Who was Donatello?
Prior to likes of Michelangelo coming onto the scene, 15th century Italy was blessed to have the Florence-born sculptor and artist Donatello. Many art lovers and historians, to this day, proclaim him the greatest sculptor to come from the early Renaissance period.
Donatello dazzled Europe with his famous bronze statue of David – arguably the best sculpture ever produced. The statue was unique in every sense of the word, it oozed out creativity and inspired in viewers, emotions about civic duty and goodness.
Who really was Donatello? And what were some of his greatest contributions to the world of art? The biography below paints a vivid picture of Donatello’s early life, career and stellar works of art:
When and where was Donatello born?
Donatello was born somewhere in 1386 in Florence, Italy. His full name is Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi. In actual sense, “Donatello” was not his real name. It was a nickname that he acquired growing up in the city of Florence.
Donatello’s father was Niccolo di Betto Bardi. Niccolo was a very vocal member of the Wool Combers Guild in Florence.
Growing up, Donatello had a very rugged lifestyle. The records show that on January 1401, Donatello was involved in a heated exchange with a mate of his. The exchange resulted in his mate getting a cut, Donatello was the perpetrator.
It is believed that his toughness came from his father. Niccolo di Betto Bardi could be very temperamental and sometimes explosive in nature. He was part of the workers who revolted in the early 1400s. For some period, he had to commit himself to exile because there was murder allegation against him.
Where did Donatello get educated?
The residence of the Martellis was where this brilliant Renaissance sculptor got his education. The Martellis were a wealthy Florentine family. They had business and art dealings of all kinds with the Medici Family.
At Martellis, Donatello was also tutored by a very fine and well-respected goldsmith. This interaction exposed Donatello to several things including metal works and its usage in art.
Around his early 20s, Donatello secured an apprenticeship with the famous Lorenzo Ghiberti. In Ghiberti’s studio – a place that he spent about 3 years – Donatello’s skills in metals and sculpting, in general, got a bit more refined.
The young sculptor went on to work with Ghiberti, commissioning sculptures all over the city. This was such a huge boost to Donatello’s career. As an apprentice, his most notable work came in November 1406 when he assisted his master Ghiberti with the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral project. Ghiberti had won the bid to provide a Gothic-styled bronze door to the cathedral. By Ghiberti’s side was none other than Donatello.
Interaction with Brunelleschi (1404 to 1407)
Shortly after understudying at Ghiberti, Donatello made a trip to Rome in order to enhance his skills in classical art. It was during this trip that he encountered Filippo Brunelleschi. The two became friends and bounced ideas off each other. They also embarked on an excavating exercise in the ruins of Rome. Many historians claim that the two were bent on discovering treasures in those sections.
After the excavation exercise was over, Donatello came out as a different man. Historians state that Donatello’s early works and Gothic style were largely influenced by his interaction with Brunelleschi.
Donatello’s Major Works and Contributions
After the excavation exercise in Rome, Donatello returned to his hometown of Florence in 1408. Proving that his time in Rome did not go wasted, Donatello quickly immersed himself into several projects around the city. He also worked as Ghiberti’s assistant for some time before moving out of his shadow to work on the following masterpieces:
The Marble Statue of David and Goliath in 1408
Donatello sculptured a life-sized marble statue of David in 1408. In making this statue, he used the Gothic style and made David appear very emotionless. This Gothic style was something that he learned while under apprenticeship at the Lorenzo Ghiberti’s studio in Florence. Historians have described the pose of David as gracefully relaxed and indifferent. Donatello went in for both unorthodoxy and originality. For example, the severed head of Goliath is almost like the ones of classical gods from ancient Rome.
The sculpture was used as a symbol of Florentine defiance against the king of Naples. Therefore, it was not placed at its designated place, the cathedral. Rather, Donatello’s David of 1408 was placed in the town’s hall (the Palazo Vecchio).
Three years after David, Donatello began another brilliant sculpture- Saint Mark. It was made of marble. And it took him about two years (from 1411 to 1413) to complete it. Once it was done, St. Mark , standing at 7’9″, was placed at the Orsanmichele Church.
