Étiquette : Uccello

 

Avicenna and Ghiberti’s role in the invention of perspective during the Renaissance

By Karel Vereycken, Paris, France.

No visitor of Florence can miss the gilded bronze reliefs decorating the Porta del Paradiso (Gates of Paradise), the main gate of the Baptistery of Florence right in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore surmounted by Filippo Brunelleschi’s splendid cupola.

In this article, Karel Vereycken sheds new light on the contribution of Arab science and Ghiberti’s crucial role in giving birth to the Renaissance.

Florentine Baptistery and its bronze doors. On the right, the eastern gates, on the left, the southern ones.

Historical context

The Baptistery, erected on what most Florentines thought to be a Roman temple dedicated to the Roman God of Mars, is one of the oldest buildings in the city, constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri and many other notable Renaissance figures, including members of the Medici family, were baptized in this baptistery.

During the Renaissance, in Florence, corporations and guilds competed for the leading role with artistic creations each one even more prestigious than the other.

While the Arte dei Lana (corporation of wool producers) financed the Works (Opera) of the Duomo and the construction of its cupola, the Arte dei Mercantoni di Calimala (the guild of the merchants dealing in foreign cloth, and exporting cloth), took care of the Baptistery and financed the embellishment of its doors.

The Gates of Paradise

The octagonal building has four entrances (East, West, North and South) of which only three (South, North and East) have sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures. Three dates are key : 1329, 1401 and 1424.

  • In 1329, the Calimala, as recommended by Giotto, ordered Andrea Pisano (1290-1348) to decorate a first set of doors (initialy installed as the East door, i.e. seen when one leaves the Cathedral, but today South). These consist of 28 quatrefoil (clover-shaped) panels, with the 20 top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist (the patron of the edifice). The 8 lower panels depict the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, praised by Plato in his Republic and represented during the XVIth century by the Flemish humanist painter and reader of Petrarch, Peter Brueghel the Elder. Construction took 8 years, from 1330 till 1338.
Andrea Pisano, southern gate of the Baptistery (started in 1329), detail, left: baptism of Jesus. Right: of his disciples.
  • In 1401, after having narrowly won the selection contest against Brunelleschi, the 23 year old and inexperienced young goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), is commissioned by the Calima to decorate the doors today in the Northern gate. Ghiberti casted the bronze high reliefs using a method known as « lost-wax casting« , a technique that he had to reinvent entirely since lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. One of the reasons Ghiberti won the contest, was the mere fact that his technique was so advanced that it required 20 % less (7 kg per panel) of metal then that of his competitors, bronze being an onerous material, far more costly than marble. His technique, applied to the entire decoration of the Northern gate, as compated to his competitor, would have saved some estimated 100 kg of bronze. And since in 1401, with the plague regularly hitting Florence, economic conditions were poor, even the wealthy Calima looked at the total costs of the program.

    The bronze doors comprise 28 panels, with 20 panels depicting the life of Christ from the New Testament. The 8 lower panels show the four evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory, and Saint Augustine. It took 24 years of construction.
Ghiberti’s Northern Gate
Lorenzo Ghiberti, Northern gate (started in 1401) during recent restoration.
  • In 1424, Ghiberti, then at age 46, was given—unusually, with no competition—the task of also creating the East gate. Only in 1452 did Ghiberti, at that time seventy years old, installed the last bronze panels, since construction lasted this time 27 years ! According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) later judged them « so beautiful they would grace the entrance to Paradise ».
Lorenzo Ghiberti, « Gates of Paradise » (started in 1424, finished in 1452)

Over two generations, a bevy of well paid assistants and pupils were trained by Ghiberti, including exceptional artists, such as Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Michelozzo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Bernardo Cennini, Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio and Ghiberti’s sons, Vittore and Tommaso. And over time, the seventeen-foot-tall, three-ton bronze doors became an icon of Renaissance, one of the most famous works of art in the world.

In 1880, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin was inspired by it for his own Gates of Hell on which he worked for 38 year

Revolution

Lorenzo Ghiberti’s self-portrait, just as his panels, proud to emerge out of a flat surface. Bronze bust of the Gates of Paradise.

Of utmost interest for our discussion here, the dramatic shift of conception and design of the bronze relief sculptures that occurred between the Northern and the Eastern Gates, because it reflects how bot the artist as well as his patrons used the occasion to share to a broad public their newest ideas, inventions and exciting discoveries.

The themes of the northern gate of 1401 were inspired by scenes from the New Testament, excluding de facto the panel made by Ghiberti, « The Sacrifice of Isaac », which had won him the selection competition the same year. To complete the ensemble, it was therefore only logical that the eastern door of 1424 would take up the themes of the Old Testament.

Originally, it was the scholar and former chancellor of Florence Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) who planned an iconography quite similar to the two previous doors. Hence, after heated discussions, his proposal was rejected for something radically new. Instead of realizing 28 panels, it was decided, for aesthetic reasons, to reduce the number of panels to only 10 much larger square reliefs, between borders containing statuettes in niches and medallions with busts.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Gates of Paradise, Adam and Eve (The creation of man).
Portes du Paradis

Hence, each of the 10 chapters of the Old Testament, so to speak, contains several events, so that the net number of scenes has risen from 20 to 37, and on top, all appear in perspective :

  1. Adam and Eve,
  2. Cain and Abel,
  3. Noah,
  4. Abraham,
  5. Jacob and Esaü,
  6. Joseph,
  7. Moses,
  8. Joshua,
  9. David, and
  10. Solomon and Sheba.

The general theme is that of salvation based on Latin and Greek patristic tradition. After the first three panels, focusing on the theme of sin, Ghiberti began to highlight more clearly the role of God’s saving and the foreshadowing of Christ’s coming. Later panels are easier to understand. One example is the Isaac panel, where the figures are merged with the surrounding landscape so that the eye is led toward the main scene represented in the top right.

Many of the sources for these scenes were written in ancient Greek, and since knowledge of Greek at that time was not so common, it appears that Ghiberti’s “theological advisor” was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), with whom he had many exchanges. Traversari was a close friend of Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), a protector of Piero della Francesca (1412-1492) and a key organizer of the Ecumenical Council of Florence of 1438-1439, which attempted to put an end to the schism separating the Church of the East from that of the West.

Perspective

The bronze reliefs, known for their vivid illusion of deep space in relief, are one of the revolutionary events that epitomize the Renaissance. In the foreground are figures in high relief, which gradually become less protruding exploiting the full illusionistic potential of the stiacciato technique later brought to its high point by Donatello. Using this form of “inbetweenness”, they integrate in one single image, what appears both as a painting, a low relief as well as a high relief. Or maybe one has to look at it the other way: these are flat images traveling gradually from a surface into the full three dimensions of life, just as Ghiberti, in one of the first self-portraits of art history, reaches his head like out of a bronze medal to look down on the viewers. The artist desired much more than perspective, he wanted breathing space !

This new approach will influence Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1517). As art historian Daniel Arasse points out :

(…) It was in connection with the practice of Florentine bas-relief, that of Ghiberti at the Gate of Paradise (…) that Leonardo invented his way of painting. As Manuscript G (folio 23b) would much later state, ‘the field on which an object is painted is a capital thing in painting. (…) The painter’s aim is to make his figures appear to stand out from the field’ – and not, one might add, to base his art on the alleged transparency of that same field. It is by the science of shadow and light that the painter can obtain an effect of emergence from the field, an effect of relief, and not by that of the linear perspective.

While many thoughts about perspective existed much earlier, it was in 1435 that the humanist architect Leon Baptista Alberti (1406-1472), in his treaty Della Pictura, outlined a mathematical theory of the representation of three-dimensional harmonious and unified space on a flat surface. Noteworthy, the fact that Alberti’s treaty doesn’t contain or discusses any visual scheme or diagram.

Seven years earlier, the painter Massacchio (1401-1428) had used, at least in part, such a construction in his fresco painting The Trinity. And even before, Brunelleschi had conducted several experiments on this question, most likely based on the ideas presented by another friend of Cusa, the Italian astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397-1482), in the latter’s now lost treaty Della Perspective.

In the Codex Madrid II, Leonardo demonstrated the limits and principled dysfunctionality of Alberti’s perspective.

However, Leonardo, who read and studied Ghiberti’s writings on, would use the latter’s arguments to indicate the limits and even demonstrate the dysfunctionality of Alberti’s “perfect” perspective construction especially when one goes beyond a 30 degres angle.

In the Codex Madrid, II, 15 v. da Vinci realizes that « as such, the perspective offered by a rectilinear wall is false unless it is corrected (…) ».

Perspectiva artificialis versus perspectiva naturalis

The minimum anatomical precondition to use Alberti’s abstract perspective model.

Alberti’s “perspectiva articifialis” is nothing but an abstraction, necessary and useful to represent a rational organization of space. Without this abstraction, it is fairly impossible to define with mathematical precision the relationships between the appearance of objects and the receding of their various proportions on a flat screen: width, height and depth.

From the moment that a given image on a flat screen was thought about as the intersection of a plane cutting a cone or pyramid, a method emerged for what was mistakenly considered as an “objective” representation of “real” three dimensional space, while it is nothing but an “anamorphosis”, i.e. a tromp-l’oeil or visual illusion.

What has to be underscored, is that this construction does away with the physical reality of human existence since based on the abstraction pretending,

  • that man is a single eyed cyclopes;
  • that vision emanates from one single point, the apex of the visual pyramid;
  • that they eye is immobile;
  • that the image is projected on a flat screen rather than on a curved retina.

Slanders and gossip

The crucial role of Ghiberti, an artist which “Ghiberti expert” Richard Krautheimer mistakenly presents as a follower of Alberti’s perspectiva artificialis, has been either ignored or downplayed.

Ghiberti’s unique book, the three volumes of the Commentarii, which also include his autobiography and established him as the first modern historian of the fine arts, are not even translated into English or French and were only published in Italian in 1998.

Today, for his attention to minute detail and figures with wavy and elegant lines, as well as the variety of plants and animals depicted, Ghiberti is generally presented as “Gothic-minded”, and therefore “not really” a Renaissance artist!

Giorgio Vasari, often acting as the paid PR man of the Medici clan, slanders Ghiberti saying he, like lacking any value, wrote « a work in the vernacular in which he treated many different topics but arranged them in such a fashion that little can be gained from reading it. »

Admittedly, tension among humanists, were not uncommon. Self-educated craftsmen, such as Ghiberti and Brunelleschi on the one side, and heirs of wealthy wool merchants, such as Niccoli on the other side, came from entirely different worlds. For example, according to a story told by Guarino Veronese, in 1413, Niccolo greeted Filippo haughtily, « O philosopher without books, » to which Filippo replied with his legendary irony, « O books without philosopher ».

