Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 11, 2002
Francesco Caglioti Donatello e i Medici: Storia del David e della Giuditta Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2000. 530 pp.; 357 b/w ills. Cloth (8822249410)
Thumbnail

Francesco Caglioti has written a masterful pair of volumes that transform our knowledge about Donatello’s bronze sculptures, the David and the Judith and Holofernes, and consequently our understanding of quattrocento (and cinquecento) Florentine sculpture. The author supports his arguments with an impressive array of documentary discoveries, evidence culled from unpublished contemporary sources, and careful rereading of well-known writers like Giorgio Vasari. Caglioti is equally skilled in stylistic analysis and shows a prodigious command of Renaissance works of art.

Despite the focus indicated by the book’s title, its range is in fact much broader, including a detailed history of both sculptures and their bases after their removal from the Medici Palace in 1495, and their consequent interaction with and influence on sculptures by Andrea del Verrocchio, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Giovanni Francesco Rustici, and Baccio Bandinelli. Caglioti also uncovers much new evidence about the sculptures’ physical context in the courtyard and garden of the Medici Palace, where they were installed from ca. 1464–95, demonstrating that they were displayed along with a fountain sculpted by Antonio Rossellino and Benedetto da Maiano and a significant collection of antique sculptures, including two statues of Marsyas and one of Priapus. The last three statues were restored by Verrocchio, Mino da Fiesole, and others to fit their new home. Caglioti proves that this assemblage of sculptures was due primarily to Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, who followed his father’s initiatives.

The first volume is structured in ten chapters prefaced by an introduction and a brief review of the new evidence—most of which Caglioti discovered—about the inscriptions once on the bases of both the David and the Judith and Holofernes. The following outlines the arguments by chapter:

1. The Judith and Holofernes was commissioned between 1457 and 1464 by Cosimo and his son Piero de’ Medici for the Medici Palace.

2. Gentile de’ Becchi, a scholar who was the tutor of Piero’s children, composed the inscriptions on the David, the Judith and Holofernes, and the Priapus sculptures.

3. The Judith and Holofernes was never a fountain, and its present base is original.

4. The David stood in the Medici Palace courtyard on a column encircled at its base by crouching harpies, which was designed by Donatello and carved by Desiderio da Settignano in the 1450s. (The preceding material and most of the accompanying photographs were published previously in a series of articles in volumes 75/76, 78, and 80 of Prospettiva between October 1994 and October 1995.)

5. The David was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici ca. 1435–40 for the old Medici residence contiguous to the Palazzo Medici on the Via Larga, most likely to stand in the room painted by Bicci di Lorenzo with a cycle of famous men.

6. Given their stature as Old Testament saviors of their people and as an early pairing in exegetical tradition, David and Judith were perpetual models of Christian virtue; hence the iconography of the sculptures should not be interpreted narrowly nor should their commissions be correlated to specific historical events.

7. A unique exception, the interpretation of David as an anti-Turkish symbol, appears in an unpublished manuscript of psalms composed by Giovanni da Castro in 1466 and dedicated to the Medici. It is illustrated by a figure of David, with the inscription once on the base of Donatello’s David below it.

8. There were more changes than previously recognized in the installation of the David and the Judith and Holofernes in various sites in and around the Palazzo della Signoria after they were taken out of the Medici Palace in 1495. Caglioti accounts for these moves and assesses the statues’ coordination with other sculptures at the civic palace, such as Donatello’s Marzocco and Michelangelo’s marble David.

9. There was a marble fountain in the Medici Palace courtyard, carved by Antonio Rossellino and Benedetto da Maiano at Piero’s instigation. Comprised of a wide basin atop a columnar base, it presently stands outside the Galleria Palatina in the Pitti Palace. The fountain, for which Verrocchio provided some details, was reworked in the 1550s by Tribolo and/or Pierino da Vinci. After ca. 1515 it was surmounted by Rustici’s small bronze figure of Mercury, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which probably replaced a figure designed by Donatello, perhaps resembling the Spiritello (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

10. A restored antique statue of Priapus was placed near the entrance from the courtyard to the garden in the Medici Palace, on the garden side. In the accompanying inscription composed by Becchi and now on the courtyard wall, Priapus warned visitors against stealing from the garden in a sexual double-entendre of the sort typical in Greco-Roman literature. Garden statues of Priapus were sanctioned by well-known ancient precedent and advocated by Alberti; nevertheless, the statue’s meanings are dissimilar to the elevated religious and ethical tone of the nearby Judith and Holofernes. Although Caglioti acknowledges that the reliefs on Judith’s base, which depict a bacchanal taking place around a Priapus statue, correspond to it in subject if not interpretation, he points to this discordance as a sign that the group of ancient and Renaissance sculptures in the exterior spaces of the Medici Palace had no set iconographic program and disputes scholars who have tried to connect them more specifically.

The text in the first volume is followed by a series of six appendices in volume 2 collecting contemporary manuscript sources that include the inscription by Gentile de’ Becchi on the original base of the David; unpublished and published sources that describe the David, the Judith and Holofernes, and their bases prior to the publication of the first edition of Vasari’s Lives in 1550; data about both statues’ changing locations; full transcriptions of thirty-four new and partially published documents on Donatello’s late career; the text of the only extant original edition of a play in which Donatello discusses his sculpture with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar; three encomia by Gentile de’ Becchi about Cosimo and Piero de’ Medici; and archival records about the Signoria’s confiscation of the Medici family’s possessions following its overthrow in 1494. The second volume also includes an extensive corpus of excellent black-and-white photographs, including a full series of the bronze David photographed from below in order to simulate the angle at which Caglioti argues the statue would have been seen atop a column inside the earlier Medici residence, then in the Medici Palace courtyard, and after 1495, in the Palazzo della Signoria. Caglioti refines the description of the column supporting the David in the Medici Palace courtyard, reconstructed earlier by Francis Ames-Lewis ( “Donatello’s Bronze David and the Palazzo Medici Courtyard,” Renaissance Studies 3 (1989): 235–51), and is the first to argue that David stood on a column inside the earlier Medici residence.

