Paduan Renaissance

The Renaissance in Padua had a beginning that was unanimously made to coincide with the arrival of the Florentine sculptor Donatello, from 1443. Here, thanks to a particularly prearranged and prolific environment, an art school was developed which, due to its precocity and wealth of ideas, was the origin of the spread of Renaissance art throughout the North of Italy .

According to the French historian André Chastel, the Paduan Renaissance, called “epigraphic and archaeological”, was one of the three fundamental components of the Renaissance of the origins, together with the Florentine one, “philological and philosophical”, and the Urbinate one, called “mathematician” .

Historical and cultural context
Despite its physical proximity to Venice (just over 30 km), Padua was one of the last Venetian cities to lose its independence by entering the orbit of the Serenissima, from 1405. The loss of a noble court as an artistic propulsor was amply compensated by a long pictorial tradition, inaugurated by Giotto’s stay in the first half of the fourteenth century, by the flourishing University and by the unbroken devotion to St. Anthony, around whom developed an important sanctuary, linked to a continuous series of artistic and architectural initiatives .

Padua after all represented at that time the place where the ancient was studied with the arms of philology, history and archeology. The reconstruction of the past through all sorts of sources and available remains, called “antiquarian”, had a tradition that dates back to the end of the thirteenth century, re-infused by Petrarca’s stay in 1349. While in the Studio (the University) a Averroist and Aristotelian culture flourished, aimed above all at the scientific and secular investigation of the physical and natural world (rather than theology and metaphysics), the lordship of theCarraresi was modeled mainly on Roman / imperial models, in contrast with the Byzantine culture of Venice .

Contacts with Florence were precocious, thanks to the stay during the respective exiles of prominent figures such as Cosimo il Vecchio and Palla Strozzi, as well as some Tuscan artists .

But it was above all the world of local scholars to set up a fertile ground for the adherence of Humanism and the Renaissance. These scholars in the evocation of the ancient researched and studied the Roman remains, especially the epigraphs, arriving at a fantastic evocation where the original classical elements and the modern “style” ones sometimes merged without a critical scrutiny. Among them stood Ciriaco d’Ancona, who turned the Mediterranean in search of ancient monuments, or Felice Feliciano, antique dealer, friend and admirer of Mantegna .


In Padua a significant and early link between Tuscan humanism and northern artists could develop. Many Tuscan artists were active in the Venetian city between the thirties and forties of the fifteenth century: Filippo Lippi (from 1434 to 1437), Paolo Uccello (1445) and the sculptor Niccolò Baroncelli (1434 – 1443).

Fundamental in this sense, however, was the arrival in Florence of the Florentine master Donatello, the father of the Renaissance in sculpture, who left memorable works such as the equestrian monument to Gattamelata and the altar of the Saint. Donatello stayed in the city from 1443 to 1453, also requiring the preparation of a shop. The reasons why Donatello left are not clear, perhaps linked to contingent reasons, such as the expiry of the lease of his shop, perhaps related to the Florentine environment that began to be less favorable to its rigorous art. The hypothesis that Donatello had moved at the invitation of the rich Florentine banker in exile Palla Strozzi is not supported by any confirmation.

In Padua, the artist found an open, fervent and ready to receive the novelty of his work within a culture already well-characterized. Donatello also absorbed local stimuli, such as the taste for polychromy, the linear expressionism of Germanic origin (present in many Venetian statuary) and the suggestion of the wooden altars or the mixed polyptychs of sculpture and painting, which probably inspired the altar of the Saint .

The Crucifix
The first certainly documented work of Donatello in Padua is the Crucifix of the Basilica del Santo (1444-1449), a monumental bronze work that today is part of the altar of the Saint in the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, but which at the time was be born as an independent work. The figure of Christ is modeled with great precision in the anatomical rendering, in the proportions and in the expressive intensity, sharpened by a dry and dry cut of the musculature of the abdomen. The head is a masterpiece for the rendering in the smallest detail, with the hairs of the beard and the hair meticulously modeled and for the heart-rending but composed emotionality of suffering in the moment near the earthly demise.

The altar of the Saint
Perhaps thanks to the positive response of the Crucifix, around 1446 he received an even more impressive and prestigious commission, the construction of the entire altar of the Basilica del Santo, a work composed of almost twenty reliefs and seven bronze statues in the round, which he worked until departure from the city. The original architectural structure, dismantled in 1591, has been lost of the most important complex, and knowing the extreme attention with which Donatello defined the relationships between the figures, the space and the point of view of the observer, it is clear that it is a significant loss. The current arrangement dates back to an arbitrary recomposition of 1895 .

The original appearance had to remember a three-dimensional ” sacred conversation “, with the figures of the six saints in the round placed around a Madonna and Child under a sort of shallow canopy marked by eight columns or pillars, placed near the arches of the ambulatory, not at the beginning of the presbytery as today. The base, adorned with reliefs on all sides, was a sort of predella .

