The Italian Renaissance sculptor, Donatello, begins work on his Cantoria (the word means singing gallery, but the object being sculpted is an organ cover) in 1433, two years after Luca della Robbia had begun his. As we mentioned in the previous blog, both works were made for the Cathedral of Florence as part
of the decoration near the altar.
The belt is a Medieval piece of green leather that could have fit neatly around the waist of a young woman.
belt is the prime sacred relic owned by this town, the pulpit functions as a permanent display
on the days when the real belt is kept inside the church. The main architectural feature of the Prato Duomo looks like a belt mid-way up the body of the building. The architectural and sculptural appendage on the exterior advertises the town's relic held in the interior.
The real bas-reliefs that Donatello carved are kept now in the cathedral museum, while the outdoor ones are replicas. But a visitor to the museum can see closeup the dancing putti that Donatello carved before he started the Cantoria. And, just as Luca della Robbia is influenced by
Donatello in his Cantoria, Donatello is influenced by Luca as well; the artistic exchange during this
period must have moved both ways. Donatello's putti are framed within seven separate units on the
begins on the right end panel and ends on the left end panel. The effect in Donatello's Cantoria is continuous motion from one end to the other.
It is displayed in the figures on the front of the Cantoria. The larger space between the pairing of the colonnettes has one figure that stands out in highest relief.
Beginning with the first large gap in the front right, the angel or putto (child with wings) who is set out in highest relief steps on his right foot and swings his left foot up behind him as he moves forward:
In the next large gap between the colonnettes to the left, the largest and most deeply carved figure
steps on his left foot and swings his right foot behind:
The third left gap holds a figure who steps with right foot, his left behind, imitated by the child behind him:
The rhythm of this step sequence is from right to left: step right, step left, step right, stop:
figure in the dance. Donatello wanted to convey continual movement and he knew that he could do that by repeating one figure in stepping sequence: right, left, right, stop.
What about the side panels? To begin the motion he carves two putti on the right side panel who run left under an arch formed by trumpets: the first steps with left foot, the second with right.
The left side panel continues and ends the movement of the whole of the Cantoria, with another trumpet arch and a figure coming forward on the right foot, running in a left direction.
If you join the side panels with the front ones, the direction of the dance is right to left, but the step sequencing works best on the front. The effect of the side panels, though, is to keep the motion going right to left even with the stopping figure in the last panel.
What glorious movement he creates, a running from right to left, a thrilling tumult of joy, with major figures stepping in sequence, surrounded by minor figures in lower relief playing tambourines or holding up wreaths, or smiling with wings.
While Luca della Robbia produces a Cantoria with the words and exact corresponding images
for Psalm 150,
Donatello produces a Cantoria with the spiritual underpinnings of those words and
The 1446 document that mentions Donatello's last payment refers to "omne compensum in predictis spiritellis et duas testas." (every compensation for the abovesaid "spirits" and two heads.) It is no wonder that "spiritellis" are referred to in the documents about Donatello's Cantoria and not in those for Luca's. Luca gives us the letter of the law, the letter of the words and their exact meaning. Donatello gives us the spirit of the law, the spirit of abandoned joy that is present in the same Psalm 150. He shows us the gladness of heart emitted in dance and happy faces and demonstrates the pure and innocent release of the body felt in thanking and praising God for life and for his firmament. A wild unleashing of physical energy and the sheer outpouring of running for joy that we experience perhaps most intensely in youth is what Donatello is able to convey through his stepping angels ("spiritellis.")
As we said in the last entry about Della Robbia's Cantoria in this blog, Luca presents his Psalm
as a codex, a book with individual pages that relate directly to the text.
Donatello presents his Psalm as a scroll, that runs, like the original language of the Psalm 150, Hebrew, from right to left in one continuous motion: 12-13th-century Torah scroll, Univ. of Bologna
The codex and the scroll, the very ways in which the Scriptures were conveyed from ancient times
to the 15th century, are the forms of these two Cantorie, and are the forms displayed on the end panels of Luca's Cantoria:
Both Cantorie in their original locations in the Duomo were high enough off the ground that viewers had to lift their heads to see the carvings.
The praise of God by human beings in joyful song and dance is sculpted in slow and fast rhythms to give a sense of the musical variation that would have been part of the sacred performances in the Duomo given from these Cantorie and below them. That these images still move the viewer emotionally is a testament to the sculptors' ability to mirror the world of people they saw around them, and is a reminder that our joy in living and thanking is still worth lifting up.