The Prophet Habakkuk (called 'Lo Zuccone') by Donatello

Donatello

The Prophet Habakkuk (called 'Lo Zuccone'), 1423–35, Marble, h. 195 cm., Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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The Prophet on High

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Donatello produced both this sculpture and one of Jeremiah for niches on Giotto’s fourteenth-century bell tower (campanile) adjacent to Florence Cathedral. Once installed, his work became part of a larger programme of sculptural reliefs and statues on the tower, depicting sibyls, prophets, patriarchs, and other Old Testament figures. The statue is heavily weathered, and some have suspected that it was a representation of another prophet like Elisha known to be baldheaded (Rose 1981; see 2 Kings 2:23), but the majority agree is that it is Habakkuk.

The sculpture brings the prophet vividly to life, with bald head, intensely-focused eyes, wide mouth, and parted lips (Coggins & Han 2011: 44). Writing a century after its creation, Giorgio Vasari, the painter and famous artistic biographer, praised the work’s naturalism with superlatives, declaring it ‘more beautiful than anything Donatello had ever done’ (Conaway & Bondanella 1991: 151).

Donatello liked to call it lo Zuccone (meaning ‘the pumpkin-head’ or ‘gourd-head’), probably as a term of endearment. The sculptor apparently regarded it more as a companion than as a lifeless piece of marble. He used to swear by it, saying, ‘By the faith I place in my Zuccone’ (ibid: 151–52). Vasari’s biography also states that while Donatello was working on the statue, the Florentine artist would address it with a stare, ‘Speak, speak, or be damned!’ (ibid), leaving later generations to wonder whether Donatello thought he was speaking to the prophet or to the sculpture he was creating.

Given the prophet’s denunciation of idols that could not speak (Habakkuk 2:19; recalled by Vasari), it seems all the more significant that Donatello gave his statue an open mouth. This is a prophet who spoke the words of the Lord.

It is now housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, while a replica stands as one of the sixteen prophet figures on the Campanile of the Cathedral, looking down on the worshippers who throng the piazza below or who pass in their thousands into the cathedral. Undoubtedly, Donatello gave a thought to the angle and the perspective from which it would have been viewed, and the proportions of the figure are adjusted for the fact that it was to be seen from below and at a distance. Even from afar, the posture of the prophet communicates his passion, as he delivers his urgent prophetic message to the people of God.

I will stand at my watch-post,
    and station myself on the rampart. (2:1)

 

References

Coggins, Richard, and Jin H. Han. 2011. Six Minor Prophets Through the Centuries (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell)

Conaway Bondanella, Julia, and Peter Bondanella (trans.). 1991. Giorgio Vasari: The Lives of the Artists (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Rose, Patricia. 1981. ‘Bald, Baldness, and the Double Spirit: The Identity of Donatello’s Zuccone’, The Art Bulletin 63.1: 31–41


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