Nanni di Banco and Donatello: buttresses Duomo and Porta della Mandorla

Nanni di Banco ‘Isaiah’ 1408       Zoom in

We walk into the Duomo to see a statue of Nanni di Banco: Isaiah. Donatello and Nanni di Banco were commissioned to carve two large sculptures for the buttresses of the Duomo. In the frescoes by Andrea di Firenze in the Spanish chapel, the Duomo is still depicted with statues on the buttresses, but these were hardly visible from the square. Both artists had already worked together with Brunelleschi on the wooden model for the dome. Donatello was commissioned one month after Nanni di Banco in 1408 to make a sculpture for the buttresses of the Duomo. According to his clients, the Opera del Duomo, Donatello had to work ‘in a way, under the conditions, and for a fee as stipulated in the contract with Banco.’ The statues, Isaiah (Duomo) and the prophet David (Opera del Duomo) were of the same size, but Donatello still received one hundred florins and Nanni di Banco only eighty-five.

Nanni di Banco ‘Isaiah’ 1408  
photos: Sailko
Donatello (?) 'Prophet David'

Donatello (?) ‘Prophet David’

Both artists worked on their statues almost simultaneously. The Isaiah of Nanni di Banco stood on the buttresses on the north side. The distance turned out to be far too great for his statue of 191 cm. The statue was soon placed in the facade of the Duomo and was later moved to the inside of the facade. The style of Isaiah is still clearly Gothic as it was the trend at the time. The elegant posture fits well with the international style. However, in this case this posture may have been chosen to break through the overly strong vertical accent of the buttress as a plinth. In the literature on Donatello, the art historian Janson, among others, wrongly considers the young David (Bargello) to be the statue that had to be on the buttress. However, this is incorrect simply because of the shape of the base, square, that simply does not fit on a buttress. While the prophet David does have a pentagonal base that fits exactly on the buttresses  just like Nanni di Banco’s Isaiah. We watch Donatello’s statue in the Opera del Duomo behind the Santa Maria del Fiore. The prophet David (controversial attribution Nanni di Bartolo or Donatello) seems to sing given the spread lips, his gaze is directed upwards. At the right hand near the shoulder there was another connection to the body.

Apparently Donatello was worried that the hand would break off, particularly at the height of the buttresses where the wind has free play. A special feature of the statue is the emotional expression of the prophet, which is something you do not see in the other statues for the Duomo. Brunelleschi, Donatello’s friend had previously made small silver figurines including one of Augustine for the Duomo in Pistoia. These figurines were probably the source of inspiration for Donatello’s prophet David.

Portrait of Donatello

While working on the prophet David, Donatello is already commissioned to make a second sculpture on the buttresses, a true giant of terracotta: Joshua. Despite the failure of Nanni di Banco’s Isaiah and the statue of Donatello that did not end up in the intended place, the project involving the buttresses still continued. In 1410, the giant was already placed  the buttress and in 1412 it was decided that Donatello would be awarded 128 florins for it (You could see it from far away (left in the background; Ferdinando del Migliore). You could see it from far away (left in the background).. The statue remained in place until the seventeenth century. It is only known from documents and old engravings. Joshua was colossal just like Nero’s statue at the Colosseum.

For Antiquity, this was not unusual, Pliny also mentions it, but for the Renaissance this is completely new. This also applies to the material, terracotta, which was only plastered with white lime. After this it was painted white, making it look as if there was a marble statue on the buttress of the Duomo. The statue, more than five times a man’s normal size, was clearly visible from the square,  quite an improvement compared to the prophets David and Isaiah. The Joshua giant must have been a great problem for Donatello due to its dimensions and its placement at such a height. Until 1415, Donatello and Brunelleschi were involved in the sculpture programme for buttresses, as evidenced by the payments for small marble statues with gilded lead. These small models were a preliminary study for the giant. This gilding with lead was probably an experiment to prevent the white lime from having to be whitewashed or washed every year.

The Porta della Mandorla: a special portal of the Duomo

We walk to the north side of the Duomo where the Porta della Mandorla can be found.

Porta della Mandorla

Porta della Mandorla Duomo Florence
photo Alexandra

In the late fourteenth century, the four portals of the Duomo were given a sculpture. Three are not really worth it, but the Porta della Mandorla is a striking work of art.

