Donatello and the Old Sacristy in the San Lorenzo II

Old Sacristy

Interior Old Sacristy  San Lorenzo
photos: Sailko and Steven Zucker

The recesses above the two bronze doors in the Old Sacristy

Brunelleschi made the two arches above the current doors to the right and left of the altar room. Only later were these open passages given doors with recesses above them. After the tondos, Donatello made the two bronze doors and the mouldings around the doors. The aediculas around the bronze doors were probably made by Michelozzo.

Above the left door, the door of the martyrs, we can see St. Stephen, with the stone on his forehead, and St. Lawrence, with the grid on which he was burned. Above the right door, the door of the apostles, the saints Cosmas and Damian are depicted. The last two were the patron saints of the Medici. Lawrence looks at Stephen and seems to be talking to him. The heads and the way the hair of both saints is modelled are based on Roman portrait busts.

The bronze doors: the ‘martyr’s door’ left and the ‘apostle’s door’ right

Analysis of the bronze doors in the Ancient Sacristy of the San Lorenzo shows that this bronze contains twenty-five percent tin. Tin was expensive and normally only ten percent tin was used for bronze. The more tin the harder the bronze becomes. A lot of tin was mainly added to the copper when clocks had to be made. That is why it was probably bell makers who cast these doors. This mixture with such a high tin content is ideal for bells, but not for statues or reliefs. Such an alloy of copper and tin is rather brittle, which makes the extensive cropping (chiselling cast objects with a chisel or making figures in them) an extremely difficult task. Moreover, the hammering for this type of bronze is also a risk, because it easily cracks. It is with good reason that the doors of the Ancient Sacristy have hardly been worked on. The heads of the apostles and martyrs are rather sketchy and still strongly resemble the wax model. The background of the figures is flat and cleaned after it came out of the mould. The only chiselled places are the draperies of the apostles and martyrs. Donatello worked the robes with a drift hammer and a narrow round head hammer, a so-called hammer pin. This allows the figures to separate from the background.

The doors are quite simple and in design resemble the usual wooden doors or small ivory altarpieces. All the panels of the two doors, twenty in total, have in common that on each panel there are always two figures facing each other. Figures that always react to each other; they are in a conversation, have a heated discussion or turn away from each other. For many pictures of the door of the martyrs and the door of the apostles see Wikipedia (Italian). 

Apostles in debate       In situ

The way Donatello depicts the postures of the figures gave rise to the necessary comments from Alberti and Filarete, among others. The latter’s criticism was partly based on Alberti’s, ‘De Pictura’, and read: ‘it suits a runner to wave his arms and legs, but a philosopher who changes his mind must restrain his attitude instead of behaving like a fencer’ Alberti, however, believes that because of the suggestion of movement and the acquisition of lively figures, you should not show illogical postures. For instance, you cannot show both the front and the reverse, because that results in ‘fencers and acrobats without any artistic dignity’.’ It is quite possible that Donatello also depicted real philosophers and theologians in his left door. The books, the gestures, the pointing fingers, the looks and postures are reminiscent of theologicalApostkles in debatedebates. The sources on which Donatello relies are probably found in Byzantine miniatures, just like the images in the tondos.

Old Sacristy Donatello: apostle’s door: Apostles in debate

Peter and Paul       In situ

The figures on the right door can be identified, but this only applies to the two panels on the top of the other door. However, the martyrs did have their usual attribute: the palm branch. Some martyrs use this branch as a pen. According to Pope-Hennessy, no real palm branches are depicted here either, but pens. Peter can be seen in the right door while pointing at Paul. Paul was angry at a remark from Peter. He makes a retreating and defensive gesture with the hand resting on his sword.

Peter rebelled against Paul because he did not behave Jewish. This can be read in the New Testament in Galáten 2: 11-14  ‘At the table with Gentiles, but when they came he [Paul] withdrew and secluded for fear of the circumcised [the Jews].’

The bronze reliefs on the ‘door of the martyrs’ give the impression of a ‘certain speed and lightness’. In comparison, the reliefs of the other door are a lot less interesting and rather mediocre, according to Pope-Hennessy. Donatello had only completed one door before he left for Padua. The ‘door of the saints’ was received rather critically, it probably deviated too much from how an artist at that time was supposed to depict reality. Donatello was rather stubborn. Of course he remains a Renaissance artist. Yet his style is occasionally quite different from how other artists like Ghiberti worked, but more about this when we look at the pulpits in the nave of the Santa Croce.

The door with the saints is certainly by Donatello’s hand. The two upper figures to the right of the other door, Cosmas and Damian, are not from Donatello, but probably from MichelozzoThey were made after Donatello left for Padua.

The way Donatello depicts the postures of the figures gave rise to the necessary comments from Alberti and Filarete, among others. The latter’s criticism was partly based on Alberti’s, ‘De Pictura’, and read: ‘it suits a runner to wave his arms and legs, but a philosopher who changes his mind must restrain his attitude instead of behaving like a fencer’ Alberti, however, believes that because of the suggestion of movement and the acquisition of lively figures, you should not show illogical postures. For instance, you cannot show both the front and the reverse, because that results in ‘fencers and acrobats without any artistic dignity’.’

Martyrs       In situ

Old Sacristy Donatello: bronze door
photos: Steven Zucker

 It is quite possible that Donatello also depicted real philosophers and theologians in his left door. The books, the gestures, the pointing fingers, the looks and postures are reminiscent of theological debates. The sources on which Donatello relies are probably found in Byzantine miniatures, just like the images in the tondos.The effect of this is that you immediately see a continuous space behind the vertical frame as if it were the column of a loggia. In all twenty scenes, Donatello manipulates with similar postures of the figures and always with the effect that there seems to be a real space.

We now walk back to the nave where on both sides you can see two pulpits on four columns with bronze reliefs.

End of day 3 Sculpture (day 3 and 4)

Continuation Florence day 4: Donatello’s pulpits in the San Lorenzo