Sure, the Commentarii, are not written according to the rhetorical rules of those days. Written at the end of his life, they even might have been simply dictated by an aging Ghiberti to a poorly trained clerk making dozens of spelling errors.

The humanists

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Gates of Paradise, the story of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon. There is a casual array of figures who fight to catch a glimpse of the symbolic bonding of Eastern and Western churches, via the meeting of Solomon and the Queen. It is believed that this scene represents the meeting on July 9, 1439 on the steps of Il Duomo in Florence, and was created at the demand of Ambrogio Traversari, the driving force behind the Ecumenical Council if Florence.

But they do reveal a highly educated author and a thinker having profound knowledge of many classical Greek and Arab thinkers. Ghiberti was not just some brilliant handcraft artisan but a typical “Renaissance man”. In dialogue with Bruni, Traversari and the “manuscript hunter” Niccolo Niccoli, Ghiberti, who couldn’t read Greek but definitely knew Latin, was clearly familiar with the rediscovery of Greek and Arab science, a task undertaken by Boccaccio’s and Salutati’s “San Spirito Circle” whose guests (including Bruni, Traversari, Cusa, Niccoli, Cosimo di Medici, etc.) later would convene every week at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent.

First, Ghiberti makes a bold and daring statement, for a Christian man in a Christian world, about how the art of antiquity came to be lost:

The Christian faith was victorious in the time of Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester. Idolatry was persecuted in such a way that all the statues and pictures of such nobility, antiquity an perfection were destroyed and brokent to pieces. And with the statues and pictures, the theoretical writings, the commentaries, the drawing and the rules for teaching such eminent and noble arts were destroyed.

Ghiberti understood the importance of multidisciplinarity for artists. According to him, “sculpture and painting are sciences of several disciplines nourished by different teachings”.

The 10 disciplines that he considered important to train artists were grammar, philosophy, history, followed by perspective, geometry, drawing, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine and anatomy.

Ghiberti writes:

I, O most excellent reader, did not have to obey to money, but gave myself to the study of art, which since my childhood I have always pursued with great zeal and devotion. In order to master the basic principles I have sought to investigate the way nature functions in art; and in order that I might be able to approach her, how images come to the eye, how the power of vision functions, how visual [images] come, and in what way the theory of sculpture and painting should be established.

Now, any serious scholar, having worked through Leonardo’s « Notebooks », who then reads Ghiberti’s I Commentarii, immediately realizes that most of Da Vinci’s writings were basically comments, questions and contributions about things said or issues raised by Ghiberti, especially respecting the nature of light and optics in general. Leonardo’s creative mindset was a direct outgrowth of Ghiberti’s challenging world outlook.

The Composition of the eye

In the Middle Ages, three genius were the reference for medical science: Galen, Avicenna and Hippocrates.

In Commentario 3, 6, which deals with optics, vision and perspective, Ghiberti, opposing those for whom vision can only by explained by a purely mathematical abstraction, writes that “In order that no doubt remains in the things that follow, it is necessary to consider the composition of the eye, because without this one cannot know anything about the way of seeing.” He then says, that those writing about perspective don’t take into account “the eye’s composition”, because too many authors contradict each other.

Ghiberti regrets that despite the fact that many “natural philosophers” such as Thales, Democritus, Anaxagoras, Xenophane and the others determined to take care of human health such as “Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna” have written about things of nature, so many things remain unclear.

Indeed, he says, “speaking about this matter is obscure and not understood, if one does not have recourse to the laws of nature, because more fully and more copiously they demonstrate this matter.”


Avicenna, Alhazen and Constantine

Therefore, says Ghiberti:

it is necessary to say something that is not found according to the prospective [model], because it is too difficult to certify these things and I try to clarify them. But in order not to deal superfluously with the principles that underlie all of them, I will deal with the composition of the eye particularly according to the opinions of three authors, Avicenna (Ibn Sina), in his books, Alhazen (Ibn al Haytham) in the first of his [book on] perspective (Optics)’, and Constantine (the Latin name of the Arab scholar and physician Qusta ibn Luqa) in the ‘First book on the eye’; for these authors suffice and deal with more certainty with the things that are of interest to us.

This is quite a statement ! Here we have a, or rather “the”, leading, founding figure or the Italian and European Renaissance and its great contribution of perspective, saying that to get any idea about how vision functions, one has to study three Arab scientists: Ibn Sina, Ibn al Haytham an Qusta ibn Luqa ! Cultural eurocentrism might be one reason why Ghiberti’s writings were kept in the dark.

Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) made important contributions to ophthalmology and improved upon earlier conceptions of the processes involved in vision and visual perception in his Treatise on Optics (1021), which is known in Europe as the Opticae Thesaurus. Following his work on the camera oscura (darkroom) he was also the first to imagine that the retina (a curved surface), and not the pupil (a point) could be involved in the process of image formation.

Avicenna, in the Canon of Medicine (ca. 1025), describes sight and uses the word retina (from the Latin word rete meaning network) to designate the organ of vision.

Later, in his Colliget (medical encyclopedia), Averroes (1126-1198) was the first to attribute to the retina the properties of a photoreceptor.

If Avicenna’s writings on anatomy and medical science were translated and circulating in Europe since the XIIIth century, Al Hazen’s treatise on optics, which Ghiberti quotes extensively, had been recently translated in Italian under the title De li Aspecti.

It is now recognized that Andrea del Verrocchio, whose best known pupil was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1517) was himself one of Ghiberti’s pupils. Unlike Ghiberti, who mastered Latin, neither Verrocchio nor Leonardo mastered a foreign language.

What is known is that while studying Ghiberti’s Commentarii, Leonardo had access in Italian to a series of original quotations from the roman architect Vitruvius and from Arab scientists such as Avicenna, Alhazen, Averroes and those European scientists having studied Arab optics, notably the Oxford Fransciscans Roger Bacon (1214-1294), John Pecham (1230-1292) and the Polish monk working in Padua, Erazmus Ciolek Witelo (1230-1275), known by his Latin name Vitellion.

Vitellion’s diagram of binocular vision

As stressed by Pr. Dominque Raynaud, Vitellion introduces the principle of binocular vision by geometric considerations.

He gives a figure where we see the two eyes (a, b) receiving the images of points located at equal distance from the hd axis.

He explains that the images received by the eyes are different, since, taken from the same side, the angle grf is larger than the angle gtf. It is thus necessary that these images are joined in only one (Figure). Where does this junction occur? Witelo says: « The two forms, which penetrate in two homologous points of the surface of the two eyes, arrive at the same point of the concavity of the common nerve, and are superimposed in this point
point to become one ».

The fusion of the images is thus a product of the internal nervous activity.

The great astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) will use Alhazen’s and Witelo’s discoveries to develop his own contribution to optics and perspective. “Although up to now the [visual] image has been [understood as] a construct of reason,” Kepler observes in the fifth chapter of his Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (1604), “henceforth the representations of objects should be considered as paintings that are actually projected on paper or some other screen.” Kepler was the first to observe that our retina captures an image in an inverted form before our brain turns it right side up.

Out of this, Ghiberti, Uccello and also the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, in contact with the Italians, will construct, as an alternative to one cyclopic single eye perspective, revolutionary forms of “binocular” perspective while Leonardo and Louis XIth court painter Jean Fouquet will attempt to develop curvilinear and spherical space representations.

What « appears » as a construction « error » of a central vanishing point perspective, is in realty a « binocular » perspective construction.
Jan van Eyck, The Canon Van der Paele, Groeningemuseum, Bruges. What appears at first glance to be a « fishbone perspective » (left) (dixit Panofsky), is explained by a binocular perspectivist method inspired by Arabic natural scientists.

In China, eventually influenced by Arab optical science breakthrough’s, forms of non-linear perspective, that integrate the mobility of the eye, will also make their appearance during the Song Dynasty in China.

Light

Ghiberti will ad another dimension to perspective: light. One major contribution of Alhazen was his affirmation, in his Book of Optics, that opaque objects struck with light become luminous bodies themselves and can radiate secondary light, a theory that Leonardo will exploit in his paintings, including in his portraits.

Already Ghiberti, in the way he treats the subject of Isaac, Jacob and Esau (Figure), gives us an astonishing demonstration of how one can exploit that physical principle theorized by Alhazen. The light reflected by the bronze panel, will strongly differ according to the angle of incidence of the arriving rays of light. Arriving either from the left of from the right side, in both cases, the Ghiberti’s bronze relief has been modeled in such a way that it magnificently strengthens the overall depth effect !

While the experts, especially the neo-Kantians such as Erwin Panofsky or Hans Belting, say that these painters were “primitives” because applying the “wrong” perspective model, they can’t grasp the fact that they were in reality exploring a far “higher domain” than the mere pure mathematical abstraction promoted by the Newton-Galileo cult that became the modern priesthood currently ruling over “science”.

If much more about all of this can and should be said, today, the best way to pay off the European debt to “Arab” scientific contributions, is to reward not just the Arab world but all future generations with a better future by opening them the “Gates of Paradise”.

Watch all of Ghiberti’s works on the WEB GALLERY OF ART

Biography

  • Arasse, Daniel, Léonard de Vinci, Hazan, 2011;
  • Avery, Charles, La Sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Livre de poche, 1996, Paris.
  • Belting, Hans, Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance art and Arab science, Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Borso, Franco et Stefano, Uccello, Hazan, Paris, 2004 ;
  • Butterfield, Andrew, Verrocchio, Sculptor and painter of Renaissance Florence, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020 ;
  • Butterfield, Andrew, Art and Innovation in Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, High Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2007;
  • Kepler, Johannes, Paralipomènes à Vitellion, 1604, Vrin, 1980, Paris;
  • Krautheimer, Richard and Trude, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1990.
  • Martens, Maximiliaan, La révolution optique de Jan van Eyck, dans Van Eyck, Une révolution optique, Hannibal – MSK Gent, 2020.
  • Pope-Hennessy, John, Donatello, Abbeville Press, 1993 ;
  • Radke, Gary M., Lorenzo Ghiberti: Master Collaborator
  • Rashed, Roshi, Geometric Optics, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 2, Mathematics and physics, Seuil, Paris, 1997.
  • Raynaud, Dominique, L’hypothèse d’Oxford, essai sur les origines de la perspective, PUF, 1998, Paris.
  • Raynaud, Dominique, Ibn al-Haytham on binocular vision: a precursor of physiological optics, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2003, 13, pp. 79-99.
  • Raynaud, Dominique, Perspective curviligne et vision binoculaire. Sciences et techniques en perspective, Université de Nantes, Equipe de recherche: Sciences, Techniques, et Sociétés, 1998, 2 (1), pp.3-23.;
  • Vereycken, Karel, interview with People’s Daily: Leonardo Da Vinci’s « Mona Lisa » resonates with time and space with traditional Chinese painting, 2019.
  • Vereycken, Karel, Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command, 2022.
  • Vereycken, Karel, The Invention of Perspective, Fidelio, 1998.
  • Vereycken, Karel, Van Eyck, un peintre flamand dans l’optique arabe, 1998.
  • Vereycken, Karel, Mutazilism and Arab astronomy, two bright stars in our firmament, 2021.
  • Walker, Paul Robert, The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance, How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti changed the World, HarperCollins, 2002.
Merci de partager !

Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio et l’art du commandement militaire

Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio et l’art du commandement militaire. Enquête et réflexions sur les événements clés et les réalisations artistiques qui ont fait la Renaissance. Par Karel Vereycken, Paris.

Prologue

Livre-catalogue de l’exposition de 2019, National Gallery, Washington.

S’il y a encore beaucoup à dire, à écrire et à apprendre sur les grands génies de la Renaissance européenne, il est temps aussi de s’intéresser à ceux que l’historien Georgio Vasari appela avec condescendance des « figures de transition ».

Comment mesurer l’apport de Pieter Bruegel l’Ancien sans connaître Pieter Coecke van Aelst ? Comment apprécier l’œuvre de Rembrandt sans connaître Pieter Lastman ? En quoi Raphaello Sanzio a-t-il innové par rapport à son maître Le Pérugin ?

En 2019, une exposition remarquable consacrée à Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), à la National Gallery de Washington, a mis en lumière ses grandes réalisations, fulgurances étonnantes d’une beauté inouïe que son élève Léonard de Vinci (1452-1519) a su théoriser et mettre à profit.

Le sfumato de Léonard ? Verrocchio en est le pionnier, notamment dans ses portraits de femmes, exécutés aux traits estompés combinant le crayon, la craie et la gouache.

Andrea del Verrocchio, tête de femme, 1475, technique mixte (crayon, craie et gouache).

Une découverte

En feuilletant le catalogue de cette exposition, ma joie fut grande en découvrant (et à ma connaissance, personne avant moi ne semble l’avoir remarqué) que l’image de l’ange énigmatique qui rencontre l’œil du spectateur dans le tableau de Léonard intitulé La Vierge aux rochers (1483-1486) (Louvre, Paris), à part sa posture plus posée, n’est grosso modo qu’une « citation visuelle » d’un haut-relief en terre cuite (Louvre, Paris) réalisé, nous dit-on, par « Verrocchio et un assistant ».

L’hypothèse qu’il s’agisse de Léonard en personne est plus que tentante, étant donné sa présence comme apprenti auprès du maître !

Bien d’autres ont fait leurs débuts dans l’atelier de Verrocchio, notamment Lorenzo de Credi, Sandro Botticelli, Piero Perugino (maître de Raphaël) et Domenico Ghirlandaio (maître de Michel-Ange).

S’inscrivant dans la tradition des grands chantiers lancés à Florence par le grand mécène de la Renaissance Côme de Medicis pour la réalisation des « portes du Baptistère » et l’achèvement de la coupole de Florence par Philippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Verrocchio conçoit son atelier comme une véritable école « polytechnique ».

A Florence, pour les artistes, les commandes affluent. Afin de pouvoir répondre à toutes les demandes, Verrocchio, ayant lui-même reçu une formation d’orfèvre, forme ses élèves comme artisans-ingénieurs-artistes : dessin, anatomie, perspective, géologie, sculpture, travail des métaux, de la pierre et du bois, architecture, décoration intérieure, poésie, musique et enfin, peinture. Un niveau de liberté et une exigence de créativité malheureusement disparus depuis longtemps.

En peinture, Verrocchio aurait fait ses débuts chez le peintre Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). Quant au métier de fondeur de bronze, il aurait été, comme Donatello, Masolino, Michelozzo, Uccello et Pollaiuolo, l’un des apprentis recrutés par Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) dont l’atelier, à partir de 1401 et pendant plus de quarante ans, est chargé de concevoir et de réaliser les bas-reliefs en bronze de deux des immenses portes du Baptistère de Florence.

D’autres suggèrent que Verrocchio aurait été formé par Michelozzo, l’ancien compagnon de Ghiberti devenu par la suite l’associé en affaires de Donatello. Adolescent, ce dernier avait accompagné Brunelleschi lorsqu’il se rendait à Rome pour y étudier l’héritage de l’art grec et romain, et pas seulement au niveau architectural.

L’héritage humaniste de Ghiberti

Portrait de Ghiberti, bronze, portes du Baptistère, Florence.

En réalité, Verrocchio n’a fait que faire sienne l’approche de l’atelier « polytechnique » de Ghiberti, avec qui il avait appris le métier.

Excellent artisan qu’on accuse à tort d’être resté accroché au « style gothique », lui aussi est orfèvre, collectionneur d’art, musicien, lettré humaniste et historien.

Son génie, c’est d’avoir compris l’importance de la pluridisciplinarité pour les artistes. Selon lui « la sculpture et la peinture sont des sciences de plusieurs disciplines agrémentées de différents enseignements. »

Les dix disciplines qu’il juge important pour former les artistes sont la grammaire, la philosophie, l’histoire. Suivent ensuite la perspective, la géométrie, le dessin, l’astronomie, l’arithmétique, la médecine et l’anatomie.

On ne peut découvrir, pense Ghiberti, que lorsqu’on est parvenu à isoler l’objet de sa recherche de facteurs interférant, et on ne peut trouver qu’en se détachant d’un système dogmatique ;

comme la nature des choses le veut, les sciences cachées sous des artifices ne sont pas constituées afin que les hommes aux poitrines étroites les puissent juger.

Anticipant le type de biomimétisme qui va caractériser Léonard par la suite, Ghiberti affirme qu’il a cherché

à découvrir comment la nature fonctionnait et comment il pouvait s’en rapprocher pour savoir comment les objets viennent à l’oeil, comment fonctionne la vue et de quelle manière on devait pratiquer la statuaire et la peinture.

Ghiberti, qui fréquente le cercle des humanistes animé par Ambrogio Traversari, a le souci de s’appuyer sur l’autorité des textes anciens, en particulier arabes :

Mais pour ne pas répéter de façon superficielle et superflue les principes qui fondent toutes les opinions, je traiterai la composition de l’œil particulièrement selon les opinions de trois auteurs, c’est-à-dire Avicenne (Ibn Sina), dans ses livres, Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytam), dans le premier livre de sa perspective, et Constantin (Qusta ibn Luqa) dans le premier livre sur l’œil ; car ces auteurs suffisent et traitent avec plus de certitude des choses qui nous intéressent.

Bien que volontairement ignoré et calomnié par Vasari, le livre des Commentaires de Ghiberti constitue un véritable manuel pour les artistes, écrit par un artiste. C’est d’ailleurs en lisant ce manuscrit que Léonard de Vinci se familiarise avec d’importantes contributions arabes à la science, en particulier l’œuvre remarquable d’Alhazen, dont le traité d’optique venait d’être traduit du latin en italien sous le titre De li Aspecti, œuvre longuement citée par Ghiberti dans son Commentario terzo. Saint Jean-Baptiste, bronze réalisé par Ghiberti, Orsanmichele, Florence.

Dans ce manuscrit, les apports de Ghiberti sont modestes. Cependant, pour les élèves de son élève Verrocchio, comme Léonard, qui ne maîtrisaient aucune langue étrangère, le livre de Ghiberti mettait à leur disposition en italien une série de citations originales de l’architecte romain Vitruve, de scientifiques et de polymathes arabes comme Alhazen, Avicenne, Averroès et de scientifiques européens ayant étudié l’optique arabe, tels que les franciscains d’Oxford Roger Bacon et John Pecham ou encore le moine polonais Witelo (Vitellion) à Padou.

Ce qui fait dire à l’historien A. Mark Smith que, par l’intermédiaire de Ghiberti, le Livre d’optique d’Alhazen

pourrait bien avoir joué un rôle central dans le développement de la perspective artificielle dans la peinture italienne du début de la Renaissance.

Enfin, en 1412, tout en coordonnant les travaux de la porte du Baptistère, Ghiberti est aussi, avec son Saint Jean-Baptiste, le premier sculpteur de la Renaissance à couler une statue en bronze d’une hauteur de 255 cm pour décorer Orsanmichele, la maison des Corporations à Florence.

La fonte « à la cire perdue »

Pour réaliser des bronzes d’une telle taille, vu le prix du métal, les artistes font appel à la technique dite de « fonte à la cire perdue ».

Technique à la cire perdue, phases de réalisation.

Andrea del Verrocchio, David, bronze, hauteur 126 cm.

Elle consiste à confectionner d’abord un modèle en terre réfractaire (A), recouvert d’une épaisseur de cire correspondant à l’épaisseur de bronze recherchée (B). Ce modèle est ensuite recouvert d’une épaisse couche de plâtre qui, en se solidifiant, forme un moule extérieur. En pénétrant dans ce moule par des tiges prévues à cet effet (J), le bronze en fusion va se substituer à la cire. Enfin, une fois le métal solidifié, on brise le revêtement (K). Reste alors à affûter les détails et polir l’ensemble selon le choix de l’artiste (L).

Cette technique s’avérera par la suite fort utile pour fabriquer des canons et des cloches. Si elle semble avoir été parfaitement maîtrisée en Afrique, notamment à Ifé dès le XIIe siècle, en Europe, ce n’est qu’à la Renaissance, avec les commandes reçues par Ghiberti et Donatello, qu’elle sera entièrement réinventée.

En 1466, à la mort de Donatello, c’est Verrocchio qui devient à son tour le sculpteur en titre des Médicis pour lesquels il réalise une série d’œuvres, notamment, après Donatello, son propre David en bronze (musée national du Bargello, Florence).

Si, avec cette promotion, son ascendance sociale est certaine, Verrocchio se trouve devant le plus grand défi qu’un artiste de la Renaissance ait pu imaginer : comment égaler, voire dépasser Donatello, un artiste dont on n’a jamais assez loué le génie ?

