Orsanmichele and its statues V

The recess for Louis of Toulouse on the Via dei Calzaiuoli

We now walk to the Via dei Calzaiuoli where we look at the recess where a sculpture group of Verrocchio can now be seen, but where originally the holy Louis of Toulouse of Donatello stood. We will look at the real statue when we go to the Santa Croce when we cover sculpting. It is located in the museum to the right of the church near the Pazzi chapel. The Parta Guelfa commissioned Donatello to create the Louis of Toulouse, the patron saint of the Parta Guelfa (Click here for Orsanmichele plan, streets and overview statues).

Via dei Calzaiuoli

 Via dei Calzaiuoli Orsanmichele
photo: Patrick Nelson

The niche of the Parta Guelfa in the Orsanmichele was not just one of the fourteen recesses. This recess was situated on the busy street, the Via dei Calzaiuoli, which connects the church with the secular centre. Moreover, this middle recess covers the entire pillar in contrast to the other recess, except for the recess of the Arte dei Maestri. This means that this recess is twice as wide as the other recesses.

Recess for Donatello’s ‘Louis of Toulouse’      In situ

The niche is clearly all’antica. Corinthian pilasters are accompanied by Ionic columns. The shell at the top in the recess is derived from classic sarcophagi. This is also true for the underside where two flying putti hold a wreath and curved faces can be seen at the corners.

The recess is very similar to Brunelleschi’s architecture. It is quite possible that Brunelleschi advised his friend, Donatello, or that he designed his own. The combination of a pilaster and column can also be seen in the Baptistery. This also applies to the spirals at the shaft of the Ionic columns, which are based on the columns of the middle window on the three sides with doors of the Baptistery. The pilasters are reminiscent of those in Masaccio’s fresco of ‘The Trinity‘. At the bottom of the recess, just above the consoles, you see a kind of wickerwork. These are now reed mats. These were used to transport statues from the studio to the place they had to go. Such mats were placed under the statue to prevent damage.

Orsanmichele: Recess for Donatello's 'Louis of Toulouse'   
photos: Dimitris Kamaras

Louis: bishop and beggar

Louis, the eldest son of the king of Naples and Sicily: Charles II, is influenced by the Franciscans. Louis joined a certain group of Franciscans who were quite extreme and later even banned. The Pope only allowed him to join the Franciscans if he accepted the diocese of Toulouse. During the short time he was a bishop, he walked around in ragged clothes and begged for alms, just like the monks of the Franciscans. He seriously considered giving up the episcopate. Lodewijk died young in 1297 at the age of twenty-three. Twenty years later he was canonized. In the second half of the fourteenth century Louis became the patron saint of the Parta Guelfa.

Santa Croce museum: Donatello 'Louis of Toulouse'
photos: Sailko

Donatello ‘Louis of Toulouse’ 1423-1425       In situ S.Croce museo

Donatello wanted to surpass Matthew’s statue of Matthew with his bronze Louis Ghiberti, which we have already seen. The height differs little, but Matthew’s height includes the base. This makes Louis’ statue look bigger. The total width of the pillar 4.5 braccia corresponds to the height of the statue. The statue itself is again half the total height of the whole recess.

Donatello ‘Louis of Toulouse’

Unlike Matthew’s sculpture, Louis’ sculpture is completely gilded. According to Pope-Hennessy, this was one of the reasons why the sculpture was cast in eleven parts (Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Donatello Sculptor’, Abbeville Press, New York/ London/ Paris 1993 p. 52). The other reason is that he wanted to surpass Ghiberti’s Matthew. Ghiberti’s Matthew is a fairly static figure, although his right knee is slightly bent. Louis is much more dynamic. Like Donatello’s Marcus, he was ‘caught’ at a moment in the movement. The right shoulder is slightly retracted and the left foot is forward. The head is turned slightly upward as if it were asking for divine support, and the right hand makes a blessing gesture. The idea of movement extends from the mantle to the albe underneath. You can imagine that just before this position the right hand was down and the left hand was just holding the cloak.

Donatello 'Louis of Toulouse'
Donatello 'Louis of Toulouse' detail
photos: Sailko

Louis of Toulouse

The head is placed exactly between the architrave above the columns, isolating it as it were. The Louis is completely introverted, very different from the St. George we have just seen.

Louis of Toulouse

The statue consists mainly of drapes, it is hollow, a body is missing except for a few protruding feet and a head. The different parts were fastened with bolts. Even the hands are invisible, instead there are only two pairs of gloves. Because there is no body present in this sculpture, Donatello had to make the drapery so that it looks as if it actually covers a body. Nowadays the statue is kept upright at the back by iron supports. Originally there were two parts of the drapery here so that the statue could stand on its own. Not only have the pieces of the robe disappeared, the top of the staff has also disappeared. The Parta Guelfa clearly wanted a very special and expensive statue. A lot of attention has been paid to all kinds of details such as the decorative button of the staff. Here you can see six small and narrow recesses, three of which contain classical putti holding a shield. The mitre has inlays of enamel and glass stones that resemble precious stones.

