The ancient marvels of bronze casting and sculpture could not be matched by medieval man. But, they were seen by Donatello, the sculptor who., like Ghiberti, bestrides the opening decades of the Renaissance. It was Donatello who created for the first time since antiquity a monumental bronze equestrian statue, modeled on the antique and representing, in Roman spledoe, a professional soldier of Venice called Erasmo da Narni and nicknamed ”Gattamelata” . Erected in 1453, it stands to this day before the Church of San Antonio at Padua.
Its erection provided the impetus for a sequence of such movements which, although individually they have steadily declined in quality, is only now at an end. The second of these monumental bronzes represented another mercenary, Bartolommeo Colleoni whose fortune was such that, after years of enforcing a lucrative protection racket, he left a substantial sum to the Venetian Republic to ensure himself an adequate memorial. He got one that is the artistic equal of Donatello’s Gattamelata.
The story of its creation is somewhat confused. Andrea del Verrocchio of Florence, Leonardo’s master, was one of three sculptors invited to compete for the commission, according to the Dominican Felix Fabri, who recorded the story in his memoirs. Instructed by the Signory of Venice to show their skill at making a horse, one sculptor submitted a large model in wood covered with black leather, one a model in red terra cotta, and Verrocchio the winning version in wax. ”But for what will be done about casting it,” wrote the friar in 1483, ”I have not heard; perhaps they will give the matter up.”
Fortunately, they did not. During a feud with the senate over whether he should be permitted to do the figure of Colleoni, Verrocchio lost his temper, broke the model, and went back to Florence. Induced by a repentent Senate to return to Venice, he completed a full-size model in clay, took a chill, and died in 1488, leaving instructions enjoining his pupil Lorenzo di Credi to finish the sculpture. Lorenzo agreed and placed the casting in the hands of Giovanni d’Andrea di Domenico, but both he and Lorenzo di Credi were sacked. The work was now undertaken by Alessandro Leopardi, who completed it. It was erected in March 1496, although not in Piazza San Marco as Colleoni had required but in Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo.
In spite of this ludicrously involved procedure, not untypical of Renaissance committee committee decisions, the result is a masterpiece. There follow several others, the greatest of which do not survive. Purely from the point of view of size and technical difficulty, Girardon’s grandiloquent Louis XIV was perhaps the apotheosis of the single monumental cast in bronze of an equestrian statue. Even this, however, is not the end of the story of great bronze horses. The masters of the early Renaissance, looking back on the remains of antique sculpture in its decadence, transformed it. In its rebirth it ranks with the great works of its progenitors in Greece, which, paradoxically, the Florentines could not have seen.
Donatello raised Ghiberti’s relief style to an incredible eloquence and developed, in such works as his ”Judith” , free standing bronze sculpture of matchless beauty. Verrochio carried the tradition forward, while Leonardo da Vinci was able to make his famous boast that he could ” carry out in sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, …whatever may be done as well as any other, be he who may.” This, in a letter to Lodovico Sforza, is followed by a paragraph which reads, ”Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to the immortal and eternal honor of the prince, your father of happy memory and of the illustrious house of Sforza”.