L’art équestre

Le décor ainsi planté, abordons maintenant le sujet de l’art du commandement militaire en comparant quatre monuments équestres :
A) l’empereur romain Marc-Aurèle, sur la place du Capitole à Rome (175 après J.-C.) ;
B) la fresque de John Hawkwood par Paolo Uccello, dans l’église de Santa Maria del Fiore à Florence (1436) ;
C) Erasmo da Narni, dit « Gattamelata » (1446-1450), réalisé par Donatello à Padoue ;
D) Bartolomeo Colleoni par Andrea del Verrocchio à Venise (1480-1488).

Les statues équestres sont apparues en Grèce au milieu du VIe siècle avant J.-C. pour honorer les cavaliers victorieux d’une course. À partir de l’époque hellénistique, elles sont réservées aux plus hauts personnages de l’État, souverains, généraux victorieux et magistrats. À Rome, sur le forum, elles constituaient un honneur suprême, soumis à l’approbation du Sénat. Réalisées en bronze, ces statues équestres se dressent le plus souvent à l’endroit où les troupes ont combattu. Si chaque statue rappelle l’importance du commandement militaire et politique, la manière d’exercer cette responsabilité est bien différente.

A. Marc Aurèle à Rome

Marc Aurèle, copie de la statue en bronze, Place du Capitol, Rome. (340 × 230 × 410 cm).

Marc Aurèle est né à Rome en 121 après J.-C., dans une famille noble d’origine espagnole. A la mort de son père, son oncle l’empereur Hadrien confie l’enfant à son successeur Antonin. Ce dernier l’adopte et lui donne une excellente éducation. Il est initié très tôt à la philosophie par son maître Diognetus. Intéressé par les stoïciens, il adopte un temps leur mode de vie, dormant à même le sol, portant une tunique rêche, avant d’en être dissuadé par sa mère.

En 175, il se rend à Athènes où il se met à encourager la philosophie. Il aide financièrement les philosophes et les rhétoriciens en leur accordant un salaire fixe. Partisan du pluralisme, il soutient l’Académie platonicienne, le Lycée d’Aristote, le Jardin d’Épicure et le Portique stoïcien.

En revanche, sous son règne, les persécutions contre les chrétiens sont nombreuses. Il les considère comme des fauteurs de troubles, du fait qu’ils refusent de reconnaître les dieux romains, et comme des fanatiques.

Érigée en 175 après J.-C., la statue était entièrement dorée. Si on ignore son emplacement dans l’Antiquité, au Moyen Âge, elle se trouvait devant la basilique Saint-Jean-de-Latran, érigée par Constantin, et le palais du Latran, alors résidence papale. En 1538, le pape Paul III fait transférer le monument de Marc Aurèle au Capitole, siège du gouvernement de la ville. Michel-Ange restaure la statue et redessine la place qui l’entoure.

C’est sans doute la statue équestre la plus célèbre, et surtout la seule datant de la Rome antique qui ait survécu, les autres ayant été fondues pour fabriquer des pièces de monnaie ou des armes… Si la statue a survécu, c’est grâce à un malentendu : on pensait qu’elle représentait Constantin, le premier empereur romain à s’être converti au christianisme au début du IVe siècle, et il était hors de question de détruire l’image d’un souverain chrétien.

Marc Aurèle, statue originale, bronze doré, Rome.

Mais la présence d’un ennemi vaincu sous la jambe avant droite du cheval (présence attestée par des témoignages médiévaux, et disparue depuis), le geste de l’empereur et la forme du tapis de selle, inhabituelle dans le monde romain, suggèrent que la statue commémorait les victoires de Marc Aurèle, peut-être à l’occasion de son triomphe à Rome en 176, ou même après sa mort. En effet, son règne (161-180) a été marqué par des guerres incessantes pour contrer les incursions de peuples germaniques ou orientaux aux frontières d’un Empire désormais menacé et sur la défensive.

Le cheval, qui n’est pas très grand mais semble puissant, a été sculpté très soigneusement et avec réalisme. Ses naseaux sont fortement dilatés, ses lèvres tirées par le mors laissent apparaître ses dents et sa langue. La jambe levée, il vient d’être arrêté par son cavalier, qui tient les rênes de la main gauche. Comme lui, le cheval tourne légèrement la tête vers la droite, signe que la statue a été conçue pour être vue de ce côté. Une partie de son harnais est conservée, mais les rênes ont disparu.

L’athlétique cavalier domine néanmoins par sa taille celle de ce puissant cheval, qu’il monte sans étriers (accessoires inconnus des Romains). Il est vêtu d’une tunique courte ceinturée à la taille et d’un manteau d’apparat agrafé sur l’épaule droite. Il s’agit d’un vêtement civil et non militaire, adapté à un contexte pacifique. Il porte des chaussures en cuir maintenues par des lanières entrelacées.

La statue frappe par sa taille (424 cm de haut incluant le socle) et la majesté qu’elle dégage. Sans armure ni arme, les yeux grands ouverts et sans émotion, l’empereur lève le bras droit. Son autorité découle avant tout de la fonction qu’il incarne : il est l’Empereur qui protège son Empire et son peuple en punissant ses ennemis sans pitié.

B. La fresque de Paolo Uccello à Florence

Paolo Uccello, fresque d’un monument équestre en honneur de John Hawkwood (1536), dôme de Florence. 732 × 404 cm.

En 1436, à la demande de Côme de Médicis, Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) est chargé de réaliser une fresque (732 × 404 cm) représentant John Hawkwood (1323-1394), fils d’un tanneur anglais devenu chef de guerre pendant la guerre de Cent Ans en France et dont le nom sera italianisé en Giovanno Acuto. Au service du plus offrant, notamment de villes italiennes rivales, la compagnie de mercenaires de Hawkwood, sanguinaires, inspire la terreur car elle ne fait pas de quartiers.

A Florence, même si cela peut paraître paradoxal, c’est le chancelier humaniste Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) qui met Hawkwood à la tête d’une armée régulière au service de la Signoria.

Cette démarche n’est pas sans rappeler celle du roi Louis XI qui, pour contrôler les écorcheurs et autres égorgeurs qui ravageaient alors la France, parvint à les discipliner en les incorporant dans une armée permanente, la nouvelle armée royale.

Les humanistes de la Renaissance, notamment Leonardo Bruni (1370-1440) dans son De Militia (1420), sont conscients du fléau que représente l’utilisation de mercenaires dans les conflits. Seule une armée permanente, pensent-ils, formée de professionnels et mieux encore, de citoyens, et entretenue par un Etat ou une ville, peut garantir une paix durable.

Paolo Uccello, portrait présumé, Louvre.

Bien que Hawkwood ait fidèlement protégé la ville pendant 18 ans, son « professionnalisme » de mercenaire était loin de faire l’unanimité, au point d’inspirer le proverbe « Inglese italianato è un diavolo Incarnato » (« Un Anglais italianisé est un diable incarné »). Pétrarque le dénonce, Boccace tente en vain de monter une offensive diplomatique contre lui, sainte Catherine de Sienne le supplie de quitter l’Italie, Chaucer le rencontre et, sans doute, l’utilise comme modèle pour The Knight’s Tale (Les Canterbury Tales).

Tout cela n’empêchera pas Côme, membre de la conspiration humaniste et grand mécène, de vouloir l’honorer lorsqu’il rentre d’exil. Mais à défaut d’une statue équestre en bronze, Florence n’offrira au mercenaire qu’une fresque dans la nef de Santa Maria del Fiore, c’est-à-dire sous la coupole du Duomo.

Image ultraviolet de la fresque d’Uccello.

Dès le début, la fresque de Paolo Uccello a clairement suscité la controverse. Un dessin préparatoire conservé dans les collections du musée des Offices de Florence le montre casqué, plus armé, plus grand et, avec son cheval, dans une position plus militaire. Uccello avait initialement représenté Hawkwood comme « plus menaçant », avec son bâton levé et son cheval « prêt à foncer ».

Une étude récente aux ultraviolets confirme que le peintre avait initialement représenté le condottiere armé de la tête aux pieds. Dans la version définitive, il porte une veste sans manches, la giornea, et un manteau ; seuls ses jambes et ses pieds sont protégés par une pièce d’armure. Enfin, la version finale présente un cavalier moins imposant, moins guerrier, plus humain et plus individualisé.

Dans la dispute, ce n’est pas Uccello qui est blâmé mais ses commanditaires. D’ailleurs, le peintre est rapidement chargé de refaire la fresque d’une façon jugée « plus appropriée ».

John Hawkwood, fresque de Paolo Uccello, détail, cathédrale de Florence.

Malheureusement, il n’existe aucune trace des débats qui ont dû faire rage au sein du conseil de fabrique de la cathédrale (Opera Del Duomo). Ce qui est certain, c’est que dans la version actuelle, le condottiere est passé du statut de chef de guerre dirigeant une bande de mercenaires, à l’image d’un « roi-philosophe » dont la seule arme est son bâton de commandement. Au bas de la fresque, on peut lire en latin : « Giovanno Acuto, chevalier britannique, qui fut en son temps tenu pour un général très prudent et très expert en affaires militaires. »

Par ailleurs, la position du cheval et la perspective du sarcophage ont été modifiées, passant d’un simple profil à une vue di sotto in su.

Si cette perspective est quelque peu surréaliste et la pose du cheval, levant les deux jambes du même côté, tout simplement impossible, il n’en demeure pas moins que la fresque d’Uccello va fixer les normes de l’image idéale et impassible de la vertu et du commandement que doit incarner le héros de la Renaissance : son but n’est plus de « gagner » la guerre (objectif du mercenaire), mais de préserver la paix en prévenant tout conflit (objectif d’un roi-philosophe ou simplement d’un chef d’État avisé, pour qui la prospérité du royaume se mesure en termes du nombre de ses sujets et de leur prospérité).

Changement de paradigme

A ce titre, loin d’être une simple curiosité artistique, la fresque d’Uccello est le marqueur d’un nouveau paradigme, instituant la fin de l’ère des guerres féodales perpétuelles et donc le début de la Renaissance, où s’organise la concorde entre Etats-nations souverains dont la sécurité est indivisible, la sécurité de l’un garantissant celle de l’autre, paradigme encore plus rigoureusement défini lors de la Paix de Westphalie de 1648, lorsqu’elle fait de la notion du respect de « l’avantage d’autrui » la condition même de son succès.

