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

Entrance of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

Entrance Museo dell'Opera del Duomo Florence
 photo: Giovanni Serafini

This building, the Cathedral Factory, was expressly used for what you would now call Florence’s public works, the Opera dell’ Duomo. It was built for craftsmen and artists who worked on the Duomo, the Bargello, the city walls or the Palazzo Signoria (later called Palazzo Vecchio). This is where Michelangelo carved his ‘David’. At Bluffton University you can see beautiful images of many works of art from this museum. Besides the wooden  model of the dome and the lantern, the ground floor also shows Brunelleschi’s death mask. The Etruscans used a death mask as far back as in Antiquity. Immediately after death a wax print was made which was kept in a special shrine on the family altar. At the funeral, the death mask was carried to the grave in the procession. The material, wax, doesn’t stay as good as long of course, so these death masks were often converted into marble from the first century B.C. onwards. This mask of Brunelleschi, which we see here in a glass box, comes from 1446.

In another room you can admire the statues of the Duomo: the facade but also the Campanile. The sculptures are placed in such a way that you can immediately make out the development in sculpture from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Some statues of Arnolfo di Cambio and especially the statues intended for the recesses next to the main entrance of the Duomo, have been discussed before (Click here for the story about the statues of Arnolfo di Cambio in this museum).

Nanni di Banco, Bernardo Ciuffagni, Donatello and Niccolò Lamberti and the four evangelists

In this museum, the Museo dell’opera del Duomo, we will first look at the statues of the evangelists from the fifteenth century (Wikipedia) that were carved for the facade of the Duomo. The nice thing is that you can view the four statues in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo side by side and compare them beautifully.

Carrara marble quarries        Bridge of Carrara

Carrara marble quarries
photos: Steven dosRemedios and bridge: Vincent WR

In May of 1405, two sculptors were sent to Carrara for marble blocks ‘a braccia quadre’, a shape and size with which sculptors could work well. Due to the war with Milan, the blocks could only be transported to Florence in 1408.

When the marble arrived in the workshop, the Opera immediately commissioned three sculptors to carve statues of the evangelists in front of the façade. The person who made the best statue was also allowed to carve the fourth statue. This was of course a handy trick to encourage the artists to do their utmost. The four statues were intended for the recesses right next to the main entrance. Nanni di Banco (Luke), Donatello (John) and Niccolò di Pietro Lamberti (Mark) were commissioned. The sculptures were carved in the side chapels near the entrance of the Duomo.

B. Sansone Sgrilli, after Giovanni Battista Nelli, Façade Duomo,  1755      Four niches
Reconstruction facade in Museum Opera dell’ Duomo

B. Sansone Sgrilli, after Giovanni Battista Nelli, Façade Duomo
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and Reconstruction: Sailko

Sources state there are keys for the chapels, the public was not allowed to see the statues before completion. The three statues started in the same year as the two for the buttresses of Donatello and Nanni di Banco, but the evangelists were only completed seven years later. Clients must have been quite frustrated by the slow pace. It is known that Donatello was warned on May 16, 1415 that he would be fined twenty-five ducats if he had not completed his John. The slow pace was also the reason why the original idea of having the best sculptor carve the fourth evangelist, Matthew, was abandoned. In 1410 Bernardo Ciuffagni was assigned the fourth marble block.

The sculptures are essentially a relief of up to sixty centimetres deep: they are ninety centimetres wide and two hundred and twenty centimetres high. The recesses start at a height of three meters. This means that the church visitor saw the statues from a bottom view. This also explains the overtly long upper bodies as you can see in the museum. The statues are placed a little too low in the room.

Donatello ‘John’ 1408 – 1415

If you kneel down, you can immediately see how body proportions improve considerably. This is particularly true for Donatello’s John. His limp right hand, lying loosely on his lap, changes into a convincing arm in the lower view. The recesses and the height caused two problems: how could the statues really look round given the depth of sixty centimetres and how to take into account the viewer who is clearly positioned lower than the statues? Nowadays, after the expansion of the museum, the images have been placed at the right height.

