Donatello and Luca della Robbia: Two cantorie

We will now look at two cantoria: one by Donatello and the other by Luca della Robbia. A cantoria is a gallery or choir for musicians and singers.

Luca della Robbia Cantoria        Zoom in

Luca della Robbia Cantoria

The two are hanging opposite each other in this museum so we can compare them, but unfortunately not at the original height. In 1443 Luca della Robbia received the commission for a cantoria. Later in the same year Donatello is asked to make a second choir. The benches were placed above the doors of the sacristies in the Duomo: one on the south side and the other (Luca della Robbias) on the north side. In 1688, the choirs were removed. They had to make room for large music company for the marriage of Grand Duke Ferdinand. The cantoria was taken apart and stored to make way for a large wooden stage. After all, the Duke needed quite a few singers, a hundred, and musicians. The marble cantoria were forgotten. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that the benches were reassembled and placed in the Museo dell Opera del Duomo. Unfortunately some parts had disappeared, such as a part of the cornice of the choir of Luca della Robbia. Parts of the cornice are still used for small restorations in the Duomo.  At Bluffton University, two pages with beautiful images of the cantoria of Luca della Robbia and one of Donatello are on display.

Robbia was the first to receive the commission for a choir in 1431. His cantoria, on the cornice and the other two frames, lists the text of psalm 150 which reads as follows:

Luca della Robbia Cantoria detail: Singing
photo: Sailko

Hallelujah Praises God in His Sanctuary,
Praise him in his mighty firmament.
[…] Praise Him with trumpets
Praise Him with harp and zither
Praise Him with tambourine and rowing dance,
Praise Him with strings and flute,
Praise Him with resounding cymbal
Everything that breathes, praise the Lord
Hallelujah’ Can be listened to here

If you look closely at the ten panels (two side panels and eight at the front) of Lucas cantoria, you can see that he adheres to the text of psalm 150. There is singing and playing with cymbals, trumpets and flute, yes even dancing. The panels at the top are flanked by paired and fluted Ionic pilasters. Luca della Robbia was thirty years old at the time he began work on the cantoria and, like Donatello, he had visited Rome and studied classical sculpture. The reliefs of ancient sarcophagi clearly influenced Luca, but also Donatello. The two reliefs on the sides were the first to get carved.


If you look closely, you can see that Luca della Robbia is not really sculpting perfectly here yet. The two arms of the boys singing in the foreground are very long. Moreover, the feet of the two rear figures are not exactly convincingly placed when you compare this with the positions of their bodies. In addition, the figure on the right in the background is not part of the whole.

Luca della Robbia Cantoria detail: Singing
photo: Sailko

In the same year that Luca della Robbia started his cantoria, Donatello was commissioned to create the second choir. Donatello was well aware that sculptures must still be clearly visible from a distance. After all, both choirs would be placed above the doors of the sacristies in the Duomo. Donatello cut much deeper into the marble. Luca copies this as you can see when you compare the different reliefs of Robbia with each other. The way Donatello depicts the fierce dancing children has impressed Luca della Robbia.

Donatello’s Cantoria       Zoom in

Donatello's Cantoria  
photos: Sailko and see Web Gallery of Art
Luca della Robbia Cantoria detail: trumpet dancing
photo: Sailko

Trumpeters dancing and singing children

Take a look at the two outer and upper panels at the front. Especially the left panel shows how he is influenced by Donatello. Trumpet players are depicted with three cheerful and wild dancing children in the middle. It is these dancing children who strongly remind us of what Donatello depicts in his cantoria hanging on the opposite wall. Yet, according to Pope-Hennessy, it is precisely this panel that shows how different the styles of the two artists are. Della Robbia frames the mobility of the middle three dancing girls within a tight and static framework of horizontals and verticals: the trumpeters and their instruments.

Another striking difference between the two cantorias is that with Robbia the subject of all panels is the same, but that each panel forms its own world. With Donatello, on the other hand, there is one continuous relief: a frieze with exuberant dancing, singing and music-making children.

In the year he began work on the cantoria, Donatello was fifty years old and had returned from Rome. In Rome, of course, he had studied classical sculpture well. Both cantoria are based on classical reliefs of Roman sarcophagi. Some of Robbia’s figures can even be traced back to works of art from Antiquity.

