Here comes a big battle horse pounding the streets and throwing a mean look left and right.
The Condottiere Gattamelatta in Padua by Donatello (public domain photo by Lamré)
Horses are usually shown to be like their riders—playful if he is a child, combative if he is a warrior, elegant if she is a lady, inexorable if he is a tyrant. Like here.
But isn’t there a lot of horse? Doesn’t it steal the show from the rider?
Reader: It’s no bigger than the Rolls-Royce a dictator rides through town or the tank with the general standing at the hatch.
But a horse isn’t a Humvee. Donatello could have made it and the general go together better. He could have made a kind of Centaur out of them. As it is, both rider and mount are as stiff as dolls.
Reader: That’s the poker-face and fearless pose of power.
I see it as simply weak sculpture.
Gattamelata’s portrait head is probably good but the body is a manikin.
And the horse is almost as stiff. There is too much bronze without articulation. Donatello tried to give it a look of movement with those wrinkles where the leg is lifted and under the neck where the head bows; but they are just pretty grooves in the big block of bronze. He put in that long vein in the belly too, but it looks more like inscribed decoration than a real throbbing vein.
Reader: I think the whole statue is wonderful. What could Donatello have done to give the figures more life?
Twist them. Sideways, up and down. A horse is not just a big cylinder held up by four sticks, and the eyes and lips and feet aren’t the only parts that move. Everywhere there is tension, slackening, twisting, bending, pushing; and it is up to the artist to find those points of tension and of articulation and to emphasize them.
A muscle isn’t just a bump in the skin: it begins somewhere and ends somewhere and takes the skin along with it.
One gets the impression everywhere on this statue that Donatello had not thought enough about movement, that he considered muscles and skin features only as designs.
Reader: Show me a better horse and rider.
The equally famous Colleoni statue in Venice, by Donatello’s pupil Verrocchio (public domain photo)
Verrocchio corrected all the defects of his teacher.
Colleoni is now clearly in charge of that horse—he is not simply being transported. He is alive—everywhere there is realism based on good observation. His pose is tense. He really pushes on those stirrups, he twists in the saddle, he leans back in arrogance.
And his horse is no longer a big decorated ton of bronze but a living animal. These wrinkles under the head and upraised leg are not simple parallel scratches but true accidents of skin. They cover the entire neck. You can almost see it shiver. The muscles too are not mere designs but each is itself a sculpture, each adds to the movement of the whole.
Notice how the forward-coming back leg pushes into the belly.
The horse really walks—its front leg is stretched back a maximum and the left hind leg is just coming down—there is no weight on it yet.
Only the tail is treated as an ornament.
Reader: Maybe Verrocchio gave his monument more naturalism but the general shape is not as beautiful as Donatello’s. Naturalistic truth is only one kind of beauty. And it may be a lesser kind.
The Colleoni figure was no doubt the reference for this modern statue of Pizarro.
The Conquistador Pizarro by Charles Rumsey in Trujillo, Spain (Creative Commons Atribución 3.0, no adaptada photo by © Manuel González Olaechea y Franco)
See also The First Great Equestrian Statues