154 – A Feast for the eyes

Donatello, The Feast of Herod, 1423-7. Baptismal Font, Battistero di San Giovanni Battista, Siena.

The Donatello exhibition in Florence is truly remarkable, an astonishing achievement, given that sculptures have been transported from churches and cathedrals across Italy, including several which have left their original settings for the first time since they were installed. Others have ‘simply’ been transported from the other side of the world – with institutions in the UK, Germany and the U.S. being particularly generous with their loans. The full range of the great master’s work in many different media is on show, and the curators succeed in their aim of showing that Donatello was undoubtedly one of the most important and influential artists of the Italian Renaissance. There is, of course, far too much to cover in one hour (I should have known this before) so the talk this Monday, 11 AprilDonatello: The Renaissance – will be ‘Part One’. Part Two, focussing mainly on the section of the exhibition that is at the Bargello, will be on Monday 9 May, but more news about that next week (keep your eye on the diary page).

In case any of you have been worried about my WiFi, I do apologise for the interruptions and distortions during a couple of recent talks when I’ve been in London. By the time I do another one ‘down South’ (probably not until May) I will have installed a new system, which will guarantee a flawless service! In the meantime, I would like to look at one of the most important exhibits in Florence, which, having been gloriously restored, has left its usual home in Siena, and can currently be seen at eye-level. Usually you would have to genuflect to get close enough to see it.

This is the best image that I can find on the internet, just so we know what we’re thinking about. It is a pre-restoration photograph of Donatello’s Feast of Herod, cast in bronze, and gilded, in 1427. I’ve already written about a later Feast of Herod by Donatello, carved in marble and currently in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille (where I will be taking a group for Art History Abroad in December) – it shows a similar – potentially even greater – complexity in its depiction of space (see Day 49 – Donatello in Lille). But before we look at the bronze, I want to bear in mind that one of the problems with looking at sculpture in reproduction comes from its very definition: it is three dimensional. This means that, unlike painting, it cannot be encompassed in one single photograph. Even if this is a relief sculpture (which means that you can’t go round the back), as a high relief (in the foreground at least) you can see it from a more-or-less 160˚ angle. That, plus its usual setting, means that I am going to give you a number of different pictures to get some sense of its context. Some of them were taken by other people in the original setting – the Baptistery in Siena – while the rest I took last week at the exhibition. This is a view of the baptismal font itself:

It sits in the centre of the Baptistery, which is underneath the choir of the Cathedral (it is ‘downhill’ from the Nave: they built the baptistery as the foundation for an extension to the Cathedral, building out over the hill, so that the font is effectively in the ‘basement’ of the chancel). The basin of the font is hexagonal, with a tabernacle of the same shape rising from it on a column. Another column stands on the tabernacle, with a sculpture of John the Baptist perched at the very top. At each corner of the tabernacle there is a small dancing putto – or spiritello, as the curators of the exhibition would have them called – three of which were made by Donatello. The hexagonal basin is decorated with an almost-square bronze relief on each side, each one depicting a different episode from the life of the Baptist. In 1417 two each were commissioned from Ghiberti, Jacopo della Quercia and Turino di Sano – the first famed for the bronze doors of Florentine Baptistery, the second a rather wonderful Sienese contemporary and the last – well, a solid Sienese craftsmen. In 1423 Jacopo della Quercia passed the commission for one of his reliefs to Donatello, and it is that which we are considering today. The relief you can see in the picture above – the one at the front –  shows The Baptism of Christ (the most important episode in John’s life, so it is given the greatest prominence) and was one of the two made by Ghiberti. Going anti-clockwise (to the right here) is The Arrest of the Baptist, also by Ghiberti, and then The Feast of Herod. At each corner of the basin is a statuette of a Virtue – the one to the right of the Baptism is Donatello’s Faith (1427-9).

This is the basin as seen from the side – basically at knee-level. The Virtue on the left here is Donatello’s Hope (1427-9), which you can see twisting towards the front of the font on the far right in the previous image. Like the Feast of Herod this has also been restored, and can be seen in Florence, as can the Faith, which will be restored once the exhibition is over. This is an unprecedented opportunity to see these exquisite figures up close, and to examine them in the round: usually the font gets in the way. On the right of this photo is the Fortitude by Goro di Neroccio: you can just about tell her identity from the right shoulder, which has a hint of an epaulet from a suit of armour. And don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the sculptor – like Turino di Sano (one of whose reliefs was eventually completed by his son Giovanni) there are always more artists: it’s hard to keep up with them all!

So, finally, the relief itself, now that we know its context. Having said that, it is important to know that it is not an independent work of art in its own right, but part of one of the most remarkable collaborative projects of the Early Renaissance, and that it tells just one chapter of the story explaining the relevance of the object for which it was designed. It illustrates a the story of the Baptist’s death, as told in Mark 6:21-28. Prior to this he had been arrested and imprisoned as a result of his disapproval of Herod’s relationship with his own sister-in-law Herodias:

And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.

