Deposition of Christ by Donatello – The Mystery of a Restoration

The Deposition of Christ by Donatello | Wikipedia

BY GIANCARLO GRAZIANI AND SALVATORE PRATO | Ce.St.Art. – Center for Studies of Art Economy

We learned from the press that the Pontifical Delegation for the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua appointed a scientific committee composed of four scholars to evaluate the conservation and restoration program of the “Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata” which stands out in the square adjacent to the Basilica of Padua.


Since 2020, Ce.St.Art1 and the association Territori2 have conceived, promoted, and presented a far-reaching project which covers not only the restoration of the “Gattamelata Statue” but above all the restoration of the “Deposition of Christ” by Donatello stored inside the Basilica and which, while representing an absolute masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, is in a questionable condition.

Even earlier, already in 2017, Ce.St.Art., in collaboration with the members then in office of the “Venerable Ark of St. Anthony”3, had promoted a conservative intervention plan of the only “Deposition of Christ” which became concrete with a first scientific test carried out on site by the great Master Restorer Ottorino Nonfarmale († 2020)4 in person and from which important needs and news have arisen.

After a short insight that Ce.St.Art. disclosed a few months ago, now we want to take up and extend the topic we called “Donatello Puzzle”5 in his Paduan period and the Altar of the Saint… mysteries that sometimes recur even today!


In Art History there are many mysteries that have never been solved, sometimes deliberately however, and some also regard Great Artists of universal fame: Donatello, is among them in good company with Raphael, and in particular his Paduan period, and the years immediately preceding his arrival in the city, where what appears is not the truth, between conflicting indications, contradictions, imaginative interpretations. 

The famous “Altar” of the Saint, described in all school and art history books, is nothing more than an arbitrary re-composition carried out by the architect Camillo Boito who assembled in 1895 a series of sculptures and bas-reliefs all attributed generously to the Great Florentine Sculptor, father of the Renaissance together with Masaccio and Brunelleschi, and considered by the finest connoisseurs to be the greatest sculptor of all time.

Portrait of Donatello |15th-century | Unknown artist | Wikipedia

Donatello arrived in Padua in 1443 and the chronology of the works he created there is very discussed by modern criticism: in fact, until not long ago, it was thought that just arrived to Padua, Donatello began to work at the equestrian monument of Gattamelata, wanted by the Republic of Venice for the loyalty that Captain Gattamelata had to the Republic and sponsored by Palla Strozzi, a Florentine and rich banker in exile in Padua.


Since the equestrian monument was placed in front of the Basilica, given the opportunity that was offered, the Friars of Saint Anthony asked the renowned artist to design and erect the High Altar of the Basilica, despite they did not have considerable financial resources, even if some critics argue that the first work he made was the bronze Crucifix (still on site).

Chronicles of the time report that Donatello went to the mountains around Vicenza to find stones and alabaster: as known, the “Deposition of Christ” in the Padua Basilica is made of Nanto limestone, a stone still quarried from Nanto, the homonymous small village near Vicenza.  

Moreover, in the Regesti Donatelliani by Volker Herzner is indicated that “On November 24th, 1453, Marino, a herald of the Municipality of Padua, requested, on behalf of Donatello, the seizure at Gherardino tailor, Niccolò Pizzolo’s brother, of twelve “quari” (marble or stone slabs), in five of which “ymagines” were sketched (it is assumed that at this time the Pizzolo was already dead)”6.

In the list of payments of the Saint Anthony Friars’ receipt book (16 Aprile 1449, Per cinque priede grande, lavorade a figure, come Sepulcro del Nostro Signore, e che lui s’à dorado in piu logi, per la fabrica che xè d’acordo…), it is written that Donatello was paid for five stone bas-reliefs to which he added gilding and these bas-reliefs were done for the “Tomb of Our Lord” (the tomb of Saint Anthony). 


This note suggests that, in spite of the tight budget, Donatello made, also with recycled stones, like re-used marbles, a definitely extraordinary Altar and the majolica decorations inserted in the “Deposition of Christ” suggest that the whole altar was decorated in the same way.

Furthermore, perhaps it is Donatello himself who reveals to us the mystery that accompanies the original project of the Altar of the Saint: in fact in the bronze bas-relief “Miracle of the Mule”, Donatello probably depicted his original version of the altar, as cited by Father Vergilio Gamboso (Ordo Fratrum Minorum Conventualium) in his guide “The Basilica of Saint’Anthony”, of 1966.7

We therefore dare to present an academic hypothesis of study and reflection, providing this hypothesis of reconstruction of the primitive project of the Altar correlated to the quotation of Father Vergilio Gamboso.

As can be seen from this little information provided here, the story of this artistic complex is intricate and difficult to resolve – there is no drawing and the descriptions are fragmentary and inconsistent with the many assumptions made – but it is curious that until today no one has been interested in the restoration and recovery of the sculptural masterpiece of the “Deposition from the Cross” which together with the four “Miracles of St. Anthony” are the only components that Giorgio Vasari remembers8 having been made by Donatello during his long stay in Padua.


