Sibyls, Prophets and Patriarchs in Giotto's Bell Tower
Masterpieces of Gothic and early Renaissance statuary
The monuments of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore are at the origin of modern Western art and one of the places where the statuary was reborn are the niches of the third level of Giotto's Bell Tower.
The Bell Tower has an external sculpture decoration that was made over a hundred years, 1334-1436, ichnographically very elaborate, arranged on three levels and on each of the four sides. The first two levels of these decorations are the fourteenth-century reliefs by Andrea Pisano and his workshop depicting the human sciences and the celestial powers that govern them. The third level is occupied by sixteen cuspidate niches, inside, which were, placed marble sculptures in high relief and in the round, four on each side, depicting sibyls, prophets and patriarchs.
Around the middle of the fourteenth century Andrea Pisano with his son Nino and other collaborators had placed on the west side, the one most visible from the square, the sculptures (actually worked only on the front side, the only visible one), depicting the Eritrean Sibyl, who according to the ancient Christian tradition had heralded the Redemption; the Tiburtina, which according to the same tradition would have prophesied the birth of the Savior; David, king of Jerusalem, author of the Psalms and ancestor of Christ; and his son and successor King Solomon, creator of the great temple of Jerusalem and ruler of unsurpassed wisdom. Again, Andrea Pisano and his collaborators sculpted for the southern side: a Moses, holding the tablets of the law in his hand, and other unidentified prophets, represented bearded and with large scrolls. All these figures are characterized by the elegant linearity and volumetric power taught in painting by Giotto. They are transhumanized and hieratic, except for the sibyls, which express a certain human joy.
Once these two fronts were completed, for a few years the niches of the other two, the eastern and the northern, remained empty. Then, , between 1409 and 1436 the Giottesque style of the Pisano gave way here to the Renaissance: to the disruptive novelty of naturalism classic by Donatello and his collaborator Nanni di Bartolo, known as “il Rosso”.
For the eastern side Donatello sculpted two splendid prophets, not clearly recognizable, perhaps Malachi and Isaiah, therefore commonly named the "beardless" because of the hairstyle and "the pensive", because of the pose with the reflective hand on the chin. These are two extraordinary representations characterized by an unprecedented naturalism of men advanced in age, dressed in old-fashioned tunics. The expression on their faces, every member of their body and every hem of their garments powerfully expresses their inner turmoil caused by what God has revealed to them. They were joined by a third prophet (perhaps Zaccaria) by Nanni, who seems to harangue the people with the pride of a Roman senator, raising a hand and his gaze and, then, a fourth statue, one of the most famous of the Renaissance: the Sacrifice of Isaac, which Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo sculpted together. Abraham is old, with a long beard, and is caught in the moment when he twists with a shocked expression towards the sky, recalled by the voice of the angel, just a before plunging the knife into the throat of his son Isaac, who is naked, kneeling at his feet (it is the first full-size nude of modern art).
The pair of brilliant sculptors were also entrusted with the execution of the remaining quatern of statues, for the niches facing north, the least visible.
Again, Donato and Nanni created four absolute masterpieces. Nanni sculpted the prophet Obadiah, a s an handsome and vigorous young man, with a concentrated and sad gaze towards those to whom he shows by opening his scroll with its prophetic text; and St. John the Baptist, last of the prophets and first of the saints, also depicted as an handsome young man showing, with a melancholy expression, the cartouche with the announcement of the Lamb of God.
Donatello surpassed his companion: his Geremia, busy meditating on what is written in his scroll, is vigorous and vibrant in spirit, has the features of a scruffy middle-aged man of humble conditions, but expresses the physical strength and moral dignity of a classic hero.
The Zuccone (literally “pumpkin-head”: perhaps the prophet Abacuc, so nicknamed by the Florentines for reference to the bald skull with which he was imagined) is a simply unsurpassable work: Donatello shaped a man of about forty, with a lean and nervous body, wrapped in a wide mantle and in a coat, which he widens his eyes to stare at something in front of him and keeps his mouth ajar, out of amazement at what he sees or to say a word to someone who is in front of him.
These last four sculptures were too beautiful to remain "hidden" on the north front and for this reason in 1464 they were "exchanged" with the fourteenth-century ones placed to the west, so as to give better ornament to the side of the bell tower next to the facade of the Cathedral.
The sixteen sculptures remained in their place for half a millennium until, in the twentieth century, these splendid marbles were protected from the ravages of time. Between 1939 and 1945 Romano Romanelli and Natale Binazzi sculpted in white marble the copies of the four prophets of the west side: the most exposed to the elements and, perhaps, the most beautiful.
Then, in 1973-76 Enzo Cardini made the casts of the remaining 12 statues in concrete and marble dust.
The originals of these masterpieces can be admired in the room of the Opera del Duomo Museum dedicated to the Bell Tower’s sculptures, at a close distance that in the original location was not possible, but on a level high enough to enjoy poses and expressions from the correct bottom up perspective.