Verrocchio and Donatello in Palazzo Vecchio

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Palazzo Vecchio courtyard Verrocchio Putto
photo: Paolo Villa
Andrea del Verrocchio ‘Putto with Dolphin’

Andrea del Verrocchio ‘Putto with Dolphin’

We take a look at two more statue: the ‘Putto with dolphin’ by Verrocchio and Donatello’s ‘Judith and Holofernes’. We go up the stairs to the top floor to: the Cancellaria Dettatori. Here you can see the original Putto. In the courtyard you saw when you entered this palace, there is a replica of this putto. The David by Verrocchio is beautiful to see on all sides when you walk around it. This applies even more to his Putto. The winged boy seems to have a good mood. The statue has the proportions of a real child. As you can see from the position of his legs and feet, he is walking while also holding a dolphin with both hands. You must definitely walk around this cheerful guy. You will be surprised how each side of this 69 cm high figure is surprising and convincing from a compositional point of view.

Putti       Rear       Zoom out

After what you have seen before, you notice that this bronze Putto is also a spiral. According to Pope-Hennessy, this is ‘the source of the figura serpentinata of the sixteenth century’ (Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Italian Renaissance Sculpture’ volume II, Phaidon, London 1996 (2000 paperback edition) 136). And it should be noted that this is not a sculpture of marble, but of bronze. Bronze means that you work with clay, which is easy to knead. Whereas a mistake during carving can be fatal, this does not apply to clay. Mistakes can be fixed with great ease and kept invisible. Therefore, a marble figura serpentinata from the quattrocento does not exist. Given the method of carving, from front to back, this was not evident, either. It was Michelangelo who would do this first, as we saw in the Salone del Cinquecento.

Andrea del Verrocchio ‘Putto with Dolphin’ detail
photos: Sailko

The Judith and Holofernes of Donatello

Donatello 'Judith and Holofernes'  
photos: Sailko and zoom: HarshLight

Donatello ‘Judith and Holofernes’      Zoom in

In front of the facade on the left is a replica of Judith and Holofernes: a bronze statue of Donatello. Judith and Holofernes and Donatello’s bronze David were ordered by the Medici, but no assignments or contracts are known. It is certain that at the end of the fifteenth century both statues stood together in the Medici-Riccardi Palace: one in the courtyard and the second statue, Judith and Holofernes, in the middle of the garden. The theme of both statues is the same: Judith and David are both biblical figures from the people who defeat a tyrant (Wikipedia).

Donatello ‘Judith and Holofernes’ replica

In 1495, when Piero di Lorenzo de Medici was expelled from Florence, the two statues moved to Palazzo Vecchio. The column on which Judith stood carried two inscriptions:

Kingdoms go down by luxury, cities come up by virtue. Keep your head up proudly with a modest hand. A second inscription on the back reads: Public prosperity. Piero son of Cosimo de’Medici dedicated the statue of this woman to the freedom and power of the citizens, with a resolute and invincible spirit, for the public cause. The second inscription was of course removed from Florence after the Medici were expelled when the statue was placed in the Palazzo del Vecchio. It was replaced by: Exemplum sal[utis] pub[licae] cives pos[uerunt] MCCCCXCV, or, the citizens have made (this) as an example of public salvation in the year 1495.
The first inscription is probably the original and the second was added only later, presumably in 1464 after the death of Cosimo il Vecchio.

Donatello 'Judith and Holofernes'  detail replica
photo: Dimitis Kamaras
Donatello 'Judith and Holofernes'  detail: Head Holofernes replica
photos: Dimitris Kamaras

Holofernes replica

The statue of Judith and Holofernes is based on Judith’s apocryphal book. Judith was a charming woman, a wealthy widow. The city, Bethulia, is attacked by the Assyrian king Holofernes. This king had the water supply to the city cut off and it looked bleak for the inhabitants of the besieged city. Judith, with her servant, travels to the army camp of the Assyrians. Holofernes is enchanted by her beauty and she seduces him to many a cup of wine. When he gets drunk and loses consciousness, she strikes with the sword and thus the book of Judith reads: ‘She struck twice with all her might’ With his head hidden in a bag she sneaks away from the army camp. The next day the army discovers what happened and puts an end to the siege of Bethulia and so the brave Judith saved her city. The first battle was enough to take Holofernes’s life. The second was needed to take the head back to the city as a trophy. Painters from the quattrocento often avoided the beheading itself.