For many art historians, the most important consequence of Caglioti’s research will be his conclusion that Donatello’s bronze David, for which the patron and date were undocumented and ardently debated, was created at the behest of Cosimo de’ Medici in the late 1430s for the family residence that preceded the Medici Palace. Caglioti argues that a series of works of art that date from as early as the 1440s (such as Domenico Gagini’s St. Sebastian for the Chapel of John the Baptist in the Cathedral of Genoa, and Maso di Bartolomeo’s liturgical candelabrum in Santo Stefano, Prato) reflect the David. He reinforces H. W. Janson’s stylistic argument for an early date (Janson, The Sculpture of Donatello [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963], 81–84) by enlisting the pair of bronze angels (Jacquemart-André Museum, Paris), which formed part of the cantorie, commissioned from Donatello and Luca della Robbia for the Duomo of Florence. He restores them as Donatello’s creation by comparison with the spiritelli atop the Calvacanti Annunciation (Santa Croce, Florence), an unquestioned sculpture by Donatello, and through documentary discoveries of his own and of others about the commission for the cantorie. Caglioti establishes a firm date for the Jacquemart-André angels by their quotation in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Tarquinia Madonna, inscribed 1437. These arguments support a date ca. 1435–40 for the David, at which point Cosimo de’ Medici and his family were living in the “Casa Vecchia.” Caglioti surmises that the David must have stood in the residence’s major room, in fitting accompaniment to the cycle of famous men painted on its walls. Another important consequence of the David’s early dating is that Donatello’s experimentation with optical compensations on a freestanding statue above the viewer’s eye must have influenced Alberti’s discussion in De Sculptura.

As mentioned above, Caglioti includes new photographs simulating a viewpoint from below to demonstrate that Donatello planned the statue to be seen from this vantage. He points out the compensations that Donatello calculated into the statue’s proportions to correct optical distortions and claims that art historians, seduced by the statue’s appearance in straight-on photographs, have misread the figure’s expression and anatomy and consequently misinterpreted the David as being many other things than what it is—a suitable portrayal of the heroic Old Testament boy. Caglioti reconstructs the support on which the David stood in the Medici Palace courtyard as an approximately seven-foot-high, slender column atop a base encircled by crouching harpies. It would therefore follow in the ancient tradition of column-monuments (Säulenmonumente). He supports Vasari’s attribution of the execution of the base to Desiderio and design to Donatello by finding two fragmentary sculptures of harpies that he attributes convincingly to Desiderio in the late 1450s. He proves that the column base was transferred with the sculpture to the Palazzo della Signoria and that it remained extant until at least 1554.

Caglioti also makes the case that the Judith and Holofernes was a column-monument and thus participated in Donatello’s revival of that antique type. By comparing its format and decoration to like features in a series of fifteenth-century objects, he persuasively argues that the base on which it still stands is the original designed by Donatello and executed by close associates. Caglioti thereby ascribes to Donatello (along with Brunelleschi) the revival of the strigil frieze and the double balustrade, both very popular in Renaissance decoration.

He dates the base to 1464, by which time the Judith and Holofernes was installed in the Medici Palace garden, as his (and Christine Sperling’s) discovery of contemporary records proved (Sperling, “Donatello’s Bronze ‘David’ and the Demands of Medici Politics,” Burlington Magazine 134 (1992): 218–24). Caglioti reinterprets a controversial document of 1457 to argue that Donatello took on a commission from Cosimo de’ Medici for the sculpture by that date. According to the author, Donatello put it aside during his sojourn in Siena (1457–61) and finished it on his return to Florence. This contention is supported by new archival evidence from Florence and Siena that disproves Janson’s theory that Donatello began the Judith and Holofernes as a civic monument for Siena and then offered to finish it for the Medici (Janson 202–5). Caglioti cites verses about the Old Testament heroine written in 1469 by Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the wife of Piero, and a sacra rappresentazione about Judith performed in 1485 as evidence of the Medici family’s interest in the subject.

To note just two other interesting discoveries: Caglioti has found documentation that Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano paintings (Louvre, Paris; National Gallery, London; and Uffizi, Florence) were not commissioned by the Medici but were taken by Lorenzo the Magnificent from the Bartolini Salimbeni family, members of which ordered them from Uccello ca. 1438 for their Florentine residence. Caglioti has also unearthed a document which he interprets to mean that the young Raphael, on his sojourn in Florence in 1508, painted the gilding on the belt of brass, copper, and silver leaves that once bedecked the waist of Michelangelo’s colossal marble David.

The evidence that Caglioti brings to bear is dense and varied. Stylistic analysis, depending on analogies to many relevant works of art, is corroborated by a group of archival findings or by unpublished period testimony traced to multiple literary sources. Clues leading to some of these materials were ferreted out by parsing the modern literature on Donatello. Caglioti rightly recognizes his contributions as a vindication of traditional art-historical methodologies in an era when they have been called into question. Doubts about the effectiveness of stylistic analysis in charting the career of a protean artist like Donatello have resulted in too much devaluation of the method. Possibilities of unearthing new documentary material about well-studied, major monuments have been overly discounted, but Caglioti proves these attitudes wrong. Sometimes the reader is slowed in finding information he or she seeks, or is surprised by Caglioti’s tangents, but these are cavils in the face of such a monumental scholarly achievement.

Sarah Blake McHam
Professor, Department of Art History, Rutgers University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.