Un historien suggère que les modifications imposées à la fresque d’Uccello faisaient partie de la rénovation de la cathédrale Santa Maria del Fiore voulue en 1436, date de la commande de la fresque, par le pape humaniste Eugène IV, déterminé à convaincre les Églises d’Orient et d’Occident de surmonter pacifiquement leur schisme et de se réunifier, comme cela fut tenté lors du Concile de Florence de 1437-1438 et pour lequel le Duomo était central.

Il est intéressant de noter que la fresque d’Uccello apparaît à peu près à la même époque où, en France, Yolande d’Aragon et Jacques Cœur, dont les relations avec l’Italie sont documentées, ont convaincu le roi Charles VII de mettre fin à la guerre de Cent Ans en créant une armée permanente. En 1445, par ordonnance, il se résout à discipliner et rationaliser l’armée sous la forme d’unités de cavalerie regroupées en Compagnies d’Ordonnances, la première armée permanente à la disposition du Roi de France plutôt que de la noblesse.

C. Le Gattamelata de Donatello (1447-1453) à Padoue

Gattamelata, Donatello, Padoue. Taille : 340 sur 400 cm.

Donatello, portrait présumé, Louvre.

Ce n’est que quelques années plus tard, à Padoue, entre 1447 et 1453, que Donatello (1386-1466) travaillera à la statue d’Erasmo da Narni (1370-1443), un condottiere de la Renaissance, c’est-à-dire le chef d’une armée de métier au service de la République de Venise, qui régnait alors sur la ville de Padoue.

Détail important, Erasmo était surnommé « il Gattamelata ». En français, « faire la chattemite » signifie affecter un faux air de douceur pour tromper ou séduire… qualité qui peut s’avérer fort utile en temps de guerre. D’autres avancent que son surnom de « chat miellé » lui vient de sa mère, Melania Gattelli, ou du cimier (casque) en forme de chat couleur miel qu’il portait au combat…

Né en Ombrie vers 1370, l’homme est d’origine modeste, fils de boulanger. Il apprend le maniement des armes auprès de Ceccolo Broglio, seigneur d’Assise, puis, à l’âge de trente ans, auprès du capitaine Braccio da Montone, connu pour recruter les meilleurs combattants.

En 1427, Erasmo, qui a la confiance de Côme de Médicis, signe un contrat de sept ans avec le pape humaniste Martin V, qui souhaite renforcer un corps d’armée fidèle à sa cause dans le but de mettre au pas les seigneurs d’Émilie, de Romagne et d’Ombrie rebelles à l’autorité papale. Il a acheté une solide armure pour renforcer sa haute stature.

Gattamelata n’était pas un combattant impétueux, mais un maître de la guerre de siège, ce qui l’obligeait à agir lentement, de manière réfléchie et progressive. Il épie longuement sa proie avant de la piéger. En 1432, il s’empare de la forteresse de Villafranca près d’Imola par la seule ruse et sans combat. L’année suivante, il fait de même pour s’emparer de la ville fortifiée de Castelfranco, épargnant ainsi ses soldats et son trésor. Incapables de comprendre sa tactique, certains l’accusaient de lâcheté pour avoir « fui » la ligne de front, sans se rendre compte que cela faisait partie de sa stratégie gagnante.

C’était un capitaine prudent, à la tête d’une troupe parfaitement disciplinée, et soucieux d’entretenir de bonnes relations avec les magistrats des villes qui l’employaient. Il obtient le grade de capitaine général de l’armée de la République de Venise lors de la quatrième guerre contre le duc de Milan en 1438 et meurt à Padoue en 1443.

A sa mort, la République de Venise lui rend les honneurs et Giacoma della Leonessa, sa veuve, passe commande d’une sculpture en l’honneur de son défunt mari pour 1650 ducats. La statue, qui représente le condottiere grandeur nature, sur son cheval, en armure de style antique et tête nue, tenant son bâton de commandement dans sa main droite levée, a été réalisée selon la méthode de la fonte « à la cire perdue ».

Dès 1447, Donatello réalise les modèles pour le moulage du cheval et du condottiere. Les travaux avançant très rapidement, l’œuvre est achevée en 1453 et placée sur son piédestal, dans le cimetière qui jouxte la basilique de Padoue.

Brillant par sa ruse et son astuce, Gattamelata était un combattant réfléchi et efficace dans l’action, le type de chef recommandé par Machiavel dans Le Prince, et qui apparaît au XVIe siècle chez François Rabelais dans son récit des « guerres picrocholines ». Non pas la puissance brute des armes, mais la ruse et l’intelligence seront les qualités majeures que Donatello fera apparaître avec force dans son œuvre.

Contrairement à Marc Aurèle, ce n’est pas son statut social qui confère au commandant son autorité, mais son intelligence et sa créativité dans le gouvernement de la cité et l’art de la guerre. Donatello avait le sens du détail. En regardant le cheval, nous voyons que c’est un animal massif mais loin d’être statique. Il a une démarche lente et déterminée, sans la moindre hésitation.

Gattamelata, détail de la statue en bronze réalisée par Donatello à Padoue. Taille : 340 sur 400 cm.

Mais ce n’est pas tout. Une analyse rigoureuse montre que les proportions du cheval sont d’un ordre supérieur à celles du condottiere. Donatello s’est-il trompé en faisant Erasmo trop petit et son cheval trop grand ? Non, le sculpteur a fait ce choix pour souligner la valeur de Gattamelata qui, grâce à ses compétences, est capable de dompter des animaux d’une taille impressionnante. En outre, les yeux du cheval le suggèrent sauvage et indomptable.

En le regardant, on pourrait penser qu’il est impossible de le monter, mais Gattamelata y parvient sans effort, car en regardant les rênes dans les mains du protagoniste, on remarque qu’il les tient en toute tranquillité. C’est un autre détail qui met en évidence la ruse puissante et l’ingéniosité d’Erasmo.

En outre, avez-vous remarqué que l’un des sabots du cheval est délicatement posé sur une sphère ? Si cette sphère (qui pourrait aussi être un boulet de canon, puisqu’Erasmo était un guerrier) sert à donner de la stabilité à l’ensemble de la composition, elle indique aussi comment cet animal à la force gigantesque (symbolisant ici la violence guerrière), une fois apprivoisé et habilement utilisé, permet de tenir le globe (le règne terrestre) en équilibre.

La ruse

Donatello, détail du Gattamelata, Padoue.

Après le cheval, venons-en maintenant au condottiere. Son expression est fière et déterminée. Il tient en main le bâton de commandement. Il ne s’agit pas seulement d’un objet symbolique ; il pourrait l’avoir reçu en 1438 de la République de Venise.

Contrairement à la fresque d’Uccello, Gattamelata n’est pas habillé comme un prince de son époque, mais bien comme une figure au-delà du temps incarnant le passé, le présent et le futur. Pour capter cela, attentif à chaque détail, Donatello a repris un modèle ancien et l’a modernisé avec un résultat incroyable. Les détails de l’armure du protagoniste comprennent des motifs purement classiques tels que la tête de Méduse (reprise du Marc Aurèle), l’une des trois gorgones de la mythologie grecque, dont les yeux ont le pouvoir de pétrifier tout mortel qui croise son regard.

Bien que le casque de Gattamelata aurait permis de l’identifier immédiatement, Donatello a écarté cette option. Ainsi casqué, il aurait symbolisé un guerrier assoiffé de sang plutôt qu’un homme rusé. En revanche, l’absence de casque permet à l’artiste de nous montrer le regard fixe d’Erasmo, et donc la détermination gravée sur son visage.

En le représentant le visage légèrement incliné et les jambes tendues, l’épée au fourreau placée de biais à son côté, Donatello donne l’illusion d’un déséquilibre, qui renforce dans l’esprit du spectateur l’idée que le cheval avance avec force.

L’historien d’art John Pope-Hennessy est formel :

Les différences fondamentales qui séparent le Gattamelata du Marc Aurèle sautent aux yeux. L’empereur se tient passivement assis sur son cheval, jambes ballantes. Au XVe siècle, en revanche, l’art de l’équitation suppose le recours à des éperons. L’impression d’autorité qui se dégage du monument conçu par Donatello provient de la domination totale du condottiere sur sa monture. (…) Les plantes des pieds sont exactement parallèles à la surface du piédestal, ainsi que les grands éperons à six pointes, étirés jusqu’au milieu du flanc de l’animal.

Ainsi, Gattamelata n’est pas la sculpture classique, grecque ou romaine, d’un héros au physique sculpté, mais une sorte d’homme nouveau qui réussit par la raison.

Le fait que la statue ait un piédestal aussi haut a aussi sa raison d’être. A cette hauteur, le Gattamelata ne partage pas notre propre espace. Il est dans une autre dimension, éternelle et hors du temps.

D. Le Bartolomeo Colleoni de Verrocchio à Venise

Une trentaine d’années plus tard, entre 1480 et 1488, à l’issue d’un concours, Andrea del Verrocchio est sélectionné pour réaliser une grande statue équestre (400 × 380 cm) en bronze d’un autre condottiere italien, Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1475).

Mercenaire impitoyable, travaillant tel jour pour un mécène et pour son rival le lendemain, à partir de 1454, il sert la République de Venise avec le titre de général en chef (capitano generale). Il meurt en 1475 en laissant un testament dans lequel il lègue une partie de sa fortune à Venise en échange de l’engagement d’ériger une statue de bronze en son honneur sur la place Saint-Marc.

Le Sénat vénitien accepte d’élever un monument équestre à sa mémoire, tout en mettant les frais à la charge de la veuve du défunt…

En outre, le Sénat refuse de l’ériger sur la place Saint-Marc, qui constitue, avec la basilique consacrée, le cœur vivant de la ville. Le Sénat décide donc d’interpréter les conditions posées par Colleoni dans son testament sans les contredire, en choisissant d’ériger sa statue en 1479, non pas sur la place Saint-Marc, mais dans une zone plus éloignée du centre de la ville, devant la Scuola San Marco, sur le campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Bien que Verrocchio ait commencé à y travailler dès 1482, ce projet reste inachevé à sa mort, en 1488. Et c’est, non pas comme le souhaitait Verrocchio, son héritier Lorenzo di Credi qui coulera la statue, mais le vénitien Alessandro Leopardi (qui avait perdu le concours face à Verrocchio), qui n’hésitera pas à la signer de son nom !

Les quatre chevaux du quadrige de la Basilique Saint-Marc de Venise. Statuaire grecque rapportée de Constantinople au XIIIe siècle par les croisées.

