Donatello, Dürer, and the Role of Antiquity

Classical antiquity was key to the way in which Renaissance artists chose to represent their subjects. As seen in Donatello’s Equestrian portrait of Gattamelata and Dürer’s Adam and Eve, the traditions of antiquity influenced artists’ choice of subject, and the ways in which they would depict and treat them. Donatello’s Gattamelata exists within the classical tradition of equestrian sculpture, demonstrating the importance of classical antiquity to Renaissance artists; the depiction of a mounted military hero, and the form and style of the subject, mirrors sculptures such as the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. While the Biblical subject matter of Dürer’s Adam and Eve is in itself not directly linked to classical antiquity, Dürer represents the subject in a classical manner, demonstrating the stylistic importance of classical antiquity to Renaissance artists. Even within a heightened religious context, artists were still influenced by classical traditions, as seen via Dürer’s representation of form, and his composition of the scene. Thus, through their choice of subjects and the manner in which they depicted them, classical antiquity was highly significant to the ways in which Renaissance artists represented their subjects. They were not, however, limited by antiquity – in both artworks, Donatello and Dürer move beyond simply imitating the classical style, reflecting the nature of the relationship between Renaissance artists and classical antiquity.

This can be seen in Donatello and Dürer’s choice of subject, demonstrating the influence of classical antiquity on Renaissance artists. Despite the religious subject matter of Dürer’s Adam and Eve, it still demonstrates the broader importance of classical antiquity on Renaissance artists. Erwin Panofsky suggested that Dürer wanted to reflect ‘a ‘classical’ attitude toward the expressive power and beauty inherent in the human body’.[1] This can be seen in Dürer’s choice of subject matter; Adam and Eve, as the first humans made directly in God’s image serve as a highly effective way to duly depict the qualities of the human form within a classical manner. This can be also seen via the popularity of depictions of Adam and Eve throughout the Renaissance, from Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Fig. 4) to Michelangelo’s The Temptation of Adam and Eve. Through depictions of Adam and Eve, artists could effectively demonstrate a heightened awareness of classical teachings regarding the human form, adding to the sense that classical antiquity impacted the subjects that Renaissance artists depicted. In a similar way, Donatello’s Gattamelata also demonstrates the nature of the importance of classical antiquity to Renaissance artists. Commissioned by the Venetian Republic following the death of Erasmo de Narni – a leading mercenary condottiero - in 1443, it is clearly suggestive of the equestrian sculptures of military heroes of classical antiquity, such as the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. However, rather than simply providing an artistic basis that artists could mimic, links to classical antiquity could allow patrons to reinforce and symbolise the extent of their power, authority, and learning. Reflecting this, Gordon Campbell states that the depiction of Erasmo de Narni ‘in the style of a Roman emperor is a paradigm of the Renaissance celebration of individuality and of classical imagery’.[2] For both Donatello and Dürer, usage of a neo-classical style allowed them to heighten the subject matter of their artworks, in turn demonstrating the importance of classical antiquity to Renaissance artists.

The style in which Donatello and Dürer represent their subjects further demonstrates the importance of classical antiquity to Renaissance artists. While Donatello’s Gattamelata mirrors the use of equestrian statues within antiquity, and elements of their style, Donatello’s depiction of the subject moves beyond the specific traditions and techniques of antiquity. Laurie Adams states that it ‘reflects Renaissance notions of the dignity of man’ while also being ‘reminiscent of Roman portraiture’.[3] This can be seen via Donatello’s representation of the subject; he is depicted looking forward, firmly in control of his horse, symbolising his authority and command within a military context. Dürer’s depiction of Adam and Eve is also influenced by classical sculpture, such as the Apollo Belvedere, demonstrating the direct influence that classical antiquity could have on Renaissance artists. Depicted in the nude, the figures of Adam and Eve clearly mirror sculptural techniques – Dürer emphasises the musculature and form of both figures, with cast shadow providing a sense of depth within the scene. The smooth quality of their skin – arguably mirroring the smoothness of a polished stone – contrasts with the rougher forms of the trees behind them, in turn showing their ideal qualities as the first humans. Both Donatello and Dürer mirror the style of the art of classical antiquity, further reflecting the stylistic importance of classical antiquity to Renaissance artists.

Through their depictions of the forms of their subjects, both artists demonstrate an interest in their weight, movement, and energy, reflecting similar focuses within the art of classical antiquity. Within Dürer’s Adam and Eve, Adam and Eve are both standing with their weight shifted between their legs, mirroring the use of the contrapposto position within classical sculpture, furthering demonstrating the extent to which Dürer was influenced by the artistic techniques of classical antiquity. Donatello’s Gattamelata also shows a similar focus on the energy present within the form of the moving horse, depicted with its left leg somewhat raised. However, the hoof of the horse remains connected to the base of the sculpture in order to give it greater tensile strength; Verrocchio’s Equestrian statue of Colleoni (Fig. 7) would be the first equestrian statue since antiquity to be fully raised from the ground. This gives a sense of the particular importance of antiquity to Renaissance artists; they continued to be influenced by classical art, but duly attempted to progress beyond it – in the words of Kenneth Clark, they sought ‘to absorb it, to equal it, to master it’.[4] This is arguably reflected in Dürer’s use of the traditional contrapposto position of the sculptures of antiquity, within the then modern medium of printmaking. This adds to the sense that although both artworks are clearly influenced by the style of classical antiquity, artists also combined modern developments in artistic thought and practice within their depictions of the subjects.

Both Dürer’s Adam and Eve and Donatello’s Gattamelata demonstrate the importance of classical antiquity to Renaissance artists, reflecting the ways in which their choice and their depiction of the subject are linked to the art and ideas of antiquity. However, while both artists were inspired by the artistic and academic traditions of classical antiquity, they moved beyond simply imitating it. From Dürer’s combination of a biblical subject within a classical style, executed in a modern medium, to Donatello’s usage of classical symbolism with Renaissance Humanist thinking, artists of the Renaissance were not simply limited by the traditions classical antiquity. Through their usage of elements linked to classical antiquity, such as their choice of subject, and their style, artists could heighten the impact of their artworks. While Donatello’s Gattamelata serves to link Erasmo de Narni with the Roman heroic figure of Marcus Aurelius, Dürer’s Adam and Eve combines the ideals of classical sculptural form with the biblical presentation of human creation. Thus, classical antiquity provided Renaissance artists with a basis of style and context that they could use within their artworks, in combination with the own developments in artistic thought and practise throughout the Renaissance.


[1] Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts (London: Penguin, 1993), 278.

[2] Gordon Campbell, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 180-181.

[3] Laurie Adams, Italian Renaissance Art (London: Routledge, 2014), 149.

[4] Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (London: John Murray Publishers Ltd, 1969), 118.

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