Today this cornerstone of sculpture is in a deplorable condition and it is curious that during this period – 125 years have passed since the realization of the sacred scenography by Boito – no scholar or heritage protection institution has felt the need, or the curiosity, to intervene for restoring its legibility to the work and thus shed light on Donatello’s period in Padua, an essential turning point of Renaissance art.

As long as Master Restorer Ottorino Nonfarmale – the greatest Italian restorer, to quote the Italian art historian Vittorio Sgarbi, – decided to step in out of passion and, with the agreement of the Venerable Ark of Saint Anthony and the approval of the Holy See, used his time and personal resources for a first examination and slight cleaning test which revealed the historical / artistic potential of the whole restoration operation that is waiting to be started.

Master Ottorino Nonfarmale during the analysis of the relief before the beginning of the cleaning test in 2017

By reading the Report of the research results and cleaning test presented in 2017 by Maestro Nonfarmale to the then College of Presidency of the Venerable Ark of Saint Anthony, we can understand the structural problems present on the sculpture and the risks of a lack of intervention.


Considering the restoration intervention carried out in 1929 by a “painter” and by a “sculptor” not by restorers as reported by the historian Jim Harris9, In the opinion of the Master Restorer Nonfarmale, at that time the intervention had been carried out quite heavy and not resolving the continuous “tear loss” exerted by the superposed colors up to the last fake bronze color applied by architect Boito during his restoration work of the High Altar of the Basilica.

Details of recoloring of the fake color bronze and tear loss

Besides, the grooves, scratches and recoloring of the fake color bronze fully covering and the original areas under painted, as well as the drop of color10 that continues to tear the painted layers up to the Nanto limestone, represent important and delicate areas of intervention even if the bad news of this first test was the discovery, just below the first layer of color, starting from the Nanto stone, of a “moss”, a deposit that looks like dried-up vegetation or “moss” whose Stopping or neutralizing arrest or neutralization was considered crucial Master Nonfarmale.


Nonetheless, splendid news from the cleaning test was the discovery under the color layer of pure gold leaf gilding which amplifies the importance of the reasons for the restoration, not only conservative but also “cognitive” for a possible complete reading of this great Renaissance mystery.

Gold leaf gilding discovered by Master Nonfarmale during the 2017 cleaning test

We can therefore reaffirm and emphasize that this recovery intervention will be of international reach and will give new ideas to the critical debate and research on the Altar and on Donatello, contributing not a little to making this giant of Art and the effects of his work better known.

Post on the Facebook page of the Venerable Ark of St. Anthony

A restoration operation, this, which does not lend itself to misunderstandings since it will be undertaken only for the sake of research and will therefore be a commendable and unforgettable piece of work of Art History and the beginning of new studies, meetings and Donatellian publications which will once again bring the Artist to the center of global attention.


© Giancarlo Graziani, Visiting Professor of Art Economy, Founder member and Supervisor of Ce.St.Art. – Center for Studies of Art Economy

© Salvatore Prato, Member of Ce.St.Art. – Center for Studies of Art Economy

  3. The Venerable Ark of St. Anthony is the body in charge of the preservation and the improvement of the Basilica’s monumental complex and of the other buildings such as the Friary with its Cloisters, the Anthonian Library, the Museum, the Oratory of St. George and the Little School of the Saint.
  4. Today, the Restoration Laboratory Ottorino Nonfarmale S.r.l. has a business continuity thanks to his pupil and Master Restorer Giovanni Giannelli.
  5. “The Donatello Puzzle and the importance of a never-before-thought Restoration project: a promotional initiative and a critical reflection”, by Giancarlo Graziani, March 2022.
  6. Padova, Archivio Civico, Aquila, t. 192; fase. 4, c. 10; Pubbl.: RIGONI, 1948, p. 145, doc. VIII.
  7. Padre Vergilio Gamboso, “La Basilica del Santo di Padova”, 1966 – Prebiterio e Altare Maggiore (pag. 186, fig. at page 175).
  8. From Le Vite by Giorgio Vasari: “…gli allogarono a la chiesa dè Frati Minori, nella predella dello altar maggiore, le istorie di S. Antonio da Padova…Similmente nel dossale dello altare, fece bellissime le Marie che piangono il Cristo morto” (… placed in the church of the Friars Minor, in the predella of the high altar, the histories of St. Anthony of Padua … Similarly in the altar’s back panel, he made beautiful Marys weeping for the dead Christ”).
  9. In the research done for his doctorate on Donatello’s polychrome sculpture, by the art historian Jim Harris (Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), among the many useful information, is reported a restoration intervention carried out in 1929 and commissioned by the Venerable Ark to the painter Ludovico Pogliaghi and to the sculptor Antonio Pennello. Therefore an intervention carried out by a painter and sculptor, not by restorers.
  10.  While carrying out the samples for the stratigraphies now underway, Master Restor Nonfarmale was able to notice, as already reported in his previous report, the continuous loss of this color, which could have been caused by a previous fire in the apse of the Basilica.

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