Prato, important letter discovered concerning Donatello and the cathedral pulpit

An important letter about Donatello and the pulpit of Prato's cathedral has been discovered in Prato: written by Matteo degli Organi to the Opera del Sacro Cingolo, it offers interesting and previously unpublished evidence about the artist. It is on display at the Prato State Archives from May 9 to September 2.

Important discovery in Prato, where a letter concerning Donatello that had been lost in the 19th century has resurfaced. The missive was unveiled last May 5 at thePrato State Archives in the presence of Diana Marta Toccafondi, former superintendent of the Archival and Bibliographic Superintendence of Tuscany; Leonardo Meoni, director of the Prato State Archives; Alberto Batisti, artistic director of the Camerata strumentale Città di Prato; and Simone Mangani, councillor for Culture of the City of Prato. The letter, dated 1434, had ended up on the antiquarian market and was offered in the summer of 2021 to Alberto Batisti, who immediately recognized its value and alerted Toccafondi.The Prato Archives therefore conducted research and confirmed that the letter had already been reported in 1865 by philologist Cesare Guasti as an object belonging to the Ecclesiastical Patrimony, the body founded in 1783 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo, with the purpose of managing the patrimony and archives alienated to churches and convents.

The missive was sent on June 19, 1434, by Matteo degli Organi, a nickname for Matteo da Prato due to his trade as an organ master, to the Operai del Sacro Cingolo di Prato at the request of Donatello, who was his friend. In the letter, Matteo degli Organi informed the workers at the cathedral that the artist had finished the first of the reliefs for the pulpit of the Prato cathedral, and the work had caused quite a stir in Florence, where all the connoisseurs of art were going around saying “that never was such a story seen.” The letter then informed the workers of Donatello’s intention to continue the work, especially if he received “some money” to spend on the feast of St. John (even little, since the artist was inclined to be content, but it was necessary to offer him some form of gratification because he was considered one of the greatest artists around at the time). The letter is therefore also of great importance because it offers previously unpublished revelations about the personality of Donatello, who was described as a man “of small meal” and who was therefore content with little.

Recognizing the importance of the letter, the Archival and Bibliographic Superintendence of Tuscany has taken steps to place the document under protection, possibly with the goal of having it placed in state collections. The owner, a musicologist, then spontaneously decided to donate it to the Prato State Archives. And starting today, Monday, May 9, the Prato State Archives is presenting an exhibit displaying the rediscovered letter and several documents pertaining to Donatello (the Duomo pulpit is one of his masterpieces, as well as one of his best-documented works). The documents on display also include the account book with the first payments to Donatello and some notes by the artist himself. The exhibition will remain open until Sept. 2 and will be a useful opportunity to see Matteo’s Letter of the Organs. The exhibition was made possible by a contribution from the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Prato.

“It was originally kept in Prato within the archives of the Ecclesiastical Patrimony, among the papers coming from the Opera del Sacro Cingolo,” the director of the Archives, Leonardo Meoni, explained to the ADN Kronos news agency. "Here it was seen in the second half of the 19th century by the Prato canon Martino Benelli and Cesare Guasti, who published its contents. Subsequently, its traces were lost. All scholarly searches to locate it in the archives of the Ecclesiastical Patrimony, which became part of the archival holdings of the Prato State Archives in 1958, proved fruitless. Professor Francesco Caglioti, curator of the major exhibition Donatello, the Renaissance currently underway in Florence, had also recently reported its dispersion at the end of painstaking research on the relationship between Michelozzo and Donatello published in an essay of his published in 2019."

Art historian Francesco Caglioti himself stresses that “the recovery of Matteo degli Organi’s letter on Donatello is extremely comforting news: for the happy ending of a story that began badly, for the sensitivity that a private individual has shown toward everyone’s archival and historical heritage, and for the rediscovered possibility of reading in the original one of the most curious and revealing documents on one of the greatest artists of all time.”

“The letter,” says Diana Toccafondi, “represents a fundamental documentary source for understanding Donatello’s Prato activity and the artist’s relations with patrons in the creation of the external pulpit of the Pieve, now the Cathedral, built for the public display of the Marian Sacred Girdle.”

Prato, important letter discovered concerning Donatello and the cathedral pulpit
Prato, important letter discovered concerning Donatello and the cathedral pulpit

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