This sculpture was begun in 1415. By 1417, he had sculpted it for the Confraternity of the Cuirass-makers. St. George is sharply different than the David of 1408 in the sense that it has a calm pose. Instead, of a vague elegance and stand, Donatello goes in for a simplified pose. The Saint George sculpture, which has a bas-relief (basso rilievo), symbolizes both calmness and courage at the same time, items that can sometimes be harnessed from the youth.
The marble statue of St John the Evangelist
Donatello’s seated St. John the Evangelist sculpture was completed in 1415. This statue, which took Donatello about six or so years to sculpt, was made of marble. The seven feet high statue was commissioned by the cathedral in Florence. This statue, one of four statues of evangelists, stood at the west wing of the façade of the Florence Cathedral.
Donatello’s works between 1415 and 1426
From 1415 to 1426, Donatello was an extremely busy sculptor. He successfully completed the construction of 5 amazing statues for the campanile of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. These statues are – the Beardless Prophet (1415); the Bearded Prophet (1415); the Sacrifice of Isaac (1421); Habbakuk (1423 – 1425); and Jeremiah (1423 -1426).
Bronze Statue of David
In 1430, a longtime friend of his – Cosimo de’ Medici – instructed Donatello to construct a bronze statue of David. This statue ended being the first free-standing nude sculpture to be made since the classical era. Also, Donatello’s David was quite an unorthodox form of sculpture. Everything about the sculpture is so very real.
Also, the over five feet tall artwork beautifully captures the expression of a young and graceful David. In contrast to his earlier statue of David, Donatello’s 1430 David has a more softened the feature, thus making him appear more human. In the statue, the severed head that David stands on was meant to symbolize the conquering of virtue over vice, or the demise of evil at the hands of good.
Equestrian statue of Gattamelata
After having several successful projects in Florence, Donatello moved to the city of Padua in 1443. He was invited by the family of the deceased Erasmo da Narni. He was asked to make a statue to commemorate Erasmo’s life achievement.
Donatello produced a beautiful masterpiece in 1450 for Erasmo’s family. He called it Gattamelata. The bronze statue depicted Erasmo wearing a Roman soldier’s uniform atop a horse. Ever since the Romans, no artist had sculpted an equestrian statue of that size in bronze. Gattamelata received several critical acclaims because statues of those natures were predominantly dominated by kings and conquerors. By depicting Erasmo da Narni, Donatello took a huge gamble which later paid off.
Magdalene Penitent in 1455
The Magdalene Penitent was another fantastic work by Donatello. It shows a gaunt-looking and scrawny Mary Magdalene stripped to her bare-bones. The saint is without clothes. Instead, Donatello sculpts her hair very long, covering her head to toe. This woodwork was commissioned by the Florence convent at Santa Maria di Cestello in 1455.
In this shocking and vibrant work of art, Donatello shows the frailty every human body, regardless of how one was beautiful, eventually succumbs to in the end. With the Magdalene Penitent, the underlying theme is that of the spirit triumphing over the body. Magdalene’s body may be badly shaken due to her being exposed to elements, but her spirit remains as vigorous as ever. The convent’s goal was to showcase it as a symbolism for repentant prostitutes.
How did Donatello die?
After an illustrious career in Florence, Siena, and Padua, Donatello had become frail and old. In December 1466, Donatello died. He spent his last days in the very city that he was born in – Florence. The cause of his death still remains unknown to this day. Donatello was buried at the Basilica of San Lorenzo. His will had explicitly stated that his body should be buried in the basilica, close to his long-time friend Cosimo de Medici.
What is Donatello’s greatest work?
Due to his ability to sculpt huge artworks and imbue them with realistic emotions and grace, Donatello’s reputation as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, sculptor is certainly deserved. His most famous and greatest work, the bronze statue of David, speaks volumes of this unique ability to depict civic virtues gaining an upper hand over cruelty and irrationality.
With such rare skills and innovation, it is not surprising that Donatello gets mentioned in the same amount of reverence as the great Michelangelo.
What was Donatello’s sculpting style?
The amazing thing about Donatello was his ability to come out with his own unique techniques. This allowed him to consistently produce novel pieces of artworks. For example, if he was doing a marble sculpture, Donatello made the drawings directly into the marble. As a result, he was able to properly manage his space.
Donatello’s goal was to capture the most real form of human emotions. In his later works, he was averse towards relying heavily on classical techniques that painted human beings in the most ideal form possible.