Donatello 'Louis of Toulouse'

From bronze to a gilded Louis

Of course the entire statue had to be gilded. Donatello was not cheap: instead of gold leaf, he used the so-called red powder. Such a powder is obtained by dissolving one part gold in seven parts mercury. This alloy is then brought to a temperature of 450 degrees, causing the mercury to evaporate and the gold to condense into red powder. This process is called ‘grinding gold’. The red powder is then sprinkled onto the bronze. Then, the bronze with the ground gold is again heated to 450 degrees Celsius in the oven. During the charcoal heating, a sulphuric acid is added to prevent oxidation. In the twelfth century it was known that gilded bronze was very resistant to weather influences, not an unnecessary luxury at the recess in the Orsanmichele for which the Calimala had intended this statue. The problem with gold plating is that the bronze can be easily deformed by the long-lasting heating. A piece was inserted in Louis’ left shoulder, probably due to the distortion that had occurred during the gilding process.

The fate of the statue and the criticism of the Louis

Donatello 'Louis Toulouse' Santa Croce museum

Donatello ‘Louis Toulouse’ S. Croce museum

In the middle of the fifteenth century, Parta Guelfa sold its recess to Mercanzia. The statue of Louis moved to Santa Croce, where it was placed high in the facade above the central door. Today the statue can be seen in the refectory of the Santa Croce.

There was a lot of criticism on this statue by Donatello. Vasari, who knew the Louis only from the façade of the Franciscan church, the Santa Croce, commented as follows: ‘Above the door of the Santa Croce one can still see a bronze statue completed by Donatello, a Louis the Saint of five cubits high; and when Donatello was accused of this being an awkward work and perhaps the least work he had ever made, he replied that he had intentionally made it so, because Louis the Saint had been so awkward to let his kingdom go for a monastery.’ Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel I, 1990, blz. 201

Much of the criticism of the Louis of Toulouse is based on the period that the statue stood in the recess of the facade of the Santa Croce. The question arises as to whether this criticism is justified. After all, the statue is judged separately from its original recess, while the architecture and the statue are precisely attuned to one another by the maker (restoration in the year 2012).

Andrea del Verrocchio and his ‘Doubting Thomas and Christ’ for the Orsanmichele

Andrea del Verrocchio ‘Doubting Thomas and Christ’ replica’    
Original        Rear      In situ

The middle recess, on the Via Calzaiuoli, which we now stand in front of, has already been discussed. This is where the Louis of Toulouse, made by Donatello, stood until the mid-15th century. When the Parta Guelfa sells this recess and Louis moves to the facade of the Santa Croce, the Mercanzia (court for songs) orders Verrocchio to make a bronze sculpture group of Christ’s meeting with his unbelieving disciple Thomas.

Orsanmichele: Andrea del Verrocchio 'Doubting Thomas and Christ' niche

At the feast of John on June 21, 1483, the figures were placed in the recess. Verrocchio received 957 florins for the two statues. The example of the Doubting Thomas was chosen for two reasons:
1.  It was a fine example for good and just government and was therefore often depicted in courts and town halls including the Palazzo Vecchio. 
2. The Medici who took over Mercanzia at the time were especially interested in Thomas. It would be an example of the good governance of the Medici.

Christ and doubting Thomas      Faces of Christ and Thomas

A recess that was made for one statue now gets two bronze statues. Verrocchio solves this in a daring and ingenious way. Ofcourse the two statues had to be considerably smaller than the original statue for this recess: the Louis of Toulouse. Verrocchio did not place Christ and Thomas on the same level, of course Christ came to be higher than his apostle. Verrocchio makes the apostle stand out strongly, Thomas even partly sticks out of the recess, just like the raised hand of Christ. Vasari describes and interprets the attitude of Thomas and Christ in this way: “[…] for in Thomas, not only does one perceive his infidelity and his all too fierce desire to find an explanation for what he sees, but at the same time his love, which causes him to lay his hand on the side of Christ with a beautiful gesture; and in Christ Himself, who in a particularly generous posture raises an arm and opens his garment in order to remove the doubt of his disbelieving disciple, lies all that grace and (so to speak) divinity which art can give to a figure […].” Translated from: Vasari, G., ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam 1990 Deel I blz. 268

Christ shows Thomas the wound

The drapery is used in a way that will reach its peak in the Baroque era. The robes of the apostle and Christ are not only clothes that cover a body, but also become a bearer with a certain psychological charge. For example, Verrocchio divided the large folds in Thomas’ robe into smaller, capricious folds with sharp and angular lines, as if this underlines the state of mind of the doubting Thomas. Thomas had proclaimed loudly that he did not believe in the resurrection of Christ. Verrocchio shows Christ as he shows Thomas the wound he had suffered at the crucifixion.

It is only logical that the apostle will not have felt comfortable with this. If you look at the folds in the robe of Christ – long, simple and placed in a quiet rhythm – you can see how the artist also uses these folds to evoke certain emotions in the viewer. This is something you also see in the seventeenth century in statues by Bernini such as Ludovica or Saint Theresa. Christ and Thomas are depicted in a very naturalistic way, but in a way that depicts Mother Nature in a very aesthetic way. In this respect, Verrocchio fits well with the demands made on art in the Renaissance, as can be read in Alberti, among others. We will see that Donatello was much more idiosyncratic and especially in his two pulpits that we will see in the San Lorenzo. 

Continuation Florence day 3: Orsanmichele and its statues VI