Donatello’s Mark and St. George
Donatello made three statues for the reccesses of the Orsanmichele. One statue, the Louis of Toulouse, was later removed from the middle recess on the Via dei Calzaiuoli. This statue can now be seen in the old refectory of the monastery, now a museum, at the Santa Croce. In the recess that Donatello designed, a sculpture group by Verrocchio was later placed: Christ and the doubting Thomas. We walk back to the Via de l’Amberti, where the left corner pillar contains the replica of Donatello’s Mark. (Click here for Orsanmichele plan, streets and overview statues).
The Mark of Donatello: a true revolution
On 15 February 1409, the sculptor Niccolò di Pietro Lamberti was commissioned by the linen guild to take three blocks of marble with a height of 3.75 braccia from Carrara for a statue of Mark: the patron saint of this guild. Five years later, on 29 April 1411, the guild, Arte dei Lianiauoli e Rigattieri (guild of linen makers and street merchants) commissioned Donatello to take the Carrara marble block and craft a statue for their recess in the Orsanmichele. The contract stated that the statue had to be completed in 19 months. Donatello promised to make the statue ‘gilded and with all appropriate decorations’. A few months after Donatello signed the contract, two stonemasons made the recess. The sculpture was almost completed around 1413. For a sculpture like this, around ninety florins was the usual price. Donatello got more than double: two hundred florins. The statue had to be finished quickly otherwise the rights to the recess would expire.
If you compare this statue with those we saw of Donatello, but also of Nanni di Banco in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and the Duomo, you can rightly speak of a true revolution. The style of Donatello’s prophet David and the David (Bargello) or Nanni di Banco’s Isaiah belong to the Middle Ages, particularly international gothic. If you start from the standard that artists and art critics from the Renaissance set for good art, then the statue of Mark clearly falls under this heading. In short, the statue of Mark is in all respects a picture in the new style: the Renaissance. Ten years later, the Masaccio would also for the first time paint in this style. We will be able to see this when we look at the Brancacci chapel (Tribute money) on the days we cover painting. They were sculptors like Donatello and Ghiberti who started the Renaissance. Painting would only follow years later.
The evangelist Mark by Donatello: a buono maniera moderna?
The way Mark stands is very natural. If you compare the clearly exaggerated attitude of the Prophet David by the hand of the same artist with this, you can clearly see how big the difference is. Mark leans on his right leg, his shoulder above it is slightly retracted and the right arm and hand hang down. The other arm is also slightly bent. His left foot is placed on the extreme edge of the cushion. One knee is bent and the left shoulder is slightly forward. The heavy foliant of the gospel is held in place by his hand and supported by his hip.
If you compare the dress of Donatello’s prophet David with Mark’, you see big differences. With Marcus there is clearly a body under the dress. In fact, you get the impression that the artist started from a naked body and then added a dress and then another cloak. With the prophet David, it appears as if the dress was carved first to then just add a head, hands and feet. If you compare the folds with each other, there is a world of difference that can be summed up in three words: decorative versus realistic. Donatello dipped real clothing in plaster and used this as a model. Someone probably stood model for the statue of Mark. The folds of the statue run parallel to the fluting of the columns. The folds in the leg, on the other hand, are irregular. This is therefore no longer a decorative pattern as is customary in the international or courtly style. The overcoat, which looks a lot like a gown, is made of a thin material, perhaps even the linen that the clients of this sculpture produced, while the more coarsely woven cloth has different pleats than the cloak.
Because of the realistically chopped hands and feet and the rotation of the head, it seems, at least as far as the posture is concerned, as if the evangelist makes contact with Mark. Mark’ gaze and head are very convincing. The incision in the pupils and the wrinkles in his forehead give the impression that this evangelist is in a state of mind of inner concentration. This gives this marble sculpture not only a natural posture, perfect proportions and realistic clothing with real folds, but also a human expression of mind. This Mark could, so to speak, become alive at any moment.
Michelangelo, who was not at all fussy with compliments for other artists, made an exception for Donatello and his Mark, because according to Vasari in the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti:
“And once he had stood by the Orsanmichele to see Donatello’s statue of Mark, and when a citizen asked him what he thought of that figure, Michelangelo replied never to have seen another figure that gave the impression of being so righteous, and if Mark was indeed so righteous, he said, one could easily believe what he had written.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel 2, blz. 287 (originele editie 1568).
Although the Mark is not directly based on a classical portrait or statue, it is clear that it is based on an intensive study of classical statues and portraits. Donatello had visited Rome as mentioned before. However, the way in which the wrinkled forehead, beard, eyebrows and recesses in the pupils were carved is much freer than the classical sculptors did with portrait busts.
Mark does not have a usual pedestal as you can see with the other statues in the recesses of the Orsanmichele, but a pillow. This is an allusion to the linen guild. However, the pillow still has an important function. It shows that Mark’ weight is tangible through his feet that lightly press the cushion.
The deep recess in which Mark is placed makes it impossible to look at the statue from more angles. Although it is a freestanding statue, the recess makes it in fact a relief, albeit a very deep one. The back of the statue is therefore hardly worked out, as this would not be visible anyway. We have already seen this with John the Evangelist in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where the back is also kept rough and unfinished. The recess is 2.4 meters above street level, sixty centimeters lower than the recess near the Duomo for the John. So you are watching Mark from below. Here too Donatello makes the upper body, between the hips and shoulders, longer. Face to face with the statue this is very unsightly, but in the lower view it works very well. Vasari knew this all too well, as can be seen from his story about the statue of this evangelist: ‘[…] and for the guild of the flax merchants, the evangelist Marcus; he had started this last statue together with Filippo Brunelleschi, but then he finished it alone, with Filippo’s permission. This figure was so judiciously made by Donatello that, as long as the statue stood on the ground, those who were not competent did not see how good it was, so that the consuls of the guild did not want to have it placed; Donatello said that they had to give him permission to place it higher, because he wanted to show that they would then, after he had worked on it, see another figure. This happened, and he kept the work covered for two weeks; then, without having done anything about it, he revealed it and astonished everyone.’ Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel 2, blz. 196 (originele editie 1568).
During a major cleaning in the nineties, traces of gilded stamps were discovered, particularly at the edges of the cloak and the cloth. In this respect Donatello therefore kept his own promise to make the Mark ‘gilded and with all appropriate decorations’
The next statue Donatello carved for the Orsanmichele was a legendary holy knight.