The general effect must have been that of a propagation of the motion in successive ever more intense waves, starting from the Virgin in the center, which was portrayed in the act blocked to rise from the throne to show the Child to the faithful . The other statues in the round (the saints Francesco, Antonio, Giustina, Daniele, Ludovico and Prosdocimo) have natural and calm gestures, marked by a static solemnity, with an economy of gestures and expressions that avoids expressive tensions too strong and which contrast with the dramatic scenes of reliefs with the miracles of the saint, which are surrounded by some minor reliefs, that is, the panels of the four symbols of the Evangelists and the twelve putti.

The four large panels that illustrate the Miracles of St. Anthony are composed of crowded scenes, where the miraculous event is mixed with everyday life, but always immediately identifiable thanks to the use of lines of force. In the background majestic backdrops of extraordinarily deep architectures open, despite the very low leveled relief. Many themes are taken from ancient monuments, but what is most striking is the crowd, which for the first time becomes an integral part of the representation. The miracle of the donkey is tripartite with foreshortened arches, not proportioned with the size of the groups of figures, which amplify the solemnity of the moment. The Miracle of the repentant sonit is set in a sort of circus, with the oblique lines of the steps that direct the viewer’s gaze towards the center. The miracle of the heart of the avar has a close narration that shows at the same time the key events of history making the observer’s eye a circular motion guided by the arms of the figures. In the Miracle of the newborn, which finally speaks some figures in the foreground, placed in front of the pillars, are larger in size because they are projected illusionistically towards the viewer. In general, the line is articulated and vibrant, with flashes of light enhanced by the gilding and silver (now oxidized) of the architectural parts .

In the Stone Deposition, perhaps due to the back side of the altar, Donatello reworked the ancient model of the death of Melagro; the space is canceled and only the sarcophagus and a unitary screen of sore figures remain in the composition, upset in their features thanks to facial expressions and exasperated gestures, with a dynamism accentuated by the contrasts of the lines that generate sharp angles above all. The dynamic line, enhanced by the polychromy, stands out. In this work, of fundamental impact for the art of northern Italy, Donatello renounced the principles of rationality and trust in the typically humanistic individual, who in the same years reiterated instead in Gattamelata. These are the first symptoms, read with extreme promptness by the artist, of the crisis of the ideals of the early Renaissance that matured in the following decades .

The equestrian monument to Gattamelata
It probably dates back to 1446 the commission by the heirs of the captain of fortune Erasmo da Narni, called Gattamelata (died in 1443), to build the equestrian monument of the condottiero in the square in front of the Basilica del Santo. The bronze work, which allowed the artist to try the exquisitely classical type of the equestrian monument, was completed in 1453.

Conceived as a cenotaph, it rises in what at that time was a cemetery area, in a carefully studied location with respect to the nearby basilica, that is slightly offset from the façade and the side, in axis with an important access road, ensuring visibility from multiple points of view .

There are no recent precedents for this type of sculpture: the equestrian statues of the fourteenth century, none in bronze, usually surmounted the tombs (like the Scaliger arks); there are precedents in painting, among them the Guidoriccio da Fogliano by Simone Martini and Giovanni Acuto by Paolo Uccello, but Donatello probably derived more from these than the classical models: the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, the Regisole of Pavia and Horses of San Marco, from which resumed the way of the horse that advances to the step with the face facing down.

In any case Donatello created an original expression, based on the humanistic cult of the individual, where human action is guided by thought. In the work, placed on a high basement, the figure of man is idealized: it is not a portrait from the real old and sick man before death, but an ideal reconstruction, inspired by the Roman portraiture, with a precise physiognomy, certainly not casual. The horse has a blocked pose, thanks to the expedient of the ball under the hoof, which also acts as a discharge point for static forces. The leader, with his legs stretched out on the stirrups, fixes a distant point and holds in his hands the stick of the command in an oblique position that with the sword in the scabbard, always in an oblique position: these elements act as a counterpoint to the horizontal lines of the horse and to the vertical of the condottiere accentuating the forward movement, also emphasized by the slight deviation of the head . The monument was a prototype for all subsequent equestrian monuments.

The legacy of Donatello was understood and used only to a small extent by local sculptors (including Bartolomeo Bellano), while it had a stronger and lasting effect on painters. In the second half of the 15th century a number of sculptors worked in Padua, above all from the Veneto and Lombardy, enrolled in the construction of the Basilica del Santo, in particular the Chapel of the Ark.

In 1500, thanks to the legacy (1499) of General Francesco Sansone from Brescia, the Lombardo brothers were enrolled. For example, Tullio Lombardo was the author of the relief of the Miracle of the reattached leg, with an illusion of Donatello ‘s perspective, but an isocefalic composition of the figures in the foreground, according to that geometric simplification that had spread in painting with Antonello da Messina and others. In 1501 he received the commission for a second relief depicting the Death of Saint Anthony, never realized. Later, with his brother Antonio, he created a panel with Saint Anthony that makes a newborn speak (1505).

The spread of antiquarian fashion then stimulated the birth of a real fashion of old-fashioned bronzes, which had its center in Padua. The most successful interpreter of this genre was Andrea Briosco, known as Il Riccio, who started a production able to compete with the Florentine workshops .


