Born: c. 1386
Died: c. 1466 Florence, Italy
Italian artist and sculptor
The Italian sculptor Donatello was the greatest Florentine sculptor before Michelangelo (1475–1564), and was certainly the most influential individual artist of the fifteenth century in Italy.
Early life of a master
Donato di Niccolò Bardi, called Donatello, was born in 1386 in Florence, Italy. Little is known about his life, although many short stories about his life are recorded by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists (1550). In Florence Donatello learned the basics of sculpting at the Stonemasons' Guild, where he learned other crafts as well. Donatello then became an apprentice (a person who works to learn a trade) to Lorenzo Ghiberti (c. 1378–1455). In 1403, at the age of seventeen, Donatello was working for the master on the bronze reliefs (sculpting from a flat surface) of the doors of the Florentine Baptistery. By 1407 he had left Ghiberti for the workshops of the Cathedral in Florence.
One of Donatello's earliest known works is the life-sized marble David (1408; reworked in 1416; now in the Bargello, Florence). Intended to decorate part of the Cathedral, in 1414 it was set up in the Palazzo Vecchio (a historic government building) as a symbol of the Florentine republic, which was then engaged in a struggle with the king of Naples. The David, dramatic in posture and full of youthful energy, possesses something of the graceful late Gothic (an artistic movement between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries) feeling of a figure by Ghiberti.
Rapidly maturing, Donatello produced a strong and original style in two works: the large marble figure St. Mark on the outside of Orsanmichele, completed between 1411 and 1413; and the seated St. John the Evangelist for the facade (front) of the Cathedral (now in the Museo dell'Opera), finished in 1415. These powerful, over-life-sized figures established the sculptor's reputation. The St. Mark broke with tradition in its classical stance and became a stunning symbolic portrait of a noble Florentine hero in the republic of Donatello's day.
Donatello's new style was confirmed in the famous St. George, carved in marble around 1416 and 1417 for the exterior of Orsanmichele. Even more significant is the little marble relief St. George and the Dragon, that decorates the base. The marble was ordered in 1417, and the relief was completed shortly afterward. This is an important date, for the relief is the earliest example in art of the new science of perspective used to create a measurable space for the figures. Up to this time artists had conceived of a flat background in front of which, or in which, the figures were placed; now the low, pictorial forms seem to emerge from atmosphere and light.
Donatello was requested to create many pieces or works, which he often executed with other artists. An unusual work is the Marzocco, the lion of the Florentines, carved in sandstone.
Around 1425 Donatello entered into partnership with Michelozzo, a sculptor and architect, with whom he made a trip to Rome after 1429. (Vasari states that Donatello went to Rome with architect Filippo Brunelleschi [1377–1446]. This would have been much earlier, perhaps in 1409; but there is no document to confirm such a trip.) With Michelozzo he produced a series of works, including the tomb of Pope John XXIII in the Baptistery, Florence, and the tomb of Cardinal Brancacci in Saint Angelo a Nilo, Naples, both of which were in progress in 1427. The first of these established a type of wall tomb (burial chamber) that would influence many later Florentine examples.
Probably just after the trip to Rome, Donatello created the well-known gilded limestone Annunciation tabernacle (place of worship) in Sta Croce, Florence, enclosing the pair of Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. He was also commissioned to carve a Singing Gallery for the Cathedral to match the one already begun by Luca della Robbia (both now in the Museo dell'Opera). Using marble and mosaic, Donatello presented a classically inspired frieze (a decorative band) of wildly dancing putti. It was begun in 1433, completed six years later, and installed in 1450.
Much of Donatello's later work demonstrates his understanding of classical art. For example, the bronze David in the Bargello is a young boy clothed only in boots and a pointed hat. This enigmatic figure is in all probability the earliest existing freestanding nude since antiquity (ancient times).
From 1443 to 1453 Donatello was in Padua, Italy, where in the Piazza del Santo he created the colossal bronze equestrian (with horse) monument to the Venetian condottiere called Gattamelata. It was the first important sculptural repetition of the second-century equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. Donatello portrayed Gattamelata as the ideal man of the Renaissance, a period marked by artistic awakening between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Another major commission in Padua was the high altar of Saint Antonio, and was decorated with four large narrative reliefs representing the life of Saint Anthony, smaller reliefs, and seven life-sized statues in bronze, including a seated Madonna and Child and a bronze Crucifixion (a representation of Christ on the cross). Donatello had earlier made remarkable experiments with illusions of space in his large stucco medallions for the Old Sacristy of Saint Lorenzo in Florence; now his major bronze Paduan reliefs present an explosive idea of space with sketchy figures and a very excited and busy surface. The influence of these scenes on painters in northern Italy was to prove enormous and long lasting.
Back in Florence, the aged Donatello carved a haunting, unhealthy Mary Magdalen from poplar wood for the Baptistery (1454–1455). Romantically distorted in extreme ugliness, the figure of the saint in the wilderness originally had sun-tanned skin and gilding (a thin coat of gold) on her monstrous hair. In 1456 Donatello made an equally disturbing group in bronze of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. Now in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence, it was originally commissioned, apparently as a fountain, for the courtyard of the Medici Palace.
On Donatello's death on December 13, 1466, two unfinished bronze pulpits (platforms for preaching) were left in Saint Lorenzo, Florence. On one are relief panels, showing the torture and murder of Christ by means of distorted forms and wildly emotional actions. Finished by his pupil Bertoldo di Giovanni, the pulpit scenes reveal the great master's insight into human suffering and his exploration of the dark realms of man's experience.
For More Information
Bennett, Bonnie A., and David G. Wilkins. Donatello. Mt. Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell, 1984.
Greenhalgh, Michael. Donatello and His Sources. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982.
Pope-Hennessy, John Wyndham. Donatello: Sculptor. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.