Two Famous Equestrian Statues

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.

This one.

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

Leonardo da Vinci’s Great Horse


This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Donatello, equestrian statues, great artists, Renaissance, sculpture, Verrocchio and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Two Famous Equestrian Statues

  1. judithweingarten says:

    I agree about Gattamelatta’s horse, but doesn’t the relatively small size of the the condottiero have something to do with the fact that he was already dead before Donatello got to Padova. So it was never meant (I think) as a portrait of the man, but as an idealized picture of the warrior in the mode of Marcus Aurelius’ equestrian statue. Anyway, it was the first ‘modern’ equestrian statue. Perhaps we should look again at Marcus’ horse.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Sorry, Judith, but I don’t see why Donatello would have made the Condottiero smaller because he was dead. It certainly LOOKS like a portrait, not an idealized face. It is in fact not very pretty. Of course Marcus Aurelius is huge on his horse.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    I can’t decide on this one. Yesterday I thought Donatello’s horse was better despite the weaknesses you pointed out. But the Condottiere looks so puny on that big horse, I’ll have to go with Verrocchio’s because it has more presence, rider and horse are one. Pizarro looks really strange with those big horns.

    Just wondering, Swallows, you seem to know all the interesting stories, what was Donatello’s relationship with Verrocchio like? Having someone so talented for student, wasn’t he ever jealous? Or was he very proud of him?

  4. Ken Januski says:


    I was reading along and came upon this paragraph:

    “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.”

    It made me think: this is what I was trying to explain, probably not very well, about Tintoretto. If you change it ‘horse’ to ‘painting’ it becomes something like this: A painting is not just a big rectangle, whose vertical columnar lines, and often horizontal lines of floors and horizon, reinforce the stolid rectilinear frame. It is a living breathing space, full of tension, slackening, twisting, bending, pushing……… I wonder if that doesn’t explain Tintoretto’s goals to some extent. Not that you aren’t also write about all the things you dislike in him. I know I’m off on a tangent here but it seemed like a pertinent one You just seemed to state the appeal of movement and dynamism so well.

    As far as the post itself I have to say you’re right that Donatello’s figure does seem small. I wish I could compare them in person. And it also reveals my limited or fading knowledge of Donatello. Was he maybe less familiar with horses than people? Was he actually more realistic since some horses are huge? Did he stick to realism whereas other sculptors of the time might have taken greater liberties in the interest of greater expression? You’re right that his sculpture just doesn’t seem as powerful. I wonder if there are reasons for that which we haven’t thought of. Or maybe as you say it just isn’t the best sculpture.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Donatello (1388-1466) was fairly old by the time Verrocchio (born 1435) came along. And Vasari says he became senile and had to be maintained in his last years by Cosimo de Medici. So whatever talent the young Verrocchio might have shown surely didn’t make him jealous. And anyway there isn’t even any proof, only tradition, that Verrocchio was his pupil. Verrocchio started out as a goldsmith, not a sculptor.

    Vasari thinks the world of Donatello and considers him the man who almost single-handedly brought back the old classical “magnificence and perfection” to sculpture. But he doesn’t care much for Verrocchio. “It must be admitted that the style of his sculpture and painting tended to be hard and crude, since it was the product of unremitting study rather than of any natural gift or facility.” So we get a dinky biography with only the story about the horse (in my next post) and the one about how he gave up painting when he saw the angel his little helper Leonardo da Vinci had painted.

    Vasari says Verrocchio never stopped working so it is odd that so few of his things have survived. Not 30.
    He was one more of those great Renaissance men. He did everything. It’s probably a shame that that dumb John the Baptist picture has survived (except for Leonardo’s angel) because painting was probably his weakest skill. You wonder if Vasari saw his marble portraits. They don’t look hard and crude at all.

    Remember how Cellini’s book builds up to his big Perseus statue? It was the climax of his career. Well, Verrocchio’s horse was like that. It was his best and biggest work and he died just at the moment of triumph.

