In your own words, explain how Donatello has told the story of The Annunciation in sculpture and why contemporaries were so impressed with his achievement.
Donatello is considered to be one of the most influential artists of the 15th century. A
member of the innovative group of painters, architects and sculptors that revolutionised art in
Florence at the beginning of the 15th century, he succeeded in becoming perhaps the most successful
in his field due to his understanding of the aspects of classical sculpture and the creative and
emotive way in which he adapted them to his own works. In particular, his reliefs surpassed all
others of the time in terms of their dramatic effect and complexity of character placement and
spatial awareness. I am going to describe how Donatello depicted the scene of the Annunciation in
sculpture through his combination of different classical motifs and methods and also in the
materials he used. I will discuss how he conveyed human emotions through his careful and modern
placement of the characters while also staying true to the traditional image of the Angel Gabriel
delivering the news to the Virgin. I will also talk about how Donatello's risks, skill and innovation
made him so admired by his contemporaries and how he influenced subsequent changes in
The Cavalcanti Annunciation in shiacciato relief was made out of local macigno sandstone instead of the
usual marble. It is quite easy to carve which made it possible for Donatello to create the richly decorated
tabernacle and flowing lines of the figures. It also made it easier for Donatello to have greater depth in the
scene, creating more contrast between light and dark and “in order to create the effect of an interior setting
with intarsia panelling”.
The sillouhette of Donatello's tabernacle seems to be the end product of a whole line of
tabernacles designed to house grave offerings or effigys of the gods. Some of the earlier ones from
Lilybeum on the south coast of Sicily actually provide a covering or shelter for the objects within.
This idea is echoed in Donatello's Annunciation which shows a walled room with a definite ceiling
and floor. This technique creates a sense of a place and gives the viewer the impression of looking in on a private moment, of experiencing something very personal and confidential. There are other
possible ,but perhaps less likely, sources as to the origins of the tabernacle form, such as the higly
decorative Roman fountains that can be found in their best condition in Pompeii. Another
suggestion is medieval manuscript illumination, in particular canon tables.
For the architectural detail, Donatello possibly took inspiration from shingled pilasters such as the
ones in the urn of T.Claudius Victor. Again, he adapted this idea to create a more refined pliaster
that tapers gracefully to the top. Manuscript illumination also has examples of the Annunciation
scene set in decorative tabernacles with detailed columns and pilasters which may have served to
inspire Donatello's own Annunciation aedicule. A prime example is a panel by Jacopo di Ciono
which also places the Virgin and angel opposite each other, pressed against either wall. Donatello
does not replicate the work of others but it would be fair to conclude that “ Donatello is adapting
medieval traditions for the design of his tabernacle, as well as adopting antique ideas”.
The small, mischevious terracotta putti on top of the tabernacle are a clever addition by Donatello to
balance out the composition and act as a counterbalance to the solemn scene playing out underneath. Though
some critics state that they were a later addition, it is more probable that they were part of the original
architectural detailing. There is even more decorative addition with the patterns on the throne and rear wall...
Kim W.Woods, Making Renaissance Art (The United Kingdom, 2007), p.117
Michael Greenhalgh, Donatello and His Sources (Gerald Duckworth & co.ltd, 1982) p.84-95
Janson, Sculpture of Donatello (Princeton University Press, 1957), p.141-157
[ 1 ]. Kim W.Woods, Making Renaissance Art (The United Kingdom, 2007), p.117
[ 2 ]
[ 3 ]. Siren (1914), Donatello and His Sources (Gerald Duckworth & co.ltd, 1982), p.84
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