Thursday, March 31, 2016



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.

Luca's Cantoria (near above) dates from 1431-1438 while Donatello's(top photo) is started 1433 and finished later in 1439. Part of the reason Donatello begins later is that in the early 1430's he is finishing another project in the nearby town of Prato. Since there are similarities in his Prato pulpit and the Cantoria for the Duomo of Florence, it bears looking at the sculptures that Donatello did for that town.
Prato has a small Duomo of regular shape to which was added an outdoor pulpit in the 1430's designed by Michelozzo, with sculpted bas-reliefs by Donatello.  The circular motifs of the pulpit and its canopy mirror the object that was meant to be displayed on this balcony: the belt of the Virgin Mary handed down to St. Thomas and brought to Prato in the 12th century by the wife of a Prato merchant. On four special feast days during the year the belt is brought out to the pulpit and shown to the public:

The belt is a Medieval piece of green leather that could have fit neatly around the waist of a young woman.

While the belt itself is hard to see from down below, the circular pulpit with dancing putti gives the sense of a round belt with notches attached to the corner of the church. Since the Virgin's
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

Within each area framed by the two fluted pilasters, children dance and carry tambourines and pipes, staffs, and generally jump around joyously, each small group in a small square.

Each square has figures who move within it and these groups do not overlap with the unit next to them, much as the contained groups in Luca della Robbia's Cantoria remain within their squares:

Donatello must have been dissatisfied with the rhythmic stop and start of this containment in Prato because when he comes to do his Cantoria for the Florence Duomo, he places the two architectural elements (in this case, the colonnettes) in front of the dancers so that for the viewer their joyous movement continues behind the columns and around the entire organ gallery in one sweeping motion:


Compared with its immediate predecessor, the effect is monumentally different: Instead of stop/motion/stop from left to right, the rhythm is step/step/step/step and the movement
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.

Donatello also realized something that Luca never did, that in order to show believable motion in figures, you must carve them in step sequence. Donatello understood the principle behind Disney animation five centuries before the twentieth, and within his own century several decades before Botticelli understood it and produced it in his works.  How does Disney animation show up in Donatello's Cantoria?

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 last gap at the left end shows a figure facing back to where the other figures have come, lifting up arms and stopping the movement with right foot bearing the weight:

The rhythm of this step sequence is from right to left:  step right, step left, step right, stop:
The effect for the viewer is of ONE figure running in space, stepping right, stepping left, stepping, right, and stopping. The step sequencing works much like Disney cels in that when the steps are read in sequence, the cels put together, the viewer is captivated by the motion through space of a single
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

Below the scroll top Donatello places two bronze heads of prophets (the "testas" of the documents) to remind us of the ancient traditions which brought us the Psalm:

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.

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