a greater price than Donatello had asked. The consuls of the guild therefore turned again to Donatello, thinking that envy would make him estimate the value of the statue much lower than if it had been his work. But they were deceived, for Donatello gave judgment that more should be given to Nanni than he had asked. And they, not willing to agree to such a judgment, cried out to Donatello, "Why, if you would have done the work for less, do you value it more highly from the hand of another, and constrain us to pay more than he himself asks, and yet you acknowledge that it would have been better done if you had done it?" Donatello answered, laughing, "The good man is not as good at the art as I am, and suffers much more fatigue than I; therefore it appears to me that as just men you are bound to pay him for the time that he has spent." So his decision was accepted, the two parties having agreed to abide by it.

Below the niche in which it was placed are four saints in marble, made by Nanni for the guilds of the smiths, carpenters, and masons. It is said that when they were all finished he found that it was not possible to get more than three into the niche, he having made some of them extending their arms. Then in despair he came to Donatello and prayed him to advise him how to repair his mistake. Donatello, laughing at his dilemma, said, "If you will promise to pay for a supper for me and my lads I will undertake to make the saints go into the niche without any trouble." Nanni then, having given the promise very readily, Donatello sent him to take some measures at Prato, and to do some other matters that would take a few days. And when he was gone, Donatello, with all his pupils and workmen, set to work and cut off frorn the statues here a shoulder and there the arms, making them fit in close together, with the hand of one appearing over the next one's shoulder. So Donatello having linked them together to conceal Nanni's mistake, they remain as tokens of concord and brotherly kindness; while those who know nothing of the matter would never perceive the error. Nanni, on his return, finding that Donatello had rectified his mistake, gave him infinite thanks, and most willingly paid for the supper.


Source. These texts were at http://ubmail.ubalt.edu/~pfitz/ART/REN/VASARI.HTM,but vanished from the net, and so they have been restored here.

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors & architects, by Giorgio Vasari: newly tr. by Gaston du C. de Vere. With five hundred illustraiions, London, Macmillan and & The Medici society, 1912-15.

Other translations include:

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. The lives of the painters, sculptors and architects. London, J. M. Dent; New York, Dutton [1949-50]).

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574.  Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors, and architects. Abridged from the translation by Gaston DuC. DeVere. Edited, with an introd., by Robert N. Linscott. New York, Modern Library [1959].

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the artists. Selected and translated by E.L. Seeley. Introd. by Alfred Werner. (New York, Noonday Press, [1965, c1957]).

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the artists; a selection translated by George Bull. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng. : Penguin Books, 1987.

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. The lives of the artists; translated with an introduction and notes by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1991.).


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