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A soldier saint in Renaissance Florence: Donatello's St George

A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of Donatello, Saint George, c. 1416-17, marble, 214 cm high (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, commissioned by the armorers and sword makers guild for the exterior of Orsanmichele). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Bargello, in Florence looking up at Donatello's Saint George. - [Beth] Saint George was a Christian solider who saved a town by killing a dragon after 15,000 townspeople converted to Christianity. - [Steven] Now this Saint George was not originally here. This was on the exterior of a building just a few blocks away called Orsanmichele. - [Beth] Orsanmichele is an incredibly important building when we think about the beginnings of the Renaissance in Florence. It's there that we find the first truly Renaissance style sculptures, many of the guilds of Florence were responsible for commissioning their patron saint for a niche on the outside of Orsanmichele. - [Steven] Guilds were collectives that were formed out of skilled occupations. - [Beth] Like unions today. But they were very powerful in Florence and often took part in the building campaigns, the efforts to embellish the city in the 14th and 15th century. The guild of armorers and sword makers commissioned Donatello to sculpt Saint George, their patron saint. - [Steven] Florence was fairly unique in that it was a republic. And it was a growing sense of civic pride, pride in one's city, pride in one's historical roots which the Florentines believed were ancient Roman. So this is a sculpture that was made for the city, but it was paid for by the guild of armorers and sword makers and so it's no surprise that we see a shield and a hand that probably originally held some sort of blade. - [Beth] There are drill marks on his head that indicate he also likely wore a helmet or wreath of some sort also made out of metal. - [Steven] And so this can be seen a little bit as an advertisement. - [Beth] It's really important to understand this moment of intense civic pride, but one where there's no real distinction between the religions spiritual aspects of the people of the city and the government of the city. These were often joined in the great civic projects that took place in Florence in the 14th and 15th centuries. - [Steven] Well, it's like Orsanmichele had several purposes. It was a church, but it was also a granary that helped to feed the city. - [Beth] So this idea that the secular and the spiritual coming together. - [Steven] This sculpture was for the outside, so this was public art. This was art that you passed as you walked along the streets. So many sculptures at Orsanmichele and in other parts of early Renaissance Florence depict figures at this scale as old, wizened prophets. But here we have such a youthful figure, who's a pillar of strength and determination. - [Beth] He is a solider saint and that's so clear when we look at him. In his pose of his body, this sense of facing the future with his left hand coming across his body, his left foot forward, he seems to be moving out of that niche. It's not quite what we would call contrapposto, that is the classical representation of a figure whose body shifts as he bears his weight on one leg. Here, the weight is on both legs but his left hip juts forward and that does create this wonderfully subtle sense of movement and the potential for action. Look at the diagonal of the right bottom quadrant of the shield and the way that it echoes the line of his right leg. And that line is picked up past his hip by the cloak that comes from behind him. - [Beth] And although the figure is fully clothed and wearing armor, we still have a sense of a body underneath there and we can see Donatello's understanding of human anatomy, we can see the ligaments in his neck and his collarbone. - [Steven] But mostly what I see, is Saint George himself looking out above us, looking to his, and his city's future. - [Beth] His body seems to speak of bravery, but if you look closely at this face, his eyebrows are knit together, there are wrinkles in his forehead, and there's a real sense of anxiety and uncertainty about what's to come and so you feel this figure marshaling his courage to face the fierce dragon. - [Steven] Like so many of Donatello's best sculptures, this is an expression of the outward physical form, but it's also portrait of the interior, of the psychological, of the emotional. - [Beth] This is a figure who is fully human. We've left behind the elongated, expressionless transcendent figures from the early Gothic period and we have a figure here who has emotional depth that is really something that Donatello and the early Renaissance is known for. When we think about freestanding sculpture, we often think about sculpture, we often think about sculpture that we can walk around, and this is made fro a niche, so Donatello knew that we were never to see his back, and yet there is the sense that he could walk away. And this independence from the architecture, this movement toward freestanding sculpture is an important development in early Renaissance sculpture. But it's not only in the figure of Saint George that Donatello is so inventive, we have to look too at the way that he utilized the entire niche. In the lower leaf sculpture below we see a princess, a woman observing Saint George slaying the dragon. - [Steven] She stands on the right, the figure of Saint George on horseback and the dragon are in the middle and on the left, a cave. - [Beth] What Donatello is doing here is bringing the kind of inventiveness that we see in painting in the early Renaissance, creating an illusion of space to relief sculpture. - [Steven] We can see that in the very levels of the depth of the carving, Saint George, his horse, the dragon and the female figure are carved in relatively high relief whereas the cave and this wonderful receding colonnade on the right are carved in low relief so that there's a distinction that's built in. It begins to create the variety of form that is an equivalent to the complexity of painting. - [Beth] It's almost atmospheric perspective. In addition to the colonnade on the right, there are trees and a sense of a landscape in the background where the carving is even shallower and incised into the stone. This is an entirely new way of thinking about relief sculpture. Where before we had a flat background with figures that emerged from there, here Donatello is thinking about that background of the sculpture as a surface for creating an illusion of space. And this technique is called rilievo stiacciato. - [Steven] When I look at that female figure I'm reminded of ancient Greek maenads. - [Beth] The artist of the early Renaissance are looking back to the naturalistic art of ancient Greece and Rome. - [Steven] And Donatello was actively trying to study the art of antiquity. It's entirely possible that there was in fact a relief carving of a maenad that he would have been able to see. - [Beth] Look at that female figure. She stands in lovely contrapposto, her clothing clings to her body just the way it would on an ancient Greek or Roman sculpture. - [Steven] But I think it's important for us to go a step further and to think about why classicism was important to Donatello. Why it was important to artists in the early 15th century in Florence. - [Beth] Well, there's a new emphasis on the pleasures of this world. Sometimes we think about this as part of the humanism of the Renaissance. This interest in the secular world. - [Steven] And the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans were unparalleled in their observation of the human body, of the natural world and their ability to replicate it. Framing that central relief, we have two shields with the emblems of the armorers' guild. You can see as sword, you can see armor, a reminder of who paid for this, a reminder that this functions both as an expression of a city but also of the place of the armors within it, and a reminder to us of the deep civic pride that existed in Florence in the 15th century. (upbeat piano music)