Donatello creates a complex space to act as the stage on which this drama is enacted. In the foreground, on the right, we see Salome (who isn’t actually named in the text). She is still dancing, but already, on the left, the head is being presented on a charger by a kneeling soldier. We are looking at a typical example of ‘continuous narrative’, in which different elements of the same story occur in one static image. Herod, and the two boys next to him, both recoil from this horror – showing that Herod was, as the text says, ‘exceeding sorry‘. The figures in the foreground – the soldier and Salome – are in high relief, and are effectively statuettes attached to the background. A second plane of representation is formed by those behind the table, together with Herod, who are depicted in lower relief. The back of the room is constructed from a brick or stone wall topped by an arcade, with three full arches visible, and a partial arch leading off to the right. Behind are two more ‘planes’ which Donatello creates to people the narrative further. Through the central arch we can see a someone playing the viol for Salome’s soft shoe shuffle, and in the left arch two strong-looking men turn to look at the musician. Here is one of the pictures I took at the exhibition:

Behind the musician is another wall, with another arcade, and at the very back, is the fourth plane. In each of the successively distant levels the relief becomes shallower, a technique which Donatello invented to coincide with perspective. In paintings objects appear smaller, but also less distinct, as they get further away, corresponding to linear and atmospheric perspective respectively. In a relief like this, the shallowness of the most distant relief is an equivalent to atmospheric perspective. In the left-hand arch, we can see a soldier with the severed head of John the Baptist on the charger: he is coming from the prison where John has just been beheaded. Donatello is adept at using the perspective, and the architecture he invents to define it, to create appropriate spaces in which to stage different scenes from the drama. However, some of the spaces which he creates would seem to have no narrative function. For example, through the right-hand arch in this detail we can see an entablature, which appears to be a continuation of the further arcade. It is supported by a square column, one of two which frame a staircase going up to what must be – given the size of the figures in the very back space (an access corridor?) – a surprisingly low door. Is this actually the prison cell, perhaps? Or is it just Donatello showing off, because he can? He is certainly being very obsessive about the perspective – the two wooden beams projecting from the piers of the nearer arcade wouldn’t seem to have a function either, but they do serve to emphasize the depth of the imaginary space.

The same is true of the square tiles of the floor, divided into triangles. Some of these are stippled, while others go together to make plain diamonds. It is a bravura display of skill and technique, executed after the relief was cast, as part of the ‘cleaning up’ and finishing stage called ‘chasing’. It was presumably done to inspire wonder, to hold your attention, and to pull you into the depth of the relief, and so encourage you to engage with the story. The tiles lead your eye inexorably towards the vanishing point – as does the cloth falling over the edge of the table and the two knives to its right. We also see the feet of the people behind the table – one leaning in towards Herod, the other recoiling, hand across face in disgust. The detailing here, and the carefully layering, creating a convincing spatial arrangement, is another part of the design where I suspect that Donatello was deliberately showing off.

I hope this image is clear enough! I am always intrigued by the precise location of the vanishing point in any perspectival construction, and this is certainly no exception. The vanishing point is on the central axis of the image, but just a bit higher than the central point of the relief as a whole. Or rather, the vanishing point for the lower part of the image is there. The upper elements have a second vanishing point, slightly to the right of the lower one, and a bit higher – precisely at the top of the wall supporting the nearer arcade. What this means is that Donatello is not using single vanishing point perspective, as we usually assume, even though the technique was devised by his friend and colleague Filippo Brunelleschi. Maybe they were aware of its limitations already, or simply realised that you just wouldn’t see this discrepancy. Or maybe it just doesn’t matter precisely how you do it, as any perspectival projection is only an approximation to the way we see things. Nevertheless, I’m still fascinated by the position of the lower vanishing point. Bear in mind where it is – just above the elbow of the woman leaning in towards Herod – and have a look at the image as a whole again.

There is nothing there. There is nothing for us to focus on, even though the vanishing point is theoretically our point of view. We are looking at an empty space – a void. One person shies back from it, another leans away. Between Salome and the kneeling soldier there is an equivalent gap – an opening in the composition which allows us to see the detailed tiling and the feet under the table, and which gives us access to this space: it is our way in. It has been suggested that Donatello was effectively trying to show us the moral void which was the origin of this meaningless murder – and I am inclined to agree. Whatever Donatello’s precise motivation, this is an incredibly sophisticated use of a brand new technique, and underlines his importance for the development of the Renaissance.  

Inevitably there is yet more to say about this image – notably about its influence – and so, like the talks, I will divide this entry into two posts! The second part will follow in a month or so, after we have considered Raphael. I do hope you can make it to Florence to see the exhibition. If you can’t, don’t be too upset, as versions will arrive in Berlin in September, and London, at the V&A, in 2023 – although I suspect those embodiments will not be nearly so inclusive. However, in the meantime, it would be lovely if you could join me for Part 1 of Donatello: The Renaissance on Monday.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

3 thoughts on “154 – A Feast for the eyes

  1. Do you think that the space at the centre – and the place laid at the table – are where we were ‘sitting’ and we have stood up and recoiled in horror as the head is presented? It seems to me that we are looking down on the table from a standing position and Donatello always considers where the viewer is, and the effect changes as we walk past the panel in its original setting. There is a sort of centrifugal force that blasts Herod into the corner – literally corned by his promise.


    1. Hi Sara – I think that’s a great idea. I don’t see why that shouldn’t be the case, and from this point onwards artists often leave us ‘a place at the table’ – because otherwise we wouldn’t see what was going on. However, our eye-level isn’t really that high – it’s the same as Salome’s, which is more or less as the same level as the vanishing point, which is what Alberti would recommend a few years later (it’s quite possible he learnt that from Brunelleschi…).


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