Nanni di Banco, Four Crowned Saints

Nanni di Banco, Four Crowned Saints, c. 1410–16, marble, figures 6 feet high, Orsanmichele, Florence (Italy)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re on the second floor of Or San Michele, and we’re looking at one of the most famous sculptures that used to be on one of the exterior niches but has been brought inside to keep it safe. This is Nanni di Banco’s the “Four Crowned Martyrs.”

[0:18] These are four ancient Roman sculptors, who are asked by the Roman Emperor Diocletian to create a sculpture of a pagan god. They refused and were put to death. The moment that Nanni di Banco has chosen to depict is the moment when they’re coming to the realization that this will be their fate.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:36] This was commissioned by the Stonemasons’ Guild. Each guild had a niche on the outside of Or San Michele and chose a sculptor to represent their patron saints. This is unusual in that we have four figures instead of a single figure in the niche, figures who are human in their interactions.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] Almost as if there’s a negotiation going on between them. It’s as if they’re thinking deeply about the consequences of the decision that they’re in the process of making, that it is a deeply human experience.

Dr. Harris: [1:06] Instead of having these single, thoughtful figures like Donatello’s “Saint Mark,” we have figures who are looking at each other, gesturing.

Dr. Zucker: [1:15] Look at the vividness of the interaction. As the man on the right is speaking, his mouth is open; there’s that wonderful dark shadow in that really deep carving, and all of them are paying attention, not necessarily focused on him visually. We can see them listen in the most engaged way. This is an extraordinary expression of what stone can do.

[1:37] This was, of course, for the stonemasons themselves. This guild is showing the nobility of their profession, that stone can get to the heart of what it means to be human and, in a noble way, to live up to one’s belief.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] Being a sculptor in the early 15th century in Florence meant looking back at the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. It’s in sculpture that we see the revival take place. Artists like Donatello, and Nanni di Banco, and then later on, soon with Masaccio, we’ll see that looking back to ancient Greek and Roman culture.

[2:11] This looks so ancient Roman to me. The faces look like figures from ancient Roman republican statues. They’re wearing these Roman togas. Several of them stand in contrapposto, especially this one second from the left, where we can see his knee pressing through the drapery, and a sense of his hips, and a body.

Dr. Zucker: [2:33] There’s an empathy that I feel for these figures that is intensified because it is these four men. Think about Florence in the 15th century, which was really thinking about its sense of community. They took decisions together, on whether or not they were going to acquiesce to the Milanese, for example.

[2:49] This notion of doing things together and doing things for the group was absolutely central to the specific nature of the city.

Dr. Harris: [2:56] With Donatello’s “Saint Mark,” you have the dignity of the individual, which was a very important part of humanism. Here, you have the importance of the relationships, the importance of the group, in Nanni di Banco’s “Four Crowned Saints.”

[3:10] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Nanni di Banco, Four Crowned Saints," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed April 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/nanni-di-banco-four-crowned-saints/.