Donatello, originally known as Donato, was given the name Donatello by his relatives and thus, wrote it that way on many of his works, was born in Florence in the year 1386. A gifted artist, he was not only an excellent sculptor and a marvellous statuary, but also prevalent in stucco, an able master of perspective, and a greatly admired architect who worked in virtually every medium possible during his long career, marble, bronze, low relief, pietra serena (dark stone), and even wood . And according to Vasari in his “Lives of the Artists”: “his works showed so much grace, design, and excellence, that they were held to approach more nearly to the marvellous works of the ancient Greeks and Romans than those of any other craftsman whatsoever.”
The piece that shall be discussed in this essay is the work considered by many to be Donatello’s most important work in pietra serena, the “Annunciation (c.1435)” for the Cavalcanti tabernacle, in the Santa Croce Chapel, Florence. The entire piece is 218cmx268cm, and is an architectural sculpture that takes the place of an altar in a family chapel, located in the right aisle of the Chapel following the renovation of the Original church and destruction of the original Chapel by Vasari.
The Annunciation itself is a biblical scene that refers to moment in which the angel Gabriel delivers the news to Mary that she is to bear the child of Christ. In the Bible, the Annunciation is narrated in the book of Luke, Luke 1:26-38:
“Luke 1:26 and in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed 'art' thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.
It was the skill of Donatello to translate this scene into a sculpture so vibrant and powerful that generation after generation would look upon it and understand the power and significance of the depiction. According to Joachim Poeschke, author of “Donatello and his World”, like Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello felt that “the Distance between the viewer and the action had to be overcome in the emotional sense as well as the visual”. It is this mentality that causes the work of Donatello to sweep a viewer up and allow them to feel in the midst of the action, He did not have to “rely on realistic effects to create such brilliance but rather focus on his own imagination and creative control over his piece”. However, in this piece, Donatello does actually create a harmoniously realistic rendering of such a miraculous and often over-exaggerated scene.
So how exactly does Donatello tell the story? Well the strength of the piece lies in its choice of subjects, their depiction, and the complex emotional brevity he applies to their story.
The sculpture itself is carved from a single stone of pietra serena, a typically dark stone that is often avoided by sculptors for its monotony in tone and contrast but in the hands of Donatello he used exquisite gold gilding to create a rich and sensuous appeal to the carving. The gold would have glimmered high above the parishioners in the candlelight of the otherwise dark Franciscan church, notable for its one large external rose window. It is important to note the fact that the parishioners would have been looking up at the elevated sculpture as it plays a paramount role in our understanding of its depiction.