Porta della Mandorla      The top      The door

The Porta della Mandorla was made in three phases. First, the reliefs were carved around the door, followed by the sculpture in the tympanum. Finally, work completed on the statues on the pedestal near the pediment. The vertical frames next to the door are quite striking for the Gothic era. Here you see all kinds of figures and nude figures between the foliage. This can now be found in classical sculpture. Hercules is shown four times: once upright in a classical contrapposto position and three times while in battle. Especially the upright Hercules heralds a new style in sculpture: the Renaissance.

Porta della Mandorla Duomo Florence
photos: Sailko; top: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta
Porta della Mandorla: 'Hercules'  Duomo Florence
photos: Sailko


The sculptor of this remarkable Hercules is not known. Suggestions have been made that they were young sculptors in training such as Ghiberti or Donatello, but there is no concrete evidence for this.

Donetello 'Young Profet' Porta della mandorla
Donetello ‘Young Profet’
Nanni di Banco Young Profet' Porta della mandorla
Nanni di Banco ‘Young Profet’

The artist of the work in tympanum of the Porta della Mandorla is well known: Nanni di Banco. It is his last major work before this sculptor dies in 1421. The Assumption of Banco is based on a relief from 1359, which Orcagna made in the Orsanmichele and which we will look at later.

Andrea Orcagna ‘Assumption of the Virgin’       ‘Dormition of the Virgin’ 1359

Andrea Orcagna 'Assumption of the Virgin 1359
photos; Sailko and Web Gallery of Art

Nanni di Banco ‘The assumption of Mary’

Nanni di Banco 'The assumption of Mary' Porta della Mandorla
photos: Sailko Wikipedia

Nanni di Banco ‘Mary’

While the Virgin of Orcagna is sitting and being portrayed frontally, the Virgin of Nanni di Banco is turned: she is looking at Saint Thomas who is kneeling below her. At the lower right, a bear boy climbs into a tree. According to the stories, even after he had felt the wound of Christ after his resurrection, the apostle Thomas still doubted the Ascension of Mary. She could only convince the critical Thomas by giving him her belt. At the top of the tympanum are three angels making music. The angels of Orcagna, not exactly cut to life, are exchanged by Banco for athletic lifelike figures.

Vasari was impressed, especially by the angels who accompany Mary to heaven. He writes: you find

“[…] In a mandorla to the Madonna, who is carried to heaven by a choir of angels making music and singing with the most beautiful movements and postures – one sees the speed and turbulence of their flight – like no one had ever made them before. Likewise, the Madonna is dressed so gracefully and honorably that it cannot be better imagined, for the fold is beautiful and supple, and the slips of her robes, which follow the lines of the naked figure, show how each bend of the limbs revealed in a concealed fashion; beneath this Madonna is a Thomas who receives the belt. “ Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste Schilders, Beeldhouwers en Architecten Painters, Sculptors and Architects van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990  Volume I blz. 113

As far as angels are concerned, the Renaissance has already begun. In the past, this Assumption of Mary was attributed to Jacopo della Quercia by, among others, Vasari. Given the flamboyant folds, this is not surprising. Pope-Hennessy typifies this relief as a work of art that does not point to future developments, but rather looks back. This is in contrast to the statues of Nanni di Banco such as St Luke (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) or his Quattro Coronati, which we will be viewing at the Orsanmichele. The mosaic of the Annunciation that you can see above the door is the work of Domenico and David Ghirlandaio. Domenico is the painter with whom Michelangelo was still apprenticed as a young boy, but more about this on the days of painting.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Ghirlandaio mosaic Porta della Mandorla
photo: Sailko

We walk to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, but before this we take a look at the statues in niches of the Duomo. We will view the original four statues directly in the museum at the back of the Duomo. Statues of Nanni di Banco, Bernardo Ciuffagni, Donatello, Niccolò Lamberti.

B. Sansone Sgrilli, naar Giovanni Battista Nelli, Façade Duomo,  1755      Four niches

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Continuation Florence day 3: Nanni di Banco, Bernardo Ciuffagni, Donatello and Niccolò Lamberti: Duomo statues of four evangelists