Gattamelata and

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This cast is of the Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata by Donatello; it is a revival of the ancient Roman type. Completed around 1450, Donatello’s statue stands outside of the Basilica of Sant’ Antonio in Padua.

Donatello is synonymous with Florence, the Italian city-state republic where he was born, and with the Medici, whose patronage contributed immensely to the production of Renaissance art. Padua, not Florence, however, is the site of the bronze equestrian statue of Gattamelata (1447-53), from which we have taken this cast, and the Republic of Venice funded its construction. It is likely that the magnitude of such an endeavor drew Donatello to Padua; and well should it have – it was the opportunity of a millennium. The knowledge, technical skill, and artistic technique required to create monuments at such a scale had vanished with the fall of Rome.

The Gattamelata dates from the decade that Donatello spent in Padua (roughly from 1443 to 1453). It is believed that the Venetian State commissioned a monumental tomb to honor Erasmo da Narni, one Venice’s greatest condottieri, the war captains who lead military campaigns for the Italian principalities and city republics. It was thanks to the Gattamalata’s military prowess that Padua was part of the terraferma, Venice’s mainland dominion, and that the Serene Republic had prevailed against the rulers of Milan, the Visconti, thus strengthening government by the many rather than lordly rule.

According to Vasari’s Lives, Donatello accompanied Brunelleschi to Rome, probably around 1409, and visited Rome again in 1425 with the architect and sculptor Michelozzo. In Rome, Donatello surely studied the equestrian statute of Marcus Aurelius near the Lateran Basilica. The exemplary monument of bronze casting had survived thanks to a fortunate misapprehension – generations of Romans believed it to be a statue of Constantine, legitimizing its preservation in the Christianized Roman Empire. We can safely say that Donatello’s goal was to marry classical precedent with his own intense, uniquely visionary realism to produce a monument that would surpass all previous such works, thus address the ages and the audience of his age.

The Gattamelata still stands outside the Basilica of Sant’ Antonio on a marble base resting atop a limestone cenotaph. In the southwest corner of the piazza, framed by the Basilica, the Gattamelata marches into the void of the square, embodying the self-created, striving individual that so captivated the Renaissance. Marcus Aurelius sits rather limply on his horse, a figure of imperial lassitude. By contrast, Gattamelata rides in masterful control, the baton of command crossing his horse’s neck. Horse and rider are alert, in tune as veteran campaigners come to be. Their heads are turned decisively to one side, towards a spectator viewing from the west, their gaze directed towards a focal point in the distance. The horse and rider are momentarily frozen on parade, the sense of dynamic power contained is conveyed in part by stirrups, which gives the rider his dominant “seat” and the five pointed star spur at the center of the horse forming a vertical line down the center of the statue balanced by the horizontality of the marble base.

“It is the crowning virtue of all great art, that however little is left of it by the injuries of time, that little will be lovely.” Turning towards the cast itself, classical precedents provided Dontatello with little guidance in modeling the horse. The horse of Marcus Aurelius and the bronze horses of St. Mark’s, which were comparatively accessible, were ceremonial steeds, more delicate in build than the majestic chargers of the fifteenth century. Furthermore, horses did not figure prominently in Florentine or Tuscan art, the aristocratic allure of the horse was more consonant with the courtly societies of Northern Italy.

Dontatello’s interest in anatomy as well as his sensitivity to physiognomy served him well. Our eyes are drawn to the muzzle, shorter and more massive than that of Marcus Aurelius’ horse, threaded with veins, nostrils flared – a sign of physical toil. A pulsating energy is further conveyed by the open mouth, where the bridle would link the bit to the rider’s hands. The bridle is portrayed in the original bronze statue but does not appear in the cast. Notice the arching crest of the neck, which Degas never mastered, and the muscles of the neck, which, through the slightest projection and recession, seem to move under skin, which ripples from the turning of the head. The popping veins in the neck are captured as are the bony protuberances, in particular the poll, the area between the ears, one of which flickers behind, attentive to the commands of its rider.

It is likely that the marvelous sensitivity to equine anatomy and behavior was developed through sketching and sculpting. It is also believed that Dontaello may have been influenced by Leon Battista’s Alberti’s treatise De Equo Animante, “On the Living Horse,” which discusses the ideal civic horse, festive in triumphal parades, peaceful at home, courageous in war and its physical characteristics, including a great chest, a large body with strong limbs, and a flowing mane and tail. There is a remarkable correspondence, but forms have a life of their own and the extent, if any, to which the words of Alberti affected the imagination of Dontaello remains a mystery. The casting in bronze was sectional – that much we know – but the number of pieces and the procedure employed remains undetermined.

The horse has ceased to fascinate artists, but for centuries all that it represented and physically embodied, including a certain nobility beyond the reach of mankind, has attracted and challenged them. Its influences are apparent in works that range from Leonardo’s countless sketches for a monumental horse, to the moving and patient modeling of Degas, to the sculpture of August Saint-Gaudens, who admired Donatello above all.

Mary Bergstein, “Donatello’s Gattamelata and its humanist audience,” Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn, 2002.

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