Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

The “Cantorie” by Luca della Robbia and Donatello (art history comparison)


Two exemplary works of relatively early Renaissance sculpture are set up for a classic art history comparison in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence: the Cantorie by Donatello and Luca della Robbia.

Luca Cantoria BottomL

In the late 1420’s the Operai del Duomo di Firenze decided upon a program that, likely from its inception, included two “organ pulpits” over the two sacristy doors at the apsidal end of the Duomo . Although they have nothing to do with singing galleries, the modern term for these works are “Cantorie” and they are examples of sculptural-architectural works by Donatello and Luca della Robbia from the 1430s. The two works are set up in the same room at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, permitting close analysis and comparison.

The commission of an organ decoration (“perghamo degli orghani“) from Luca della Robbia probably dates to 1431, but work commenced in 1432 and lasted until 1438. Donatello was in Rome in 1432-3; when he returned he was given the commission for a second “pergamo” which, in the contract itself, was put into comparison with the work by Luca in that the cost of Donatello’s work was not to exceed that of Luca’s. The two works are almost the same size (to within a few inches) and both depict dancing children inspired by Antique sources. Luca della Robbia’s shows the importance of real children in Renaissance Florence, while Donatello’s shows the influence of the Antique motif of putti (pudgy nude children) on this period.

Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria illustrates Psalm 150, “Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius…” To alleviate any doubts that this is the case, the entire passage is expressely carved in three friezes on the work (although these friezes are not in the present museum display, see below). There are eight groups of idealized music-making adolescents and children of both genders disposed on two levels and separated vertically by double fluted pilasters, as well as two thinner side panels. Luca’s antiquizing tendancies have long been noted, and various models in Muse and child sarcophaghi as well as in Greek coins have been proposed for elements in this work. However, it has also been demonstrated that these children are modeled on the real youths of the city who belonged to the laudesi youth confraternities that were gaining popularity at the time . We know this because the older children on the top panels wear contemporary costume – for example, see the very chastely draped young women playing authentic fifteenth-century citharas in the third panel of the top register or the short tunics worn by any of the male trumpeters. Luca made careful notes of Antique precedents but also made observations from nature, resulting in a harmonious combination of which Alberti was the prime exponent. Although often used as a foil for the “greater renaissance work” of Donatello, Luca’s reliefs are breathtakingly realistic, delicate and powerfully observed.

Like Luca’s, Donatello’s Cantoria is composed on two levels. The upper level consists of a continuous frieze of putti similar to those in Prato in that the figures are winged and wear shifts, but the Florence composition has greater internal force due to the multidirectional movement of the higher relief figures across a larger plane. Their movement is not limited by pilasters as in the Prato Pulpit and in Luca’s Cantoria, but rather they pass behind independent, round columns covered in mosaic. The lower level is divided into four squares by heavily sculpted consoles. Here there are two bronze portrait roundels (one of which may be Antique) and two plaques with pairs of unwinged naked putti flanking a central, antiquizing object. Every surface of the work is encrusted with a variety of antique and medieval motifs including vases, seashells, rosettes, egg and dart, and acanthus, although these are nineteenth-century reconstructions based on fragments and hence not to be taken too much into consideration. Unlike Luca della Robbia’s work, which we have seen illustrates Psalm 150, the subject of Dontello’s Cantoria is obscure to us, although numerous proposals have been made in the last century of scholarship, none of which is entirely satisfactory.

Near-contemporary sources tell us that when the works were installed, high over the apsidal sacristy doors, they were rather hard to see. Vasari says that Donatello took this into mind and left his sculptures roughly finished so that the eye would adjust to them better in position, and that as a result his work was better than Luca della Robbia’s. While this has been repeated for about 400 years, it is completely untrue. Donatello was working under a tighter deadline than Luca, and also had another similar project going on in Prato. So he cut corners and didn’t highly finish the work, perhaps taking into account the fact that nobody would notice it as the work was so high up. But this was certainly not an aesthetic decision on Donatello’s part. While Vasari and the generation that follow valued the “non-finito” of sculpture, this aesthetic derives from an appreciation of Michelangelo’s unfinished works, and cannot be extended backwards one century to Donatello.

Both Cantorie were dismounted from their original position in the Duomo in 1688 on the occasion of a Medici wedding. Some parts were probably reused for other works. Luca’s was reconstructed in 1883 but dismounted again for the recent restoration, and the museum has decided to only put up the relief panels in the present display (the photo above was taken before the cantoria was dismantled). I don’t know where they put the two remaining friezes of text! The reconstruction of Donatello’s work dates to around the second world war and cannot be considered entirely reliable.

Bibliography about Donatello

*Janson, Horst W. The Sculpture of Donatello (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957). [This is the book from which I pieced together most of the above story, and I could not live without this on my bookshelf. It’s out of print but worth every penny: Janson, Sculpture of Donatello] Marquand, Allen. Luca Della Robbia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1914).
Mode, Robert L. “Adolescent confratelli and the cantoria of Luca della Robbia,” Art Bulletin LXVIII/1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 67-71.
Pope-Hennessy, John. Luca della Robbia (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1980).
Pope-Hennessy, John. Donatello Sculptor (NY: Abbeville Press, 1993). [Donatello: Sculptor amazon link] Rosenauer, Arthur. Donatello (Milan: Electa, 1993).

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.