Donatello ‘Abraham and Isaac’

Mostly, what was painted was the discovery of the decapitated body or the return of Holofernes to Bethulia. Donatello had already carved two figures for the Campanile recess,  Abraham and Isaac, but there he stays ambiguous on whether the sword does its destructive work. With his Judith and Holofernes, however, the most dramatic moment in the story can be seen. If you look closely at the statue, Holofernes’ neck shows the signs left behind by the first slash of the scimitar.

The entire posture of Judith indicates that she is about to deliver the second blow, intending to take his head. Her foot is on the hand of Holofernes, and with her left hand, she pulls Holofernes’ head backward, while her right hand raises the sword to strike. From the front, Judith appears as a hero performing a heroic act. However, when viewed from the side, her heroism completely disappears. Judith’s facial expression then betrays fear, as well as disgust towards the beheading. Her upper lip is slightly drawn back, and her lower lip protrudes forward.

Donatello 'Abraham and Isaac'

The Judith and Holofernes is the first bronze statue with two life-size figures since Antiquity. The pedestal, which again stood on a column, is triangular. On top of this is a square wine bag with the two figures on it. For his Marcus, Donatello had also placed a steadfast figure on an unstable surface: a pillow. Pope-Hennessy talks about no less than seven facial angles from which you can see the two figures: three from the triangular base and four from the wine bag (Pope-Hennessy 281). The side of the pedestal to which the wine bag runs parallel is also the front of the statue. At the back, the legs of Holofernes hang over the wine bag. On the right, the vertical arm of Holofernes leads to Judith’s raised hand with the sword.

Donatello 'Judith and Holofernes'  detail: Head Judith


A thorough cleaning after the Second World War revealed that Donatello, in preparation, first made a skeleton of a standing figure. He then covered this figure with cloth immersed in wax. If you look at Judith’s forehead, you see another remnant of the cloth, where the bronze has disappeared. It also became evident that the statue was cast in eleven parts. Judith’s head, chest and shoulders were cast in one go. Her two arms were cast separately, as were the sword and the right hand. The body, from the waist to just above Judith’s knees, is also cast in one go. At the knees, the place where the two separately cast parts meet is concealed by a veil. Judith’s left hand, the body of Holofernes and the wine bag were cast in one go. This does not apply to the legs of Holofernes which were cast separately. The result is that the colours of the bronze always differ slightly.

Donatello ‘Allegory of drunkenness’

The triangular base has three reliefs of Bacchus: the harvesting of the grapes, their pressing and an allegory of drunkenness. Like the wine bag, this of course refers to the way Judith made Holofernes drunk. It is likely that two of the reliefs were made by Giovanni di Bertoldo. The relief with the allegory of drunkenness is by Donatello. The corners of the wine bag and the masks in the three reliefs have cut-outs to let water through. This indicates that the statue was the crowning glory of a fountain.

And so Vasari wrote : ‘[…] he was so satisfied that he wanted to put his name on it, which he had never done in other works; and one sees this in the following words: [front of cushion] DONATELLI OPUS.

Donatello 'Allegory of drunkenness' detail
photos: Sailko
Bandinelli view from  courtyard Palazzo Vecchio

Bandinelli view from the courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio

To the right of the Judith and Holofernes you see the famous statue of Michelangelo: the David. This is where the Judith and Holofernes first stood. It will be clear by now why later on this David came to be in the immediate vicinity of the Judith and Holofernes. Because we already covered the story of the David by Michelangelo in the Accademia (Click here if you want to read this story) we will look at the pendant of David at the right side of the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Continuation Florence day 4: Bandinelli and Michelangelo: Hercules and Cacus