Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Prophet Jeremiah, marble, 1423-26, Donatello, c.1386-1466
In the fifteenth century great changes were underway in Italy and Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) played a major role in developments that took place in sculpture. Throughout the Romanesque and Gothic periods, sculpture tended to be an adjunct to architecture; it was stylized and sometimes column-like. Often it was in the form of important saints and notable church figures lined in rows at the entrances of cathedrals or placed in niches built into interior or exterior walls. Much of it was in relief and seemed incapable of escaping from a wall or column. Even when it was free standing (not in relief) it was placed usually in a space that was surrounded closely and it was seldom created to be seen “in the round.” While liberating sculpture from its subordinate role in architecture, Donatello became the most celebrated sculptor of the Early Renaissance and an influence on almost all sculpture that followed.
At age seventeen Donatello worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti during the time the first set of doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral was being conceived. After a short time in the studio of Ghiberti, he went to Rome with Filippo Brunelleschi to “treasure hunt.” Their treasure was the information they gleaned from the pieces of sculpture and architecture found among the ruins of Roman buildings. This visit to Rome affected the future work of both men. Donatello departed from his early training in stylized late Gothic sculpture and Brunelleschi went on to discover linear perspective and to build the magnificent dome of Florence Cathedral (known as Il Duomo).
In Greek sculpture the gods and goddesses were given idealized proportions; their bodies and faces were not those of real people. The Romans also made sculpture depicting their gods but they carved portraits of their leaders as well. These portraits depicted the sitter’s individual characteristics and expressions. When Donatello left Gothic stylistic elements, he did not follow the Greek model of ideal proportions. Instead, like Roman portraits, he brought a sense of realism and naturalism into his work. This naturalism is evidenced in two marble figures in adjacent niches carved for the BellTower (designed by Giotto) of Florence Cathedral.
The two prophets – Jeremiah and a bald figure dubbed “Zuccone” (pumpkin head) and believed to be Habakkuk – each stand with loose informal toga-like wraps hanging from their shoulders. Both are beardless and, in their characteristics, are like Roman orators; not like Greek gods. The Zuccone is in a relaxed stance but rather
undignified with parted lips and almost quizzical expression. Jeremiah is in a similar stance but has a full head of hair and a face that carries a sense of strength. His firm jaw and tight lips convey seriousness and inner thoughts. Yet his large eyes seem to express sympathy, gentleness, and perhaps even sorrow. Donatello portrays Jeremiah as a real person; a human with whom we can identify, not as an impersonal idealized figure or as a bearded old prophet of long ago.
Hovak Najarian © 2013