Si le cheval est conforme à la typologie des magnifiques chevaux composant le quadrige dominant la basilique Saint-Marc de Venise (statuaire grecque du IVe siècle avant J.-C., ramenée par les croisés de Constantinople à Venise en 1204) et du cheval de Marc Aurèle, sa musculature est plus nerveusement soulignée et tracée. Objectivement, cette statue est idéalement plus proportionnée. Les détails sont également plus fins, grâce aux nouvelles techniques de pré-sculpture, ce qui rend l’œuvre captivante et réaliste.

La sculpture déborde de son piédestal. Selon André Suarès (cité dans La majesté des centaures) : 

Colleone à cheval marche dans les airs, il ne tombera pas.
Il ne peut choir. Il mène sa terre avec lui. Son socle le suit […] Il a toute la force et tout le calme. Marc Aurèle, à Rome, est trop paisible. Il ne parle pas et ne commande pas. Colleone est l’ordre de la force, à cheval. La force est juste, l’homme est accompli. Il va un amble magnifique. Sa forte bête, à la tête fine, est un cheval de bataille ; il ne court pas, mais ni lent ni hâtif, ce pas nerveux ignore la fatigue. Le condottiere fait corps avec le glorieux animal : c’est le héros en armes.

Son bâton de commandement se retrouve même métamorphosé en matraque ! Mais vu que ce n’est pas Verrocchio qui a fondu cette œuvre, ne le blâmons pas pour la fureur guerrière qui en émane.

Andrea del Verrocchio, statue équestre de Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venise. Taille : 400 × 380 cm.

Il est clair qu’ici, Venise, ce vicieux empire financier et maritime esclavagiste se présentant, à l’instar de Gènes, comme une « République », s’est vengée de la belle conception développée à la Renaissance d’un roi philosophe défendant l’Etat-nation. Andrea dell Verrocchio, détail du visage, statue équestre de Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venise.

Sur le plan esthétique, ce mercenaire sent l’animal. En bon observateur, Léonard nous avait prévenus : lorsqu’un artiste représente un personnage prisonnier d’une seule émotion (joie, rage, tristesse, etc.), il finit par peindre quelque chose qui nous éloigne de l’âme véritablement humaine. C’est ce que nous voyons dans cette statue équestre.

S’il montre, au contraire, un visage animé de différentes émotions, l’aspect humain sera mis en valeur. C’est le cas, comme nous l’avons vu, du Gattamelata de Donatello, incarnant ruse, détermination et prudence pour vaincre la peur face à la menace.

Le projet de Léonard de Vinci d’un gigantesque cheval en bronze, auquel il travailla pendant des années, élaborant de nouvelles techniques de fonte du bronze, ne fut malheureusement jamais construit, vu le contexte particulièrement mouvementé de l’époque.

Enfin, au-delà de toutes les interprétations, admirons le savoir-faire de ces artistes. En termes d’artisanat et d’habileté, il fallait généralement toute une vie pour être capable de réaliser des œuvres aussi monumentales, sans parler de la patience infinie et surtout de la passion requise.

A nous de les faire revivre !

Bibliographie :

  • Verrocchio, Sculptor and painter of Renaissance Florence, Andrew Butterfield, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020 ;
  • Lorenzo Ghiberti, Richard and Trude Krautheimer, Princeton University Press, 1982;
  • Uccello, Franco et Stefano Borsi, Hazan, 2004 ;
  • Donatello, John Pope-Hennessy, Abbeville Press, 1993 ;
  • Les Commentaires de Lorenzo Ghiberti dans la culture florentine du Quattrocento, Pascal Dubourg-Glatigny, Histoire de l’Art, N° 23, 1993, Varia, pp. 15-26 ;
  • Monumento Equestre al Gattamelata di Donatello : la Statua del Guerriero Astuto, blog de Dario Mastromattei, mars 2020 ;
  • La sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Charles Avery, Livre de poche, 1996 ;
  • La sculpture de la Renaissance au XXe siècle, Taschen, 1999 ;
  • Ateliers de la Renaissance, Zodiaque-Desclée de Brouwer, 1998 ;
  • Rabelais et l’art de la guerre, Christine Bierre, 2007 ;
  • La révolution du grec ancien, Platon et la Renaissance, Karel Vereycken, jan. 2021;
  • Avicenne et Ghiberti, leur rôle dans l’invention de la perspective à la Renaissance, Karel Vereycken, mars 2022.
Merci de partager !

Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command

Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command. An inquiry into the key events and artistic achievements that created the Renaissance. By Karel Vereycken, Paris.

Prologue

Catalogue of the 2019 Exhibition in Washington.

If there is still a lot to say, write and learn about the great geniuses of the European Renaissance, it is also time to take an interest in those whom the historian Georgio Vasari condescendingly called « transitional figures ».

How can one measure the contributions of Pieter Bruegel the Elder without knowing Pieter Coecke van Aelst? How can we value Rembrandt’s work without knowing Pieter Lastman? How did Raphaelo Sanzio innovate in relation to his master Perugino?

In 2019, an exceptional exhibition on Andrea Del Verrocchio (1435-1488), at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., highlighted his great achievements, truly inspiring outbursts of great beauty that his pupil Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) would theorize and put to his greatest advantage.

The sfumato of Leonardo ? Verrochio is the pioneer, especially in the blurred features of portraits of women made with mixed techniques (pencil, chalk and gouache).

Andrea del Verrocchio, head of a woman, mixte technique (pencil, charcoal, gouache, etc.), 1475-1478.

The joy of discovery

Leafing through the catalog of this exhibition, my joy got immense when I discovered (and to my knowledgne nobody else seems to have made this observation before me) that the enigmatic angel the viewer’s eye meets in Leonardo’s painting titled The Virgin on the Rocks (1483-1486) (Louvre, Paris), besides the movement of the body, is grosso modo a visual “quote” of the image of a terra cotta high relief (Louvre, Paris) attributed to Verrochio and “one of his assistants”, possibly even Leonardo himself, since the latter was training with the master as early as age seventeen ! The finesse of its execution and drapery also reminds us of the only known statue of Da Vinci, The Virgin with the laughing Child.

Many others made their beginnings in Verrocchio’s workshop, notably Lorenzo de Credi, Sandro Botticelli, Piero Perugino (Raphael’s teacher) and Domenico Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s teacher).

Coming out of the tradition of the great building sites launched in Florence by the great patron of the Renaissance, Cosimo de Medici for the realization of the doors of the Baptistery and the completion of the dome of Florence by Philippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Verrocchio conceived his studio as a true “polytechnic” school.

In Florence, for the artists, the orders flowed in. In order to be able to respond to all requests, Verrocchio, initially trained as a goldsmith, trained his students as craftsman-engineer-artists: drawing, calculation, interior decoration, sculpture, geology, anatomy, metal and woodworking, perspective, architecture, poetry, music and painting. A level of freedom and a demand for creativity that has unfortunately long since disappeared.

The Ghiberti legacy

Self-portrait of Ghiberti, bronze Gates of the Baptistry of Florence.

In painting, Verrocchio is said to have begun with the painter Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). As for the bronze casting trade, he would have been, like Donatello, Masolino, Michelozzo, Uccello and Pollaiuolo, one of the apprentices recruited by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) whose workshop, starting from 1401, over forty years, will be in charge of casting the bronze bas-reliefs of two of the huge doors of the Baptistery of Florence.

Others suggest that Verrocchio was most likely trained by Michelozzo, the former companion of Ghiberti who said up shop with Donatello. As a teenager, Donatello had accompanied Brunelleschi on their joint expeditions to Rome to investigate the legacy of Greek and Roman art, and not only the architectural legacy.

In reality, Verrocchio only perpetuated and developed the model of Ghiberti’s « polytechnic » studio, where he learned the art. An excellent craftsman, Ghiberti was also goldsmith, art collector, musician and humanist scolar and historian.

His genius is to have understood the importance of multidisciplinarity for artists. According to him « sculpture and painting are sciences of several disciplines nourished by different teachings ».

The ten disciplines that he considered important to train artists are grammar, philosophy, history, followed by perspective, geometry, drawing, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine and anatomy.

You can discover, says Ghiberti, only when you managed to isolate the object of your research from interfering factors, and you can discover by detaching oneself from a dogmatic system;

as the nature of things want it, the sciences hidden under artifices are not constituted so that the men with narrow chests can judge them.

Anticipating the type of biomimicry that will characterize Leonardo thereafter, Ghiberti affirms that he sought:

to discover how nature functioned and how he could approach it to know how the objects come to the eye, how the sight functions and in which way one has to practice sculpture and painting.

Ghiberti, who was familiar with some of the leading members of the circle of humanists led by Salutati and Traversari, based his own reflexions on optics on the authority of ancient texts, especially Arabic. He wrote:

But in order not to repeat in a superficial and superfluous way the principles that found all opinions, I will treat the composition of the eye particularly according to the opinions of three authors, namely Avicenna [Ibn Sina], in his books, Alhazen [Ibn al Haytam], in the first book of his perspective, and Constantine [Qusta ibn Luqa] in the first book on the eye; for these authors are sufficient and treat with more certainty the things that interest us.

Deliberately ignored (but copied) by Vasari, Ghiberti’s Commentaries are a real manuel for artists, written by an artist. Most interestingly, it is by reading Ghiberti’s Commentaries that Leonardo da Vinci became familiar with important Arab contributions to science, in particular the outstanding work of Ibn al Haytam (Alhazen) whose treatise on optics had just been translated from Latin into Italian under the title De li Aspecti, and is quoted at length by Ghiberti in his Commentario Terzio. Author A. Mark Smith suggests that, through Ghiberti, Alhazen’s Book of Optics

may well have played a central role in the development of artificial perspective in early Renaissance Italian painting.

Ghiberti, Saint John the Baptist, bronze, Orsanmichele, Florence.

Ghiberti’s comments are not extensive. However, for the pupils of his pupil Verrocchio, such as Leonardo, who didn’t command any foreign language, Ghiberti’s book did make available in italian a series of original quotes from the roman architect Vitruvius, arab scientists such as Alhazen), Avicenna, Averroes and those european scientists having studied arab optics, notably the Oxford fransciscans Roger Bacon, John Pecham and the Polish monk working in Padua, Witelo.

Finally, in 1412, Ghiberti, while busy coordinating all the works on the Gates of the Baptistry, was also the first Renaissance sculptor to cast a life-size statue in bronze, his Saint John the Baptist, to decorate Orsanmichele, the house of the Corporations in Florence.

Lost wax casting

However, in order to cast bronzes of such a size, the artists, considering the price of metal, would use the technique known as “lost wax casting”.