He acknowledged the fragility and the emotional nature of the human being. As such, he never hesitated to have themes about human frailty and misery, joy, civic duty, spirituality, and courage.
His style, immersed deep in heavy emotions and individualism, remains relevant today as it was six centuries ago.
What was Donatello’s legacy?
His humanistic themes make the influence he wields in the art world timeless and unmatched. This is the exact same reason why colossal artists like Rafael and Michelangelo drew immense inspiration from Donatello. Owing to his innovative ideas, he became a vital cog in the movement that brought Europe out of its dark ages into the Renaissance period.
Today, Donatello’s works hold a huge significance in the sense that they have become the very fabric of the sculpting and arts. The realism, harmony, and beauty in his works continue to leave people in awe to this day.
Did Donatello ever get married?
Donatello dedicated his entire life to producing masterpiece after masterpiece. As a result of this, he had no time to seek a companion.
Many art historians have even stated that Donatello was probably a homosexual. Those who make this claim rely on text and historical records that could be interpreted as Donatello exhibiting homo-erotic qualities. The first clue they say is that he surrounded himself with extremely handsome assistants. Apart from this, there is not much proof to back this claim.
What is interesting, however, is that historians believe that Donatello’s sexual orientation did not bother any of his friends or art patrons.
Interesting facts about Donatello
- Donatello’s most famous students were Bartolomeo Bellano and Bertoldo di Giovanni. The two helped Donatello create bronze pulpits at the church of San Lorenzo. Around the same period, Donatello individually produced the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence and the Deposition from the Cross.
- After Donatello’s death, his student Bertoldo di Giovanni completed an unfinished work of Donatello
- In both St Mark and St John statues, Donatello deploys a different style to the one that he used in sculpting the David of 1408. First of all, he does away with any traces of the Gothic style. Rather, Donatello injects heavy doses of realistic facial expressions. This style of portraying his artworks would go on to define his artworks for the rest of his life.
- He left an indelible mark on the Renaissance era. Due to Donatello’s works, the world of artworks and sculpting skyrocketed across not just Florence but the entire Europe.
- As the creator of the first major work in Renaissance sculpture, Donatello gained quite a lot of insight into ornamentation and classical art during his interaction with Filippo Brunelleschi. The two men would go on to revolutionize artwork in Italy and beyond. In particular, Donatello made a blistering career for himself by tapping into the beauty and harmony of classical works from ancient Greece and Rome.
- He was the first artist to reintroduce and strengthen the character of the individual in artworks. This sort of realism had long been extinct since the ancient Romans. This and many more reasons were why his sculptures appeared everywhere in 15th century Italy.
- Donatello collaborated with Michelozzo from 1425 to 1427 on the funerary monument of the Antipope John XXII and Cardinal Rainaldo Brancacci.
- In terms of uniqueness, Donatello’s latter works strike a sharp difference from his early works. This fact is reflected in his David of 1408 versus the David of 1430. The latter contains much more real emotions and grace.
- Donatello’s David of 1430 was unique in virtually every facet. The statue received much acclaim because it had no architectural background.
- Another very remarkable thing about Donatello’s works was their ability to speak directly to audiences. His artworks allegorized feelings that every human can relate to – the feelings of happiness, dread, pain, and sorrow.
- Due to his vast network and associations with influential art patrons of Italy, Donatello was able to shed massive light on his artwork. Obviously the most famous of these patrons was Cosimo de’ Medici. Donatello benefited immensely from the Medici family. His most famous artwork, the bronze David of 1430 was done to be placed in the Palazzo Medici.
- In the eyes of many art enthusiasts and historians, Donatello’s bronze of David is the best sculpting work produced during the Renaissance era. Some even claim that it beats the David sculpted by the Great Michelangelo.
- Donatello spent some amount of time in Siena. While there, it is believed that he worked on a St. John the Baptist for the Duomo. From 1425 to 1427, He also produced the statues of Faith and Hope for Baptistery of San Giovanni in Siena.
- In addition to it being the first publicly displayed bronze statue ever since the height of Rome, Gattamelata was largely considered as a model for equestrian statues all over Europe.
- When touring Italy, one would undoubtedly come across many replicas of Donatello’s artworks displayed outdoors. However, the original artworks of Donatello can be found indoors, in the various museums in Italy.
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