  6. 100swallows says:

    I do see what you mean. And I don’t expect all paintings to be as placid as Rafael’s. What I miss in a lot of tension pictures is focus. You can fill the space with a bunch of little anecdotes (I don’t mean only people stories)—things of interest happening here and there. But please relate them well. Make me look at this or that and control the way I see it. It’s the same in writing, after all. If you have something to say then you will work hard to put it in words that can be understood only in your way. “Ah, but suggestion? Art deals in undefinables.” If the artist wants something to be vague or suggestive, he will control even that. But of course if he has something to express, he won’t go on doodling all over the place forever. He will get to a point, his point. Tintoretto always starts his paintings with solid organization but then seems to get lost while painting the details.

    Vasari thinks Donatello and his buddy Brunelleschi, digging around in Rome, brought back classical perfection to the world—the one in sculpture, the other in architecture. Vasari sees that classical excellence in the Gattamelata horse: “He proved himself such a master in…this huge cast that he challenges comparison with any of the ancient craftsmen in expressing movement, in design, skill, diligence, and proportion.”
    “The horse,” he says, “is shown quivering and snorting and Donatello has expressed very vividly the great courage and pride of its ruler.”

    Donatello must have seen but not learned from the great Marcus Aurelius statue while he was in Rome. That is a much better horse, much more alive and realistic. And he made his condottiere smaller on his horse (or the horse bigger) than Marcus on his.
    I don’t know of another Donatello horse, so maybe he hadn’t studied them much. Who knows what ancient model he had in mind with this one. I still like the general shape of his horse and, in spite of all the “defects” I pointed out, almost prefer it to the Colleoni.

  7. Are we sure that Gattamelata is too small, or is Marcus Aurelius too big? In fact, it has been speculated that emperor and horse were cast separately and were not intended to be in the same piece. Such a mismatch may explain Verrocchio’s temper tantrum when his patrons suggested the same procedure :-)
    Have a look at Marcus on his horse,

    We’re used to it, but there is something wrong….

  8. paintings says:

    great sculptures

  9. ivdanu says:

    I think that the fact has NO head cover contributes a lot of the bad impression (Verrocchio corected that too)…

  10. 100swallows says:

    Danu: Now that’s good observation! Of course! Pity you weren’t around to tell Donatello. I bet he would have agreed and improved the figure, though if it was a portrait he probably didn’t want to hide any of the head.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Judith: Your link doesn’t work but I remember how big Marcus Aurelius is on that horse. I wondered if horses were smaller in ancient times. There are many Greek horses that look small too. Of course he sits flatter on his horse because there are no stirrups. It is strange.

  12. Ken Januski says:

    An interesting point about the head-covering. All in all I think Donatello’s sculpture is a bit more realistic, whereas Verrocchio’s is tending toward expressionism. When I first looked at these photos Verrocchio seemed the clearly superior sculptor. And of course I’d need to see them in their full 3D glory to make a real comparison. But that said the Donatello does tend to grow on you. It seems more straightforward. Verrocchio on the other hand seems to relish his chance to showoff his abilities. Is it facile then?

    When any artist becomes accomplished at his craft there is a tendency for many, myself included, to indulge in flourishes. This isn’t wholly bad. They are generally hard-won skills. On the other hand it’s slippery slope from there to all style and no substance. As I look at the Verrocchio it seems clear to me that he is showing off his skill, particularly the skill of showing a strong, warrior, ready for action. His torso and that of his horse seems ready to fly apart in all directions, only held in place by the strong verticals of his legs and the tail, and stabilized do a lesser extent by his baton(not visible in this photo). It is sheer energy, barely held in check.

    How humble the Donatello seems in comparison. And yet it may also seem more human.

    Which brings me back, as all things seem to do, to Tintoretto. I can’t really disagree with you Swallows about wanting all paintings to have some focus, some sense of artistic intent. I think that if you are talking about the very best art ever made, whether painting, sculpture, music, drama or literature that the very best shows that sustained focus. It is actually pretty thrilling to see an artist pull it off. But if is very rare.