This technique consists of first making a model in refractory clay (A), covered with a thickness of wax corresponding to the thickness of the bronze thought necessary.

The model is then covered with a thick layer of wet plaster (B) which, as it solidifies, forms an outer mold. Finally, the very hot molten bronze, pored into the mold it penetrates by rods (J) provided for this purpose, will replace the wax.

Verrocchio’s David, for which it is thought he used his young pupil Leonardo as a model.

Finally, once the metal has solidified, the coating is broken. The details of the bronze (K) are then adjusted and polished (L) according to the artist’s choice.

This technique would become crucial for the manufacture of bells and cannons. While it was commonly used in Ifé in Africa in the 12th century for statuary, in Europe it was only during the Renaissance, with the orders received by Ghiberti and Donatello, that it was entirely reinvented.

In 1466, after the death of Donatello, it was Verrocchio’s turn to become the Medici’s sculptor in title for whom he produced a whole series of works, notably, after Donatello, his own David in bronze (Bargello National Museum, Florence).

If with this promotion his social ascendancy is certain, Verrocchio found himself facing the greatest challenge that any artist of the Renaissance could have imagined: how to equal or even surpass Donatello, an artist whose genius has never been praised enough?

Equestrian art

This being said, let us now approach the subject of the art of military command by comparing four equestrian monuments:

  • Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline square in Rome (175 AD) ;
  • Paolo Uccello’s fresco of John Hawkwood in the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (1436);
  • Erasmo da Narni, known as “Gattamelata” (1446-1450), casted by Donatello in Padua.
  • Bartolomeo Colleoni by Andrea del Verrocchio in Venice (1480-1488).

Equestrian statues appeared in Greece in the middle of the 6th century B.C. to honor the victorious riders in a race. From the Hellenistic period onward, they were reserved for the highest state figures, sovereigns, victorious generals and magistrates. In Rome, on the forum, they constituted a supreme honor, subject to the approval of the Senate. Apart from being bronze equestrian statues, each one is placed in a place where their troops fought.

While each statue is a reminder of the importance of military and political command, the way in which this responsibility is exercised is quite different.

Marcus Aurelius in Rome

Copy of the Marcus Aurelius statue in Rome (175 AD).

Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome in 121 A.D., into a noble family of Spanish origin. He was the nephew of the emperor Hadrian. After the death of Marcus Aurelius’ father, Hadrian entrusted him to his successor Antonin. The latter adopts and gives him an excellent education. He was initiated early in philosophy by his master Diognetus.

Interested in the stoics, he adopted for a while their lifestyle, sleeping on the ground, wearing a rough tunic, before he was dissuaded by his mother.

He went to Athens in 175 A.D. and became a promotor of philosophy. He helps financially the philosophers and the rhetoricians by granting them a fixed salary. Concerned with pluralism, he supported the Platonic Academy, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Garden of Epicurus and the Stoic Portico.

On the other hand, during his reign, persecutions against Christians were numerous. He saw them as troublemakers – since they refused to recognize the Roman gods, and as fanatics.

Marcus Aurelius, original in the Museum.

Erected in 175 A.D., the statue was entirely gilded. Its location in antiquity is unknown, but in the Middle Ages it stood in front of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, founded by Constantine, and the Lateran Palace, then the papal residence.

In 1538, Pope Paul III had the monument of Marcus Aurelius transferred to the Capitol, the seat of the city’s government. Michelangelo restored the statue and redesigned the square around it, one of the fanciest in Rome. It is undoubtedly the most famous equestrian statue, and above all the only one dating back to ancient Rome that has survived, the others having been melted down into coins or weapons…

If the statue survived, it is thanks to a misunderstanding: it was thought that it represented Constantine, the first Roman emperor to have converted to Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century, and it was out of the question to destroy the image of a Christian ruler.

Neither the date nor the circumstances of the commission are known.

But the presence of a defeated enemy under the right foreleg of the horse (attested by medieval testimonies and since lost), the emperor’s gesture and the shape of the saddle cloth, unusual in the Roman world, make us to belief that the statue commemorated Marcus Aurelius’ victories, perhaps on the occasion of his triumph in Rome in 176, or even after his death. Indeed, his reign (161-180) was marked by incessant wars to counter the incursions of Germanic or Eastern peoples on the borders of an Empire that was now threatened and on the defensive.

The horse, while not that large, but looking powerful, has been sculpted with great care and represented with realism. Its nostrils are strongly dilated, its lips pulled by the bit reveal its teeth and tongue.

One leg raised, he has just been stopped by his rider, who holds the reins with his left hand. Like him, the horse turns his head slightly to the right, a sign that the statue was made to be seen from that side. Part of his harness is preserved, but the reins have disappeared.

The size of the athletic rider nevertheless dominates that of a powerful horse that he rides without stirrups (accessories unknown to the Romans). He is dressed in a short tunic belted at the waist and a ceremonial cloak stapled on the right shoulder. It is a civil and not a military garment, adapted to a peaceful context. He is wearing leather shoes held together by intertwined straps.

The statue is striking for its size (424 cm high) and for the majesty it exudes. Without armor or weapons, eyes wide open and without emotion, the emperor raises his right arm. His authority derives above all from the function he embodies: he is the Emperor who protects his Empire and his people by punishing their enemies without mercy.

The fresco by Paolo Uccello

Paolo Uccello, fresque en honneur de John Hawkwood (1436), Dôme de Florence.

In 1436, at the request of Cosimo de’ Medici, the young Paolo Uccello was commissioned to paint a fresco depicting John Hawkwood (1323-1394), the son of an English tanner who had become a warlord during the Hundred Years’ War in France and whose name would be Italicized into Giovanno Acuto.

Serving the highest bidder, especially rival Italian cities, Hawkwood’s company of mercenaries was no slouch.

In Florence, although it may seem paradoxical, it was the humanist chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) who put Hawkwood at the head of a regular army in the service of the Signoria.

This approach is not unlike that of Louis XI in France, who, in order to control the skinners and other cutthroats who were ravaging the nation, did not hesitate to discipline them by incorporating them into a standing army, the new royal army.

The humanists of the Renaissance, notably Leonardo Bruni (1370-1440) in his De Militia (1420), became aware of the curse of using mercenaries in conflicts and of the fact that only standing army, i.e. a permanent army formed of professionals and even better by citizens and maintained by a state or a city could guarantee a lasting peace.

Although Hawkwood faithfully protected the city for 18 years, his ugly “professionalism” as a mercenary was not unanimously accepted, to the point of inspiring the proverb “Inglese italianato è un diavolo Incarnato” (« An Italianized Englishman is a devil incarnate »).

Petrarch denounced him, Boccaccio tried in vain to mount a diplomatic offensive against him, St. Catherine of Sienna begged him to leave Italy, Chaucer met him and, no doubt, used him as a model for The Knight’s Tale (The Canterbury Tales).

All this will not prevent Cosimo, a member of the humanist conspiracy and a great patron of the arts, returning from exile, from wanting to honor him. But in the absence of the bronze equestrian statue (which had been promised to him…), Florence, will only offer him a fresco in the nave of Santa Maria del Fiore, that is to say under right under the cupola of the Duomo.

UV study of Uccello’s fresco showing condottiere with helm.

From the very beginning, Paolo Uccello’s fresco seems to have stirred quite a controversy. A preparatory drawing in the collections of Florence’s Uffizi Museum indicates the commander, more armed, taller, and, with his horse in a more military position. Uccello had originally depicted Hawkwood as « more threatening », with his baton raised and horse « at the ready ».

A recent ultraviolet study confirms the fact that the painter had originally depicted the condottiere armed from head to toe. In the final version, he wears a sleeveless jacket, the giornea, and a coat; only his legs and feet are protected by a piece of armor. The final version presents a less imposing rider, less warlike, more human and more individualized

In the dispute, it was not Uccello who was considered faulty, but his sponsors. Moreover, the painter was quickly given the task of redoing the fresco in a way deemed “more appropriate”.

John Hawkwood par Uccello, détail.

Unfortunately, there is no record of the debates that must have raged among the officials of the church fabric (Opera Del Domo). What is certain is the fact that in the final version, visible today, the condottiere has been transformed from a warlord running a gang of mercenaries, into the image of philosopher-king whose only weapon is his commanding staff. At the bottom of the fresco, we can read in Latin: “Giovanno Acuto, British knight, who was in his time held as a very prudent general and very expert in military affairs.”

The position of the horse and the perspective of the sarcophagus have been changed from a simple profile to a di sotto in su view.

If this perspective is somewhat surrealistic and the pose of the horse, raising both legs on the same side, simply impossible, it remains a fact that Uccello’s fresco will set “the standards” of the ideal and impassive image of virtue and command that must embody the hero of the Renaissance: his goal is no longer to “win” a war (the objective of the mercenary), but to preserve the peace by preventing it (the objective of a philosopher-king or simply a wise head of state).

Paradigm shift

As such, one might say that Uccello’s fresco announces the “paradigm shift” marking the end of the age of perpetual feudal wars, to that of the Renaissance, that is to say to that of a necessary concord between sovereign nation-states whose security is indivisible, the security of one being the guarantee of the security of the other, a paradigm even more rigorously defined in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia, when it made the agapic notion of the “advantage of the other” the basis of its success.

One historian suggests that the recommissioning of Uccello’s fresco was part of the « refurbishing » of the cathedral associated with its rededication as Santa Maria del Fiore by the humanist Pope Eugene IV in March 1436, determined to convince the Eastern and Western Churches to peacefully overcome their divisions and réunite as was attempted at the Council of Florence of 1437-1438 and for which the Duomo was central.

Interesting is the fact that Uccello’s fresco appeared at around the same time that Yolande d’Aragon and Jacques Coeur, who had his Italian connections, persuaded the French king Charles VII to put an end to the Hundred Years’ War by setting up a permanent, standing army.

In 1445, an ordinance was passed to discipline and rationalize the army in the form of cavalry units grouped into Compagnies d’Ordonnances, the first permanent army at the disposal, not of warlords or aristocrats, but of the King of France.

Donatello’s “Gattamelata” (1447-1453)

Donatello, statue équestre d’Erasmo da Narni, dit Gattamelata, 1447-1453, Padua.

It was only some years later, in Padua, between 1447 and 1453, that Donatello would work on the statue of Erasmo da Narni (1370-1443), a Renaissance condottiere, i.e. the leader of a professional army in the service of the Republic of Venice, which at the time ruled the city of Padua. An important detail is that Erasmo was nicknamed “il Gattamelata”.