Niccolò di Pietro Lamberti simply denied the first problem. His statue, Marcus, sits with his head straight ahead. One hand points at the viewer and the other hand rests on the book. One knee is slightly back, but this vivid effect is cancelled out by the heavy drapery which is rather artificial. There are no natural folds.

The statue is barely detached from the block from which it is cut. In this respect it resembles the statue of Boniface VIII from Cambio’s studio. The statue of Bernardo Ciuffagni also suffers from this shortcoming. Bernardo did look very closely at the statue of Donatello: John. It seems like a copy of it, but then significantly less successful. The folds that Ciuffagni and Lamberti gave their sculptures are anything but realistic and look more like decorative lines. Something we have already noticed at the first two doors (Andrea Pisano and Ghiberti) of the Baptistery.

The John of Donatello and The Luke of Nanni di Banco

Donatello 'John' evangelist
Donatello ‘John’ 1408 – 1415
Nanni di Banco 'Luke' evangelist
Nanni di Banco ‘Luke’ 1408 – 1415

The two statues for the recesses of the facade of the Duomo that stand out are Lucas and John by Nanni di Banco and Donatello. Nanni di Banco has the first problem, the shallow depth, conveniently addressed with his Luke. His head is slightly bent forward so that the shoulders look completely round. The right elbow also protrudes sideways, unlike Ciuffagni’s Matthew. The one forearm is set diagonally, the left hand rests on the gospel and the right on his hip. The second problem has not been solved by Banco. The heavy drapery considerably weakens the head and body because of the height.

Donatello 'John' detail: upper part

Donatello ‘John’ 1408 – 1415

Donatello’s solution is much more radical. If the statue is to be freer, it is essential that there is more space at the bottom. To do this, the space occupied by the seat must be reduced. John’s feet come to the edge of the base, while the knees are clearly set to the left. One shoulder is retracted, the head is slightly turned to the left and the hands are placed on different planes (in the block). The figure is caught at a moment in the movement.

Both statues are not really consistent. If you look closely at the two evangelists, you can see that Donatello and Nanni di Banco, as sculptors, have developed considerably over the many years they have worked on it. Nanni has carved his Lucas from bottom to top and by the time he reached the top he had already learned a lot. The exact opposite applies to Donatello. He started at the top, the bottom is significantly better.

The face of Luke

The draperies at the bottom of Luke still show the traces of the trecento. The folds on the underside look like dough, while every now and then they fall so randomly that it is difficult to accept them as real. The right knee is not correct, especially if you compare it with the rest of the leg and especially the foot: an anatomical impossibility. There is a clear difference with the upper side which is significantly better carved. The robe runs from the left shoulder to his hand in one long stroke. There is a convincing space between the garment and the torso. The belt is actually around the waist and the folds look realistic. The hair, beard and eyebrows are also depicted in a very naturalistic way. ‘Here is a convincing representation of draperies in the Florentine sculpture’ The hair, beard and eyebrows are also depicted in a very naturalistic way. The face has individual features. This will undoubtedly have been inspired by Banco’s knowledge of Roman portraiture. The frowned eyebrows suggest a concentrated Lucas, while the recesses in the eyeballs are directed at the gospel book he holds in his hand.

Nanni di Banco: face of 'Luke' detail: Face
photos: Sailko
Donatello 'John' detail: upper part

Donatello ‘John’ upper part      Bottom part

The notches in the pupils of John of Donatello were probably made in the sixteenth century. The original eyes remove any link with the viewer or anything occurring outside the evangelist. For John the exact opposite is true as for Luke: Donatello started with the top and then worked down. Again we find a striking difference between the top and bottom. The hairs look more like a wig, while the beard hairs are vaguely worked out. What is nice is how the eyebrows are squeezed together and the way the hairs are indicated by a few rough strokes, the upper drapery is very flat and schematically done. The folds on the underside are much deeper and more convincing. As he progressed, Donatello learned to carve much deeper into the bloc.

It is clear that both artists have made enormous progress, not only with regard to the ‘two sides of each statue’, but certainly if you compare these statues with the two figures previously carved for the buttresses: Isaiah and the prophet David.

Continuation Florence day 3: Donatello: five statues for the Campanile