The Soul Of A Century/Donatello, A Legend

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For works with similar titles, see Dream.


All Florence is astir with hum and haste,
For Donnatelo’s statue is complete.
Beneath a canopy of stony lace
That towards the sky projects its daring arch,
Behold! St. George stands with his polished shield,
The symbol of Florentian liberty;
That statue of sublime simplicity
To whom its maker gave eternal life,
To whom he gave his soul’s unfettered flight,
Upon whose brow he wrote heroic deeds.

All through the day, the people mill about,
Rejoicing around the gleaming, marble form.
Young Donnatelo’s name resounds throughout the town
Like music or a triumphant battle song.
The air is so suffused with all this praise,
That the shouts and words of unrestrained delight
Reach high into the sculptor’s darkened room.

There, pale and musing, in his shaded nook,
Sits Donnatelo, wrapped in a dark cloak,
As if such hollow fame had chilled him through.
Yes, every artist suffers martyrdom;
For in the secret recess of his heart
The worm of doubt relentlessly gnaws on:
’Tis only when the slurs of envy born
Spatter with venom the products of his soul,

That the artist stills these gnawing, prying doubts,
To let defiance take their place.
Then with a sparkling eye and twitching pallid cheeks,
The quiet artist plunges into the fray,
Like a tigress leaping at an enemy
That stalks to slay her unsuspecting young.
His suffering exceeds the tigress’ pains,
For she gave only milk to feed her suckling young,
But the artist gave the blood from out his heart!

Thus Donnatello spends in prying thoughts,
That slowly passing, drawn-out, sunlit day.
And when, at length, the streets at dusk are stilled,
And the starry splendor of the dreamy night
Blazes in glory over the sleeping town,
Then Donnatello slowly opens his doors
And pausing on the threshold of his home,
Thus muses, in his aching burdened heart.

“What means the peoples’ praise and blame to me?
’Tis just a wind that comes and goes at will
And does not leave a trace once it is gone.
But humbly, deeply I will bow my head
Before my master’s most judicious words,
Because his lips are like a tent of truth,
His soul a shrine of all that is beautiful.
Upon my temples he alone shall place
A laurel wreath or else a hawthorn leaf.”
Then with a quickened step he hastens forth
And finds his aged master still awake,
Upon a roof from whence the aged eyes can see
The sleeping city and the whispering stream;
The scented gardens’ darkened leafy trees
Where blazing glow-worms flicker here and there;
And the bluish wreath of far Apennine hills
Above whose summit dreams the yellow moon.

“My master!” Donnatello pleads, “My dearest friend!”
The old man’s eyes, filled with the sparkling rays
His soul absorbed from out the glimmering skies,
Are fixed upon the pupil’s pallid cheeks.
“I waited for you, Donnatello mine.”
The pupil grasps the outstretched bony hand
The master offers him in welcoming,
And in a voice with passion tremulous
He speaks and pours in words his burdened soul:

“Father and friend and teacher most sublime,
You, who have guided my uncertain steps
Across the stony, steep and winding road
That leads men to the dizzy heights of fame,
Upon your soul’s salvation, answer me!
You saw my work, the statue hewn of stone.
I placed therein all that my soul could feel;
My pains, my daring flight, my starry dreams,
And all the strength and fervor of my youth;
My very thoughts, my all, I placed therein.
My soul possessed a daring, mighty dream.
It would attain what cannot be attained
By any mortal man upon this earth . . .
I would create a perfect work of art.

These haughty words, perhaps, are blasphemy?
Perhaps you’ll say to me, “Such perfect work
Can only rise from out the deep unknown
From whence the world bloomed as a lotus bud;
That faultless is alone the work of God
To whom it is a sacred privilege.”
Then why did he inculcate in my soul
This boundless yearning, striving for the heights?
He did not light the spark of genius
That it should smoulder in me aimlessly,
As an eternal torment? No. He chose
That it should flare forth as the glowing sun!
I know my hands fashioned all they could,
The highest point that I can aspire to;
And heights to which my spirit has not soared,
I shall not reach nor ever more attain!
My master see, I humbly bow my head.
Now let your lips their judgment freely pass.
Tell me if perfect is the work I have done.
If not, what is it that my statue lacks?”

When Donnatello finished thus his plea,
The master placed a kiss upon his lips;
He deeply gazed into the youth’s sad eyes
And with a gentle smile thus answered him.
“My Donnatello, you, not I, have said
That God alone creates without a fault.
There is but one thing that your marble lacks . . .
I will not tell you what. That you must solve,
When you have found the answer come again to me.”

The words cut deeply through the pupil’s heart,
But silently, without a sigh he left,
The master knowing not, that bitter frost
Crept slowly into Donnatello’s soul.

From that night on, illness and secret grief
Have settled on the artist’s burdened mind;
No trace remains of his once cheerful smile,
Around his lips, nor in the sunken eyes.
Day after day, he prods and meditates
Before the statue, musing restlessly,
Seeking its faults and finding more and more,
Until, at length, the statue seems to him
One huge mistake throughout its stony mass
And as to dust of hopes, crumbles the edifice
Fashioned by Donnatello from his dreams,
Burying in the ruins’ smouldering dust
All that was once immortal in the man.
And of his being, nothing more remains
But that which slowly turns to dust again,
And Donnatello sadly faces death . . .
He even lacks the strength to leave his rooms,
And sits all day within the sunlit door,
An infirm, aged man, whose dying eyes
Are fastened far beyond, upon his towering work,
And those who pass his feeble staring form
Bathe with their tears his blue-veined, wasted hands;
And maidens shower roses in his lap,
Like flowers thrown into a gaping grave
Then came the day he took unto his bed
From which it was his lot never more to rise,
And Donnatello for his master sends
To come to him and bid him farewell.

The master comes into the silent room,
Where stream, like gold, the warm rays of the sun
And where the black-birds’ sparkling song is heard
As if to cheer once more, with song and light
The sadly disillusioned, dying heart.
The master speaks, his voice replete with grief;
“What pain tormented you, angelic soul?
What broke the lily blossom of your life?
What grieved you so that I, an aged man,
Over your death-bed tear my snow-white hair?”

And Donnatello feebly answers him;
Before I die, my master, quickly speak!
You said one thing alone, my statue lacks.
What is this need? What is the fault you saw?”

The master speaks: “All that it lacks is speech.”

Then Donnatello cries with reborn joy,
His eyes once more are lit with happiness.
He whispers faintly: “Happily I die.”
And painlessly sinks to eternal dreams
Like a bird who falls asleep, fatigued with song,
When the sun has set beyond the mountain top.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was legally published within the United States (or the United Nations Headquarters in New York subject to Section 7 of the United States Headquarters Agreement) between 1928 and 1977 (inclusive) without a copyright notice.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1987, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 35 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.