In French, « faire la chattemite » means to affect a false air of sweetness to deceive or seduce… Others explain that his nickname of “honeyed cat” comes from the fact that his mother was called Melania Gattelli or that he wore a crest (a helmet) in the shape of a honey-colored cat in battle…

The man was of humble origin, the son of a baker, born in Umbria around 1370. He learned to handle weapons from Ceccolo Broglio, lord of Assisi, and then, when he was in his thirties, from the captains of Braccio da Montone, who was known for recruiting the best fighters.

In 1427, Erasmo, who had the confidence of Cosimo de’ Medici, signed a seven-year contract with the humanist Pope Martin V, who wished to strengthen an army corps loyal to his cause with the aim of bringing to heel the lords of Emilia, Romagna and Umbria who were rebellious against papal authority.

Donatello: Gattemelata (detail).

He bought a huge suit of armor to reinforce his high stature. He was not an impetuous fighter, but a master of siege warfare, which forced him to take slow, thoughtful and progressive action. He spied on his prey for a long time before trapping it.

In 1432, he captured the fortress of Villafranca near Imola by cunning alone and without fighting. The following year he did the same to capture the fortified town of Castelfranco, thus sparing his soldiers and his treasure.

Those who were unable to grasp his tactics, accused him of being a coward for “running away” from the front-line, not realizing, that on a given moment, this was part of the tactics of his winning strategy.

He was a prudent captain, with a very well-mannered troop, and he was careful to maintain good relations with the magistrates of the towns that employed him. He obtained the rank of captain-general of the army of the Republic of Venice during the fourth war against the Duke of Milan in 1438 and died in Padua in 1443. Following his death, the Venetian Republic gave him full honors and Giacoma della Leonessa, his widow, commissioned a sculpture in honor of her late husband for 1650 ducats.

The statue, which represents the life-size condottiere, in antique-style armor and bareheaded, holding his commanding staff in his raised right hand, on his horse, was made by the lost-wax method. As early as 1447, Donatello made the models for the casting of the horse and the condottiere. The work progresses at full speed and the work is completed in 1453 and placed on its pedestal in the cemetery that adjoins the Basilica of Padua.

Donatello, Gattemelata, détail du visage.

Brilliant for his cunning and guile, Gattamelata was a thoughtful and effective fighter in action, the type of leader recommended by Machiavelli in The Prince, and which appears in the sixteenth century by François Rabelais in his account of the “Picrocholine wars”.

Not the brute power of weapons, but the cunning and the intelligence will be the major qualities that Donatello will make appear powerfully in his work.

Contrary to Marcus Aurelius, it is not his social status that gives the commander his authority, but his intelligence and his creativity in the government of the city and the art of war. Donatello had an eye for detail. Looking at the horse, we see that it is a massive animal but far from static. It has a slow and determined gait, without any hesitation.

But that’s not all. A rigorous analysis shows that the proportions of the horse are of a “higher order” than those of the condottiere. Did Donatello make a mistake and make Erasmo too small and the horse too large? No, the sculptor made this choice to emphasize the value of Gattamelata who, thanks to his skills, is able to tame even wild and gigantic animals. In addition, the horse’s eyes show him as wild and untameable. Looking at him, one could say that it is impossible to ride him, but Gattamelata manages it with ease and without effort.

Because if you look at the reins in the hands of the protagonist, you will notice that he holds them in complete tranquility. This is another detail that highlights Erasmus’ powerful cunning and ingenuity.

Next, did you notice that one of the horse’s legs rests on a sphere? If this sphere (which could also be a cannonball, since Erasmus was a warrior) serves to give stability to Donatello’s composition as a whole, it also indicates how this animal of gigantic strength (symbolizing here warlike violence), once tamed and well used, allows the globe (the earthly kingdom) to be kept in balance.

Having told you about the horse, it is time to know more about the condottiere.

He has a proud and determined expression. The baton of command, which he holds in his hand, delicately touches the horse’s mane. The baton is not just a symbolic object; he may have received it in 1438 from the Republic of Venice.

Unlike Uccello’s fresco, Gattamelata is not dressed as a contemporary prince of commander, but as a figure beyond time embodying both the past, the present and the future. To capture this, Donatello, who takes care of every detail, has taken an ancient model and modernized it with incredible results. The details of the protagonist’s armor include purely classical motifs such as the head of Medusa, taken from Marcus Aurelius, in Greek mythology one of the three gorgons whose eyes had the power to petrify any mortal who crossed her gaze.

Although the helmet of Gattamelata would have allowed to identify him at eyesight, Donatello has discarded this option. With a helmet on his head, he would have been the symbol of a bloodthirsty warrior, rather than a cunning man. Even better, the absence of a helmet allows the artist to show us a fearless commander whose fixed gaze shows his determination. With the figure slightly bowed and legs extended, the sword in its scabbard placed at an angle, Donatello gives the illusion of an “imbalance” that reinforces in the viewer’s mind the idea that the horse is advancing with full strength.

Art historian John Pope-Hennessy is emphatic:

The fundamental differences between the Gattamelata and Marcus Aurelius are obvious. The (roman) emperor sits passively on his horse, legs dangling. In the fifteenth century, on the other hand, the art of riding implies the use of spurs. The impression of authority that emanates from the monument designed by Donatello comes from the total domination of the condottiere over his horse. (…) The soles of the feet are exactly parallel to the surface of the pedestal, as are the large six-pointed spurs, stretched to the middle of the animal’s flank.

As a result, Gattamelata is not a remake of the “classical Greek or Roman sculpture” of a hero with a sculpted physique, but a kind of new man who succeeds through reason. The fact that the statue has such a high pedestal also has its reason. Placed at such a height, the Gattamelata does not “share” our own space. It is in another dimension, eternal and out of time.

Verrocchio’s Colleoni

Verrocchio’s Colleoni.

Some thirty years later, between 1480 and 1488, Andrea del Verrocchio, after a contest, was selected to make a large bronze equestrian statue of another Italian condottiere named Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1475).

A ruthless mercenary, working for a patron one day and his rival the next day, he served from 1454 the Republic of Venice with the title of general-in-chief (capitano generale). He died in 1475 leaving a will in which he bequeathed part of his fortune to Venice in exchange for the commitment to erect a bronze statue to his honor in St. Mark’s Square.

The Venetian Senate agreed to erect an equestrian monument to his memory, while charging the costs to the widow of the deceased…

In addition, the Senate refused to erect it in St. Mark’s Square, which was, along with St. Mark’s Basilica, at the heart of the city’s life. The Senate therefore decided to interpret the conditions set by Colleoni in his last will and testament without contradicting them, choosing to erect his statue in 1479, not in St. Mark’s Square, but in an area further from the city center in front of the Scuola San Marco, on the campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Although Verrocchio had started working on the project since 1482, it remained unfinished at his death in 1488. And it is, not as Verrocchio wished, his heir Lorenzo di Credi who will cast the statue, but the Venetian Alessandro Leopardi (who lost the contest to Verrocchio), who will not hesitate to sign it!

The four horses of the Triumphal Quadriga overseeing the Basilica of Saint Marc in Venice.

If the horse is in conformity with the typology of the magnificent horses composing the quadriga overseeing the Basilica of Saint Mark of Venice (Greek statuary of the IVth century BC brought back by the crusaders from Constantinople to Venice in 1204) and of the horse of Marcus Aurelius, its musculature is more nervously underlined and traced. Objectively, this statue is ideally more proportionate. There is also more fine detail, a result of new pre-sculpture techniques, making the work captivating and realistic to look at.

Andrea del Verrocchio, statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni.

The sculpture overflows its pedestal. According to André Suarès quoted in The Majesty of Centaurs:

Colleone on horseback walks in the air, he will not fall. He cannot fall. He leads his earth with him. His base follows him […] He has all the strength and all the calm. Marcus Aurelius, in Rome, is too peaceful. He does not speak and does not command. Colleone is the order of the force, on horseback. The force is right, the man is accomplished. He goes a magnificent amble. His strong beast, with the fine head, is a battle horse; he does not run, but neither slow nor hasty, this nervous step ignores the fatigue. The condottiere is one with the glorious animal: he is the hero in arms.

Verrocchio’s Colleoni (détail).

His baton of command is even metamorphosed into a bludgeon! But since it is not Verrocchio who finished this work, let us not blame the latter for the warlike fury that emanates from this statue.

Venice, a vicious slave-trading financial and maritime Empire fronting as a “Republic”, clearly took its revenge here on the beautiful conception developed during the Renaissance of a philosopher-king defending the nation-state.

On the aesthetic level, this mercenary smells like an animal. As a good observer, Leonardo warned us: when an artist represents a man entirely imprisoned by a single emotion (joy, rage, sadness, etc.), he ends up painting something that takes us away from the truly human soul. This is what we see in this equestrian statue.

If, on the contrary, the artist shows several emotions running through the figure represented, the human aspect will be emphasized. This is the case, as we have seen, with Donatello’s Gattamelata, uniting cunning, determination and prudence to overcome fear the face of threat.

Leonardo’s own, gigantic project to erect a gigantic bronze horse, on which he worked for years and developed new bronze casting techniques, unfortunately was never build, seen the hectic circumstances.

Da Vinci’s gigantic project.

Finally, beyond all the interpretations, let us admire the admirable know-how of these artists. In terms of craft and skill, it generally took an entire life to become able to realize such great works, not even mentioning the patience and boundless passion required.

Up to us to bring it back to life !

Bibliography:

  • Verrocchio, Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, Andrew Butterfield, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020;
  • Donatello, John Pope-Hennessy, Abbeville Press, 1993;
  • Uccello, Franco and Stefano Borsi, Hazan, 2004;
  • Les Commentaires de Lorenzo Ghiberti dans la culture florentine du Quattrocento, Pascal Dubourg-Glatigny, Histoire de l’Art, N° 23, 1993, Varia, pp. 15-26;
  • Monumento Equestre al Gattamelata di Donatello: la Statua del Guerriero Astuto, blog de Dario Mastromattei, mars 2020;
  • La sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Charles Avery, Livre de poche, 1996 ;
  • La sculpture de la Renaissance au XXe siècle, Taschen, 1999;
  • Ateliers de la Renaissance, Zodiaque-Desclée de Brouwer, 1998;
  • Rabelais et l’art de la guerre, Christine Bierre, 2007.
  • The Greek language project, Plato and the Renaissance, Karel Vereycken, jan. 2021.
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