Donatello

Brilliant artist and sculptor, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, better known as Donatello, is today known as one of the three fathers of the Renaissance together with Filippo Brunelleschi and Masaccio.

Born in Florence in 1386, Donatello will spend most of his life working in the city where he was born, committing himself throughout his career to the innovation of sculptural art.

Youth and early career

Not much is known about his childhood, but we do know that he comes from a modest family linked to the wool industry, the most profitable economic activity in the city. His father Niccolò was a carder and therefore enrolled in the Arte della Lana. Donato began working as a sculptor in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s workshop at the age of 18, around 1404. A few years later, in 1409, he created his first dated work: the David, a marble statue now kept in the Bargello National Museum. In this work, although the pose was already influenced by the study of classical models, one can still perceive the shadow of the late Gothic style very popular in Florence in those years. The real turning point came in 1411, when Donatello was commissioned to paint a San Marco for the church of Orsanmichele. Here, as in the later San Giorgio (c. 1415-1417), the sculptor demonstrates not only a profound knowledge of anatomy, but also a new taste, a new approach that aims to break with the rigidity and idealization typical of the end of the Middle Ages.

David
David, 1409

In 1419 he created a lion in sandstone, called the Marzocco, to adorn the apartments intended to host Pope Martin V on a visit to Florence. The animal is represented seated while holding the coat of arms of the city with one paw. Donatello manages to infuse majesty into the work, without making it rigid and austere. After the demolition of the staircase that housed it, it was forgotten for centuries. Rediscovered only in 1812 inside the Uffizi, the statue was moved in front of Palazzo Vecchio as a symbol of Florence and its ancient Republic, a past now distant and almost mythicized. Today the original is kept in the Bargello National Museum.

Marzocco
Marzocco, 1419

Donatello, father of Renaissance sculpture

Despite the objective mastery and innovative spirit that Donatello already demonstrated in the first thirty years of his career, it was in 1440 that he received the commission which consecrated him as the sculptor of the century. It was in that year that, now over fifty, he created his most famous work: the David, a bronze statue commissioned by the Medici family for their old home in Via Larga, now present in the Bargello collection. The subject is already very dear to the Florentines, who have always seen in the hero of the Old Testament the symbol of their city, just, valiant and alone against numerous enemies. But Donatello’s work is much more than one of the many versions of David present in the city, it is a real aesthetic and iconographic revolution that represents the definitive break with the Gothic style of the past. The biblical hero is represented as a slender young man with a proud gaze and, for the first time since the imperial age, he is completely naked. His David shocked the general public of the time with his body and his ephebic, almost sensual pose, almost as if he were a pagan idol.

The sculptural art of the master Donatello does not stop at all-round statues. Another important, although apparently less showy, revolution is implemented by the artist in the bas-relief technique. In his works, both in stone and in metal, he manages to devise a brilliant way to insert the perspective that his friend Filippo Brunelleschi had devised for painting in sculpture. Thus was born the Stiacciato technique (Florentine for Schiacciato): his bas-reliefs are divided into progressively less protruding overlapping levels as they approach the background of the scene, following geometric perspective lines that lead to a single vanishing point, exactly as was happening in painting. This optical device manages to achieve an apparently contradictory, almost oxymoronic effect: to give depth to something in relief. Masterpieces made with this technique are St. George and the Dragon (c. 1420), now in the Bargello, or the bronze panel made by Donatello for the Baptismal Font of the Cathedral of Siena, Herod’s Banquet (1427).

During the 1420s, Donatello forged an artistic and economic partnership with the younger Michelozzo, a promising architect who would supervise many of the most illustrious construction sites in the city. Starting from 1425, the two partners created various works that merged architecture and sculpture: some examples are the Funeral Monument to the Antipope John XXII, completed in 1427 and which can be visited at the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, the Pulpit of the Cathedral of Prato, created between 1428 and 1438 for the right corner of the facade of the church of the same name.

Throughout this period however, Donatello did not renounce his identity and continued to accept prestigious commissions in Medici Florence. in 1428, he was commissioned to decorate one of the most significant works of his friend Filippo Brunelleschi: the Old Sacristy in the Medici Chapels of the Church of San Lorenzo. Here, over the course of ten years, he created four gigantic medallions, each more than two meters in diameter, depicting the Stories of St. John the Evangelist and positioned in the spandrels of the dome, and four Tondi of smaller dimensions dedicated to the four evangelist saints. In all eight cases, he uses the ancient technique of polychrome wall stucco, created and applied on site in the manner of the ancients. With these works, he once again demonstrates his natural ease in technical innovation and in the recovery of lost Roman arts.

After having created various works in Rome, he returned to Florence in 1433, the year in which he began work on the wonderful Cantoria for the Opera del Duomo. This balcony for organ mixes the Florentine master’s sculptural mastery with his now profound experience of Classical and contemporary architectural styles: the five corbels on which the structure is supported are richly decorated and a beautiful bas-relief of dancing cherubs is placed on the back of a fake colonnade that occupies the central part of the work. A veritable miniature palace, the Cantoria del Duomo in Florence is still one of the artist’s most fascinating works today.

Donatello in Padua

For about ten years, starting from 1443, Donatello worked and lived in Padua. City home to a large and important university, it offers the Florentine great artistic opportunities. First of all, the equestrian monument built to celebrate the now deceased leader Gattamelata, a real star in the whole Republic of Venice, should be mentioned. The gigantic bronze statue, the largest since ancient times, represents a clear effort to once again elevate the arts and techniques of the period to the levels of the Classical and imperial ones. Conceived as a single work, detached from any architectural structure, it draws a clear parallel with the bronze dedicated to Marcus Aurelius from the 2nd century AD. now preserved in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

Another great Paduan work is undoubtedly the Altare del Santo, dedicated to the patron saint of the city: Sant’Antonio. The original structure was conceived and decorated with seven bronze statues in the round as well as with about twenty reliefs that recall in style those made for the Baptistery of the Cathedral of Siena.

The legacy of a great innovator

During his long career, Donatello was never satisfied with the level he achieved, seeking new stylistic and technical approaches with each work. He was able to give his statues a profound psychological connotation, a trait that clearly distinguishes him from all his predecessors. The faces are no longer cold and detached, absorbed in the contemplation of the divine, the bodies appear alive and the clothes soft. Thanks to him begins the journey of rediscovery and reinterpretation of the ancient that will lead to the works of Michelangelo, and through the latter to the modern sculptures of Bernini and even Canova.

Now over seventy years old, starting in 1460, he created two marvelous bronze pulpits, called Pergamum of the Passion and Pergamum of the Resurrection, intended to be placed on the sides of the main altar of the church. Donatello died in Florence in 1466, after having worked in various Italian cities such as Siena and Padua. His life and career are an example of how the pursuit of beauty and harmony can transform art and the world we live in.

Cover photo: Portrait of Donatello, 17th century, unknown artist, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Dove e quando

Florence, 1386 – Florence, 1466

Arte

Painting, sculpture, architecture

Museums

Palazzo Pitti

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Museo Civico di Siena

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Galleria degli Uffizi

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