    I think in Tintoretto’s case, and I say this based on just seeing your photos and looking at those of my catalog from Scuola di San Rocco, that he tends toward expressionism as well, probably much more so than Verrocchio. I think you’re right that he lacks a clear focus, one that subordinates all of his other artistic interests and abilities to that one focus. He does seem seduced by the excitement of movement, of breaking up the flatness of the picture plane, of his skill at painterliness. His most focused pictures seem to be ones with only a few characters. When I saw the paintings in San Rooco those were my artistic goals as well and that may explain why I was so taken with them. I still think of them as quite an accomplishment but I can’t argue with you that they are not models of wholly focused paintings.

    Oddly enough I used to frequently see the painting of Tarquin and Lucrecia from the Art Institute of Chicago that you show in another post. Every time I saw it I couldn’t help but think that the sculpture in the lower left hand corner had an ugly color, like that from a bad sunburn, that clashed horribly with the purple of the drapery. It’s interesting to see it these many years later and still have that same reaction. So I guess every once in awhile I have my questions about Tintoretto as well.

  13. Just came across an interesting “remark about the Gattamelata statue. Patrick McCaughey (former director of Yale Center for British Art), says “In the mighty Gattamelata … Donatello makes the pact between man and beast, not the heroism of the rider, the central proposition of the equestrian statue….”

    I see his point but I don’t think it changes the basic problem of proportions. Time to have another look at the statue itself; photographs do not really work on this level.

  14. cantueso says:

    Dominas suas canes imitantur.
    You see, it’s not just horses.

  15. David says:

    Thanks, Swallows, for another great post! The first thing I thought of when I saw Donatello’s statue was photographs from the American Civil war that often showed small little generals perched on top of huge horses. So it didn’t strike me as odd until I read your piece.

    My next thought went to where Donatello’s statue was originally placed. Is it like Michelangelo’s David with its out of proportion head and hands because it was meant to be seen from a along distance below?

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, David. Sorry it has taken me so long to answer.
      The thing is, if the statue were adjusted to correct a view from below, the rider would have to be bigger, not smaller, right? I wrote this post a while ago and now when I returned to it the rider no longer looked so small. I don’t remember thinking he was small when I saw the original years ago. Maybe like you I was used to seeing big horses, not just in Brady photos. In any case, Donatello’s horse is to me more beautiful and more memorable than Verrocchio’s.

  16. Ken Januski says:

    Still enjoying this ongoing dialog Swallows. On rereading most of it I find I still agree with what I said last time – the Donatello seems much stronger, and memorable as you say.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken, I enjoy it too, and I appreciate all your comments. It’s time I went back to Italy to see the statues. We both know how inadequate photos of sculpture are.

  17. will says:

    Congratulations on your blog!It is wonderful to read and watch. I simply love your bird sketches. I enjoy the above discussion as well. As an old horseman, and modest amateur draughtsman, I have been interested in horse drawings for many years.
    I admire Verrochio’s Colleoni statue immensely. As you say, it is full of life, movement and strength. The horse is magnified by the attitude of his rider. He is flexible, ‘fresh in his mouth”, perfectly in place from the head/poll point of view and seems ready to yield and go into shoulder-in at the tinest indication of his rider. I have spent much time watching at them in Venice..
    But I would not be negative about Donatello’s. The horse is more stout and ordinary (different breed/ ‘colder blood’), but quite correct from anatomy and biomechanics point of view. Note also that he is driven with looped reins (like Verrochio’s), i.e. in the lightness that was to become the hallmark of true equestrian art in the following centuries, although his training is probably much more basic than Verrochio’s as shown by his head carriage.. The massive impression expressed by the couple is quite powerful and say implacable.; perhaps it reflects Donatello’s aim of providing a more ‘primitive’, brutal effect than Verrochio’s statue which is more sophisticated and refined.
    Well, I shall stop here – it could go on so much if I did not refrain myself by fear of boring you and your readers!
    You are welcome to visit my blog, should you so which. The horsey part is often translated in English, and I even have two posts about Colleoni

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: Thanks. The good bird drawings you mean must be the ones by Ken Janusky
      I see I know much less about horses than you and it was interesting to hear how a specialist and rider sees those statues. You make me want to travel to Italy and look them over once again. But also, to spend some time down at the farm nearby and draw the beautiful horses. I enjoyed seeing your own drawings and will now read those posts on Colleoni. Un saludo.

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