Artist: Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi; Florence 1386-1466)
Title: Annunciation (Cavalcanti Annunciation), Three pairs of putti
Date: about 1433-1435
Material and tecnique: pietra serena stone with gold highlights; putti in terracotta and stucco
Dimensions: 420 x 274 x 30 cm
Position: Basilica of Santa Croce, south aisle, sixth bay
Mystery surrounds the Annunciation's original position. It adorned the Cavalcanti altar dedicated to the Annunciation, but what is not known is whether that altar stood up against the rood screen and was moved to the south aisle wall after the screen was demolished, or whether it was already in its present position. A painted predella with Episodes from the Life of St. Nicholas of Bari, identified as a work attributed to Giovanni di Francesco now in the Casa Buonarroti, was added to the base in the 16th century, although it was not originally designed for that purpose.
Donatello sets his "morality play" in a large tabernacle. The Virgin, whose head echoes 5th century BC Greek sculpture, leans away from the kneeling angel towards a lectern and a twin door. The figures, in high relief, inhabit an ædicula with classicising decoration, including fluted pilasters with masks on their capitals framing the scene, while a winged garland reflects the precepts of Leon Battista Alberti's "winged" eye and a toothed moulding with ovuli runs beneath the arched tympanum. The whole is richly highlighted in gold.
Restoration by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in 1994–5 revealed that the monument may originally have been painted white to imitate marble, while the 19th century gilding reflects the original gold highlights. Donatello here captures very human sentiments in: the "Virgin who, alarmed by the unexpected apparition of the Angel, is making a most becoming reverence with a sweet and timid movement of her person" and the three extremely lively pairs of putti "who appear to be holding one another securely with their arms in their fear of the height" (Vasari, 1568).
The Annunciation, a work of Donatello's maturity carved shortly before he departed for Padua, was commissioned by Niccolò di Giovanni Cavalcanti (1408–50), whose sister Ginevra was married to Lorenzo de' Medici, the brother of Donatello's close friend Cosimo de' Medici, Pater Patriæ, and indeed it may well have been Cosimo who introduced the artist to his future patron.