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Orsanmichele and Donatello's Saint Mark

Orsanmichele and Donatello's Saint Mark, Florence, 1349 loggia (1380-1404 upper stories) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Steven Zucker: We're on the first floor of Orsanmichele, which is this extraordinarily complicated and important building. It's a grainary and it's odd to think of a grainary right in the middle of town. Dr. Beth Harris: Well, we don't often think about granaries. Granaries were a place to store grain. Dr. Zucker: But this was incredibly important because there were years when a town might be under siege and you couldn't get to the fields, or there might be bad harvests. Dr. Harris: Right, so right here on the first floor of Orsanmichele, there was a grain market and it was open. Dr. Zucker: And then upstairs there were the storage areas and those are huge spaces. Dr. Harris: So this was, at one point, the church and then became a grainary and there was an image of the Madonna that was located here that was believed to have miraculous powers and at some point it burned and then another image of the Virgin was created Dr. Zucker: Was endued with the same powers and I think we're up to the third version. This was by Bernardo Daddi, but it's surrounded by this extraordinary alter, which was by [Orcania], who we generally think of as a painter. Dr. Harris: It's an amazing tabernacle housing this miraculous image of the Virgin, so we have to imagine that this space was once open. Dr. Zucker: Okay, so the walls that are there now we're not there originally. This was really a part of the city. The city, in a sense, flowed through it. I think it's important to think about this place as an intersection of the spiritual, it was a church, and of the sort of everyday business of the city, that is it was a grainary. In even it's location, it's midway between the great cathedral the Duomo and of the town hall, the Signoria. Dr. Harris: It's here that the first Renaissance sculptures were created for the niches on the outside of this building. It's in this context that the first, really, humanist Renaissance sculptures are born. Dr. Zucker: Let's go upstairs because sculptures that used to be in the niches are now all protected upstairs in the area that used to hold the grain. Dr. Harris: We just climbed up a long flight of stairs and we entered a large open space, filled with the sculptures, the monumental figures, that stood on the outside of Orsanmichele in the niches. Dr. Zucker: So, now if you go outside, you see casts of the originals, which are here because it's safer from the elements. Dr. Harris: To protect them. Dr. Zucker: Yeah. Dr. Harris: In the very early 15th century the guilds of Florence each were responsible for completing a figure for a niche on the outside of Orsanmichele and the guilds each commissioned a sculptor of their choice and we're sitting in front of Donatello's Saint Mark, which was commissioned by the Linen Drapers Guild. Donatello gives us this classical figure. Dr. Zucker: So, what is classical about it? I mean, the first things your eyes see, of course, is this incredible contrapposto that comes through even under that heavy cloth. I mean, look at the way, for instance, that his right engaged leg, the drape falls down to almost as if that's the fluting of the column. Dr. Harris: And we can see his left knee pressing through the drapery, so Donatello is really reviving contrapposto, which hasn't been seen in western art in a thousand years. Dr. Zucker: But it's so beautifully handled. You have the sense of the absolute stability of this figure and yet the sense of his movement. Dr. Harris: The thing that's most impressive is the psychological intensity of this figure, which is really overwhelming. There's a sense, almost as though, along with the contrapposto, he's going to move and he's going to speak. There's a real sense of the dignity of Mark here and I think by extension, that sense that one has in the Florentine Renaissance of the dignity of man, of human beings. Dr. Zucker: There's a kind of intensity. There's a kind of focus. There's a kind of deep human sense of understanding in that face, in the just little bit of the furrow of the brow that you can see and the way that the head is cocked slightly and it's off-center in terms of the shoulders, turning back around and there's an interior awareness, a kind of interior intelligence that comes through so starkly. Dr. Harris: At the same time, without a halo. Dr. Zucker: Yeah. Dr. Harris: I have no doubt that this is someone who sees something that ordinary human beings don't see, when you look at his eyes, he is, in a way, seeing past us. Dr. Zucker: So, isn't that the core of the story of the Florentine experience in the 15th century? You have this intensely devout culture and yet at the same time, you have a culture that is beginning to really celebrate human experience, the individual and the idea of the rational. (piano playing)