Dancing putti and angels       Frieze with putti

Donatello's Cantoria   detail: putti angels dancing
photos: Sailko and frieze Miles Berry

Robbia did combine these classical examples with a study of life. For Donatello, the classical reliefs on the sarcophagi were not so much a source from which he drew, but rather something he wanted to surpass. The figures on the second plan, the background, are often rather arbitrary in classical sarcophagi in relation to those in the foreground. Moreover, the movement of the figures is not always convincing. With Donatello, the proportions of the figures are very realistic and the movements are represented in a natural way.

Donatello's Cantoria  detail: consoles
photo: Sailko

Supporting stones

Some parts of Donatellos choir can be traced back to classical sources. The cornice is based on the temple of Concordia and the thermal baths of Agrippa. The supporting stones are derived from the Forum of Nerva and again the temple of Concordia. Parts of the frieze, directly below the dancing children, can be traced back to Etruscan antefixes.

This does not apply to the angels. Donatello was more interested in a style than in concrete examples he could use. The laurel wreaths Donatello gives to his angels are of course from classical times, but now they are no longer symbolise victory. The exuberant, cheerful, yes almost wild way in which the children are depicted singing and dancing is reminiscent of a procession of the entourage of Bacchus. It goes without saying that it is not the Greek god of wine here, but Christ. The choir is made for the Duomo.

The trumpet

It is often said that Donatello’s cantoria has neither beginning nor end, as if it were a painting on a Greek vase. According to Pope-Hennessy, this is wrong. As with many classical sarcophagi, there is a closing figure at the end. On the right, for example, Donatello has placed a figure with a trumpet facing inwards.

Donatello's Cantoria  detail: trumpet
photo: Sailko

The story that Donatello sculpts has a rhythm of appearing, disappearing and reappearing behind a screen with columns. Did Donatello perhaps have this idea when he walked through a loggia? It is absolutely unique, there are no examples of this in Antiquity, nor in the history of Italian art.

The frieze with putti was once (1904) detached and photographed. Then it turns out that the putti strongly change postures. The dancing is more spontaneous than choreographic.  Moreover, there is also a second row behind the first one that runs in the opposite direction. The putti hold each other by the hand or arm. The whole arrangement is confusing, but is kept in balance by the rhythm of the paired columns.

“[…]  on the base of this organ, Luca placed some scenes of his choirs singing in various ways; he did his best here and succeeded so well in his intentions that one is aware, although it is seventeen cubits above the ground, how the singers‘ throats swell and how the choir leader with his hands on the shoulders of the little ones defines the rhythm, in short, all kinds of sounds, songs, dances and other pleasant activities that make the music enjoyable. […] although […] while Donatello, who later produced the ornament for the organ opposite here, added much more experience and insight to his work than Luca, as we will discuss later: Donatello did his work almost sketchily, and not Donatello cantoria detail Museo dell’Opera del Duomo smoothed, so that it is indeed the case that it would be much better from a distance than Luca’s; for although Luke’s work is carefully designed, it is nevertheless so polished and worked out in detail that the eye no longer distinguishes it all from a distance and does not perceive it as well as Donatello’s work, the forms of which are merely indicated.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel I, blz. 117 (original edition 1568).

Donatello would have deliberately delivered his work roughly. Donatellos cantoria impressed Della Robbia as described above. His work changed under the influence of Donatello.

Luca della Robbia 'Singing music-making'
photo: Sailko

Luca della Robbia ‘Singing and music-making’

Luca della Robbia’s choir is not only finished more delicately, but it also doesn’t use any colours, while Donatello’s background of the putti frieze does have red and gold coloured stones. Moreover, Robbia’s work has a static feel to it compared to Donatello’s reliefs. Donatello’s carving is much freer and goes deeper than Robbia’s. Some legs and arms have been largely carved out by Donatello, leaving behind a shadow on the mosaic. If you compare this with the two upper and middle panels of Robbia you can see how big the differences are. Finally, Donatello’s approach is more earthy in many ways. The putti are not on clouds, but on soil covered with fruit and acorns.

Via Calzaiuoli Orsanmichele

Via Calzaiuoli Orsanmichele Florence
photo: Justin Ennis

Continuation Florence day 3: Orsanmichele and its statues I