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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Beth: We're standing in the square, outside of the Church of Sant Antonio in Padua, looking across a traffic circle, at Donatello's great equestrian monument, from the mid-15th century, Gattamelata. Steven: Donatello had spent a good deal of time in Rome, was up in Padua for about 10 years, and worked on a number of important commissions, but, this is clearly his most famous. Beth: And, it's important to note that Donatello was twice in Rome, because he got to see the great equestrian sculpture of Marcus Aurelius. Steven: This is really important, and I think it's a little bit difficult for us to understand how extraordinary that ancient sculpture must have seemed. You know, by the late medieval and the beginning of the Renaissance, when Donatello was alive, you had a culture that had forgotten how to cast bronze at a large scale. In other words, they could look at a sculpture from antiquity that they couldn't make any more. Beth: That certainly seemed like a challenge, and Donatello took up that challenge. Can we, a 1,000 years later, make a monumental bronze sculpture, an equestrian sculpture? Steven: Well, an equestrian sculpture is especially difficult. Just look at the Gattamelata for a moment. You have this massive horse. You have this mass of the human body, and all of that rests on 4 slender legs. Beth: And, to show off, you would want to raise one of the legs of the horse, as the sculptor did for Marcus Aurelius, and Donatello was clearly ambitious in wanting to do that, but he didn't go all the way in that direction and, instead, he's got the left hoof up on a cannonball. Steven: Although, if you look at that left foreleg, it is so delicately placed on that cannonball, it's actually a very small point that is able to anchor the sculpture, and so it can't really support that much weight, so he's gone pretty far. Beth: So, this is a type of sculpture that was lost, not only because of the loss of the knowledge of how to cast bronze in this size, but also because this is a type of monument that didn't really interest the Middle Ages. This is a monument that commemorates a great man, commemorates an individual. Steven: And it commemorates a great man in our world, a recent figure, and, right, this is antithetical to the medieval celebration of, perhaps, royalty. Beth: Or, saints you would get in the Middle Ages. This is not a saint. This is a very talented military captain, or a Condottiere, a kind of hired military captain that was very common at the time. Steven: And a man who was hired by Venice, which is a city only about a half hour from Padua, that was responsible for Venice actually gaining this territory, that is, solidifying its foothold, on terra firma, outside of the lagoon. Beth: Right. In the early 15th century, Venice captured more and more towns on the mainland, and Padua was one of them. And, so, we're looking, really, at a military commander who captured Padua. Now, the monument was commissioned by Gattamelata's family. By the way, Gattamelata means honeyed cat. I don't think we know the origin of that nickname but it sounds to me like something, perhaps, his soldiers called him. Steven: His real name was Erasmo da Narni. Beth: His family had him buried inside this important Church of Saint Anthony - this is a major pilgrimage church - and then asked the Venetian government if they could put up a monument to him outside and, obviously, the Venetian government agreed. The monument commemorates an individual but also speaks to the greatness of Padua, the greatness of Venice. Steven: He is placed just outside of this enormous church and, so, there's this way that that civic pride is contextualized within this religious society. Donatello's work is just a tour de force. There's a kind of sensitivity in the handling of both the figure and of the horse. They are both independent figures that are responding to the world around them, in their own way, so that the man stands fully in control, in charge. He has baton in hand, he looks outward, the horse also enormously powerful, but looks down at us, turns, and seems so animated. Beth: You can see Donatello taking up the challenge and then surpassing the ancient Romans. When we look at the Marcus Aurelius, a figure that has nobility, but lacks military strength and power, or doesn't project that as much as we have here, Gattamelata sits up in his stirrups, presses down, his body is vertical, balanced by the horizontal of the horse, and, as we're looking from this vantage point outside the church, you can see the horse turning to its left, almost posing, and the beauty of the horse showing off its own valor. Steven: Well, the horse seems to be aware that we're looking at it. Beth: Donatello's clearly studied the anatomy of the horse, the same way that we know Donatello was studying human anatomy at the time, that interest in naturalism is so evident here. Steven: It's such a culmination of the ideas of the early Renaissance. Look, for instance, at the broad face of the horse, and look at the way that you can see some of the veins, and the nostrils are flared. This is clearly based on direct observation. The same way that Donatello was concerned with Contrapposto in the human body, we have the real movement of a horse through time, through space. Beth: A monument that epitomizes Renaissance humanism in its commemoration of the achievements of an individual, and in recalling, and even surpassing, that ancient past. (piano music playing)