Squarcione and its students
As had happened in Florence, Donatello’s lesson had in sculpture only partial followers, and he served as a model especially for painters, especially with regard to the perspective emphasis and to the intended line as the generating element of the form .

This occurred substantially in the workshop of Francesco Squarcione, an artist / impresario who welcomed artists of various origins, transmitting the secrets of the trade and the antique passion to them. His love for the ancient, which in the twenties of the fifteenth century had led him perhaps to Greece, was linked in his works to a late-Gothic style and a preference for the elaborate and sharp line, which jumps out the figures and exalts the drapery. In the Madonna and Child of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, modeled from a plaque by Donatello, there are the typical elements that he transmitted to his students: festoons of flowers and fruit, intense and marble colors, strong lines and squadrant shapes .

From his teaching each student had different outcomes, sometimes opposed, from the severe classicism of Mantegna, to the fantastic exasperation of the so-called “squarcioneschi”, such as Marco Zoppo, Carlo Crivelli and the Schiavone (Giorgio Çulinoviç). The latter, even with their respective personal variations, are united by a preference for sharp and broken outlines, intense colors that make resemble skin and stone and enamel fabrics look alike, the use of antique elements for decorations with a scholarly flavor and application of a more intuitive than scientific perspective. Some of them, like Zoppo and Schiavone, were also influenced by the Pierfrancescan language, arrived in Padua around the fifties through the construction site of the Ovetari chapel .

Later, when in the city and in the Veneto region in general, the influences of the Venetian naturalistic manner became stronger, the exasperated style of the squarcioneschi was overcome, and they moved to more peripheral centers along the coasts of the Adriatic Sea, giving rise to a peculiar “adriatica” pictorial culture, with exponents from the Marche to Dalmatia .

The Ovetari Chapel and the formation of Mantegna
The various trends that animated the Paduan artistic life found themselves in contact with the decoration of the Ovetari chapel in the church of the Eremitani family, begun in 1448. A heterogeneous group of artists was commissioned to create the frescoes, ranging from the older Giovanni d’Alemagna and Antonio Vivarini (replaced in 1450 – 1451 by Bono da Ferrara and Ansuino da Forlì, stylistically linked to the example of Piero della Francesca), to the younger ones Niccolò Pizzolo and Andrea Mantegna. Andrea in particular, at the beginning of his career after his apprenticeship in Squarcione’s workshop, painted with a precise application of perspective combined with rigorous antiquarian research, much deeper than that of his teacher .

In the Stories of St. James (1447 – 1453, destroyed in 1944) there were numerous details taken from the ancient (armor, costumes, architecture), but unlike the “squarcioneschi” painters were not simple decorations of erudite taste, but contributed to provide a real historical reconstruction of events. The intention to recreate the monumentality of the ancient world comes to give the human figures a certain rigidity, which made them appear as statues. The episode of the Martyrdom of Saint Christopher appears more melted, painted in the final phase of the works (1454 – 1457), where the architecture acquired an illusionistic trait that was one of the basic characteristics of the entire production of Mantegna. In fact, the wall seems to open a loggia, where the scene of martyrdom and transport is set, with a more airy setting and buildings taken not only from the classical world. The figures, also taken from daily observation, are more loose and psychologically identified, with softer forms, which suggest the influence of Venetian painting, in particular of Giovanni Bellini, of which after all Mantegna had married his sister in 1454 .

The change of direction became unequivocal in the subsequent realization, the Pala di San Zeno, painted in Padua for a church in Verona, commissioned in 1456 and finished in 1459, with an original gilded wooden frame. The main panels of the work host a sacred conversation, set in an open quadrangular portico, which is obviously inspired by the altar of the Santo di Donatello. Very careful was the study of the final location of the work, with the perspective lines drawn on the basis of the choir of the church seen from the nave and the light from the right, which coincided with the one that came from a window opened at the explicit request of the painter. Even more than in the frescoes of the Eremitani, painting is oriented towards a fusion of light and color that gives illusionistic effects, with citations of the ancient and perspective virtuosity that were further developed by the artist in the long stay in Mantua, from 1460 .

Later years
In the following years, Padua lost its role as a cultural radiator supplanted by nearby Venice. Throughout the Cinquecenmto important artistic events were recorded, but with a practically passive role, in which foreign artists left their masterpieces before leaving. Here were Lorenzo Lotto, Romanino and above all the young Titian, who already in the frescoes of the Scuola del Santo created a first, innovative masterpiece, detaching from the Giorgione tradition and placing instead the accent on the masses of color used in an expressive way and on the eloquent dynamism of actions. At the same time, other Venetian artists worked, like Domenico Campagnola,Bartolomeo Montagna and others, but we can not speak of a real “school”, at least not prominent in the Italian context.

Padua, as early as the first years after the mid-fifteenth century, had become the main meeting point between the Tuscan perspective novelties and the active painters in the northern cities. Many teachers had a young experience in Padua: among the most important, in addition to Mantegna, painter of the Gonzaga in Mantua, there were Cosmè Tura, father of the Ferrara school, Vincenzo Foppa, head coach in Milan, Carlo Crivelli, leading exponent of painting in Marche of the second fifteenth century.

Source from Wikipedia