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Meeting Donatello Sept 1978


The Basilica was teeming with crowds of people, the blended voices of thousands of congregants and tourists producing a constant hum.  The immensity of the place was evident as numerous altars were being used for weddings, baptisms, prayers and even funerals––all at one time.


On the way by bus to Padua, Italy, from Venice and Vicenza, co-hosting a UI Foundation Presidents Club group tour in 1978, I had read that one of the greatest collections of Donatello’s bronze reliefs were to be found on the high altar of the “Santo,” and that if the main sanctuary were not in use and if one could find the Sacristan, he would let you in to see these marvelous reliefs that I had admired even though only by poorly captured images in art history books and lectures.


Armed with this information, I decided to abandon my hosting duties and all the people who had been relying on me to join with them on the general tours and yet as we entered the Basilica (the “Santo”), my optimism dimmed because the first large sanctuary I encountered was actively engaged with a very large wedding.  But I made a beeline for the center of the church, not knowing in the slightest where the main sanctuary actually was or how I could identify a Sacristan.


It may have been divine providence or perhaps just Iowa common sense that guided me directly toward a priest standing quietly facing the oncoming masses of tourists and congregants.  I explained to him, in my very meager Italian, “Io scultore.” In English I said I’d like to see the Donatello reliefs on the high altar.  He immediately smiled, turned and led me to a side door of interwoven iron bars––the high altar was visible inside and I could see that it and the sanctuary beyond were not occupied. The priest produced a huge, ancient iron key from a pocket in his robes, placed the key in the oversized lock and opened the heavy iron-grated door.  Closing the door behind us, he and I, alone, walked to the high altar. The silence of this sacred place stood in total contrast to the tumultuous noise outside.

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The “Sacristan” (by this time I had to believe I had actually contacted the Sacristan!) spoke to me in Italian at some length about each of Donatello's marvelous bronze reliefs, their panels covering all sides of the altar. I felt privileged to stand back of the altar where few lay people were allowed to see the artist’s bronzes.


And although I was far from fluent in Italian, I could understand much of what the Sacristan was telling me as I knew most of the “stories” of the major players in each of the scenes.  And the priest and I had a connection to the work of this artist that transcended language and allowed us to overcome our language differences. Our communication was helped along by my own quasi-Italian language skills and my very Italianate hand gestures, which are my normal accompaniments to speech.

The Basilica di Sant’Antonio de Padula

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The High Altar of the “Santo”

As we talked, my eyes traced, even caressed, each panel, and I felt the movement and pressures of the artist’s hand as he modeled his clay, preparing it for molding and eventual bronze casting.  My major discovery was that Donatello had fused painting and sculpture in a most profound way.  He created the appearance of deep spatial backgrounds in 3-point perspective through very shallow relief and incised lines, while modeling his human figures––the “actors” in each story––in deep, rounded relief.  He even infused “color” into each relief by skillfully darkening them with patination and using pumice and other abrasives to highlight the final bronzes.  But most importantly, Donatello had the unique ability to capture the intense inner life of his subjects.  It was here, in this still, holy place that I saw and felt the true beauty and power of Donatello's sculptural reliefs.

Donatello and some of his bronze reliefs at the “Santo”

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Most remarkably, I actually felt in some indescribable way that I had touched Donatello himself.  And I felt him reaching out to me across the 500-plus years that separated us, embracing me as a colleague.  It was a responsibility given and one which has challenged me ever since as I create sculpture, drawings and other artwork.


As the priest and I exited the iron-grated door, one of the most obstreperous women on our tour, in her high-pitched and loudest voice, demanded to know what I’d seen in there!  She insisted that she must get in to see it.  I could not even answer her!  But my lovely “Sacristan” friend obliged her, along with at least fifteen other people, as I returned to the bus in an awestruck state, just having been charged by one of the “Masters” to constantly question the “norms” of our own era while creating art.


Note:  Italian artist Donato di Niccolo Bardi (1386-1466), known as “Donatello,” was at the forefront of the movement from the Gothic tradition into the exploration of naturalistic or “optical” realism at the beginning of the 15th century (the 1400s or the Quattrocento) that is now designated by art historians as the early Renaissance.


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