When I was in Italy a little over five years ago to revisit some of Dennis’ favorite places and to scatter his ashes under rose bushes in Venezia, Vicenza, Firenze, Roma, and then Istanbul, I made a special point to see the original Donatello statue of Judith and Holofernes (1460) in the Hall of Lilies (Sala dei Gigli) in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. I had already seen the copy on the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (not far from where Savonarola had burned books and ‘degenerate’ art in the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and then was later hanged and burned himself).
According to Wikipedia, the statue, which depicts the assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes by Judith, is remarkable for being one of the first Renaissance sculptures to be conceived in the round, with its four distinct faces. Quite frankly, I don’t think the sculpture is very attractive, though it is powerful. It was used as a symbol for the Florentine Republic. It had originally been commissioned by Cosimo de’Medici as decoration for the fountain in the garden of the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi. It stood in this palace together with Donatello’s David standing in the courtyard, both depicting tyrant slayers. (David was being restored in the Bargello museum when I was there four years ago.)
My interest in Judith, however, is the base. According to Rudolf Wittkower in his essay on “The Renaissance Baluster and Palladio” in Palladio and English Palladianism (1974), the first Renaissance use of the baluster was Donatello’s bronze base for this statue with symmetrical double balusters at the [three] corners. [my brother-in-law Tom pointed out to me a year ago that the statue is on a tripod pedestal, which I hadn't observed previously.] In addition, the entire bronze statue and base is raised on a single giant marble baluster, signifying the importance of the architectural motif. I mentioned this to my knowledgeable hosts in Firenze, but it was news to them. I’m sure, though, that whoever commissioned the marble baluster pedestal was aware of its significance; and it was used for both the copy outside and the original in the Sala dei Gigli.
Wittkower reported that the balustrade, as an architectural element, did not seem to be known by either the Greeks or the Romans. (So when you see the outdoor swimming pool at Hearst Castle used as a backdrop for Laurence Olivier’s villa in the movie Spartacus, the marble balustrade is clearly an anachronistic foreign element. The set designers seemed to be aware of this and used the Roman predecessor—which looks something like a British Union Jack— whenever they constructed sets from scratch.)
Giuliano da Sangallo was among the first to employ balusters in Renaissance buildings. He even used them in his pen and ink restorations of antique Roman monuments. In any case, within a few decades of Donatello’s statue, the baluster as an element in parapets, railings and staircases became ubiquitous in Renaissance and later Neoclassical architecture. Bramante used the motif in his Tempietto (1502); and his conception –adapted from Sangallo’s— later influenced balustrades of Raphael, Samicheli, Palladio and Scamozzi. Michelangelo was also influenced by Sangallo’s treatment, but then developed his own variation. He seemed to prefer the vase shaped or low center of gravity “dropped baluster” (as shown in the staircase from my workplace).
Wittkower didn’t mention any earlier predecessors of the baluster, but there seem to have been isolated examples of balustrades in several medieval and gothic buildings.
According to Wikipedia again, the earliest examples are those shown in the bas-reliefs representing Assyrian palaces, where they were employed as window balustrades. I was fascinated to notice a connection between an Assyrian source for the element in a statue depicting the beheading of an Assyrian general. Was this purely coincidence? A young architect— I used to know— thought possibly not. Many original sources seem to have disappeared over the centuries. Who knows what traditions and documents Donatello may have had access to that we seem to have lost. Perhaps they were burned a few hundred meters away in Savonarola’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Photo of staircase ballustrade is from my workplace, S.F. Customhouse.