During the first half of the fourteenth century, Florence's crumbling market hall was torn down to make room for Orti San Michaelis (referred to as the Orsanmichele), a corn exchange and meeting place for the various guilds of Florence. Each guild was given its own niche and in 1339 all were asked to decorate their respective niches. The guilds, however, were slow to begin.
The fifteenth century had begun before any work had even been commissioned. To speed the process along, the city of Florence issued an edict stating that if decoration of each niche had not begun within the following ten years, the offending guilds would have their niche confiscated and reallocated to another. With this in mind, the guilds finally got to work.
Rivalries were intense as each wanted to have the most beautifully decorated guild, so competition for Florence's best artists was fierce. Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello's mentor, was quickly snapped up and commissioned to sculpt St. John the Baptist (see Related Sculptures below) by the guild of cloth finishers and merchants.
In 1411, Donatello was chosen by the linen drapers guild to sculpt St. Mark as its niche decoration. He began work immediately, choosing to work with marble instead of the more expensive bronze.
The contract indicated that the work had to be finished and in its place no later than November 1, 1412; however, as was often the case at the time, the deadline had to be extended. Donatello finished St. Mark sometime in 1413 and to his amusement, the guild members were quite critical of it.
However, when the statue was unveiled, placed high up in its niche in the Orsanmichele, its elongated torso, shortened legs and oversized head were striking in their seemingly perfect proportions.
St. Mark no longer stands in the Orsanmichele niche, however. Today it stands in an honored place in the church museum. A copy of St. Mark now stands in the original niche.
Donatello's Saint Mark (1411–1413) is a marble statue that stands approximately seven feet and nine inches high and is displayed in the museum of the Orsanmichele church, Florence. It originally was displayed in an exterior niche of the church, where a copy now stands.
Donatello was commissioned by the linen weavers' guild to complete three pieces for the project. St. Mark was the first of his contributions. The niche itself was not of Donatello's hand, but created most probably by two stone carvers named Perfetto di Giovanni and Albizzo di Pietro.
Donatello's sculpture is notable for its detailed realism, evidence of the artist's skills. Even the veins of St. Mark's left hand are visible as he holds a text upon his hip. The contrapposto pose, or natural pose, is used with Donatello's St. Mark. The saint has more weight on his right leg, his left knee is bent, and his torso is slightly twisted. The style is much more naturalistic than the symmetry and unrealistic nature of art from the Dark Ages. Also Donatello's sculpture differs from medieval works in the way that drapery is used, specifically in that St. Mark's figure is revealed by a realistic draping of linen.
According to Vasari's text The Lives of the Artists, written 140 years after the completion of St. Mark, the linen workers' guild originally rejected the sculpture because it appeared unnatural when set at street level. This was due to proportion adjustments made for its final resting place in the niche, well above street level. The head and torso were made larger as they would be further away from the viewer.
Donatello promised to make adjustments, so he covered the statue with a cloth, set the statue in the niche above the street, and without touching the statue for 15 days, once again revealed it to the guild. With its location above the viewer, the proportions looked perfect and the linen weaver's guild accepted the statue.
In the early pages of Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy Michelangelo walks by Donatello's statue of St. Mark and exclaims "Sculpture is the greatest art!"
Coordinates: 43°46′14″N11°15′17″E / 43.77056°N 11.25472°E / 43.77056; 11.25472