St. George – Donatello

Donatello
St. George
c. 1420
Marble
6’5” (1.95 m)
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

“The legs move, the arms are ready, the head alert, and the whole figure acts; by virtue of the character, the manner and form of the action presents to our eyes a valiant, invincible, and magnanimous soul.” – Francesco Bocchi, sixteenth century.

Donatello’s St. George was originally commissioned by the guild of armorers and sword makers (Arte dei Corazzai e Spadai) for their niche outside Orsanmichele, but was moved in the nineteenth century to a museum. St. George was the patron saint of the guild. Suggestions of guild members’ handiwork can be found on the figure: the socket holes in his hands still bear traces of corroded metal, and drill holes in various places imply that he may have had a helmet, sword or spear, belt and sheath. It is possible that the cross on the saint’s shield is not only the emblem of the Christian saint, but a reference to the red cross on white ground, which is also the emblem of the Florentine popolo. The emblem also appears at the top of the Palazzo Vecchio. (Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance art 191-192)

St. George is an example of Donatello’s emotional realism and his ability to create narratives and characters. While the saint maintains a strong contropposto, appearing ready to fight, there is genuine fear in his eyes. This story could also relate to contemporary events in Donatello’s time, given that the armorer and sword makers’ guild gained importance some years earlier when Tuscany was invaded by Ladislaus, the King of Naples. The fear and the bravery of St. George would become relevant again during World War II. The figure had been removed to a deposit outside Florence during the Second World War. When the Germans began to retreat north, so did many of Florence’s great works, including St. George.

St. George was, luckily, discovered along with many other large statues before he could be taken out of Italy. Frederick Hartt, a young American lieutenant and art historian, one of many who risked their lives to save Florence’s art, was there to find George and his fellows. Before the recovery, after discovering St. George and other works had been removed from their original deposit by the Germans, Hartt ruminates in his memoir: “What loss could Florence have felt more keenly? The ideal hero, the saintly warrior, represented for the Florentines the very incarnation of the martial vigor of their lost republic.” (Hartt, Florentine art under fire, 69) Hartt later quotes the Florentine humanist Niccolò da Uzzano when talking about St. George: “In times of safety, anyone can behave well. It is in adversity that real courage is shown.” (Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance art, 191)

Works Cited

• Hartt, F. (1949). Florentine art under fire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

• Hartt, F, & Wilkins, D.G. (2009). History of Italian Renaissance art: painting, sculpture, architecture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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