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Donatello

Donatello

The Italian sculptor Donatello (1386-1466) was the greatest Florentine sculptor before Michelangelo and certainly the most influential individual artist of the 15th century in Italy. Nearly every later sculptor and numerous Florentine and Paduan painters were indebted to him.

Though Donatello was a descendant of a branch of the important Bardi family, he was brought up in a more plebeian tradition than his older contemporary Lorenzo Ghiberti. Gifted with humanistic insight and a quality of will that were highly prized in the early Renaissance, Donatello revealed the inner life of his heroic subjects, memorable images which have conditioned our very conception of 15th-century Florence. Sharing neither Ghiberti's feeling for line nor Filippo Brunelleschi's interest in proportion, Donatello worked creatively with bronze, stone, and wood, impatient with surface refinements and anxious to explore the optical qualities he observed in the world about him. His later art, saturated with the spirit of Roman antiquity, is frequently disturbing in its immediacy as it attains a level of dramatic force hitherto unknown in Italian sculpture.

Donato di Niccolò Bardi, called Donatello, was born in 1386 in Florence. Little precise biographical information has come down to us, although many anecdotes are recorded by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives. Donatello was apprenticed to Ghiberti, and in 1403, at the age of 17, Donatello was working for the master on the bronze reliefs of the First Doors of the Baptistery. By 1407 he had left Ghiberti for the workshops of the Cathedral.

Early Works

One of Donatello's earliest known works is the lifesized marble David (1408; reworked 1416; now in the Bargello, Florence). Intended to adorn a buttress of the Cathedral, in 1414 it was set up in the Palazzo Vecchio as a symbol of the Florentine republic, which was then engaged in a struggle with the king of Naples. Dramatic in posture and full of youthful energy, the David possesses something of the graceful late Gothic feeling of a figure by Ghiberti, though Donatello now admits us to a world of psychological tensions.

Rapidly maturing, Donatello produced a strong, original, dynamic style in two works: the large marble figure St. Markin a niche on the exterior of Orsanmichele, completed between 1411 and 1413, and the seated St. John the Evangelist for the facade 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, realistically modeled drapery, and concentrated face with such optical subtleties as a detailed analysis of the eye. It became a stunning symbolic portrait of a noble Florentine hero in the embattled republic of Donatello's day.

Donatello's new style was confirmed in the famous St. George, carved in marble about 1416-1417 for the exterior of Orsanmichele (later replaced by a bronze copy; the original is in the Bargello). Resolute in stance, the Christian saint has the face not of an ideal hero but of a real one. Even more significant is the little marble relief St. George and the Dragon, that decorates the base of the niche. 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 probably influenced by the contemporary theoretical studies in perspective of the architect Brunelleschi.

Between 1415 and 1435 Donatello and his pupils completed eight life-sized marble prophets for niches in the Campanile of the Cathedral (now in the Museo dell'Opera). The most impressive of the group are the so-called Zuccone ("big squash" or "baldy"), perhaps representing Habakkuk, and the Jeremiah, in both of which there is great psychological tension and a convincing, deliberate ugliness.

Middle Period

Donatello received many commissions, which he often executed in collaboration with other artists. An unusual work is the Marzocco, the emblematic lion of the Florentines, carved in sandstone and imbued with a grand contrapuntal vigor; it was ordered in 1418 for the papal apartments in S. Maria Novella (now in the Museo Nazionale). Donatello's optical principles and his vigorous style in relief sculpture reached a climax in the gilded bronze Feast of Herod, completed in 1427 for the font in the Baptistery, Siena; Ghiberti, Jacopo della Quercia, and other sculptors also executed reliefs for the baptismal font. In Donatello's very low relief composition he approximated, but deliberately avoided the accurate construction of, one-point architectural perspective.

About 1425 Donatello entered into partnership with Michelozzo, sculptor and architect, with whom he made a trip to Rome after 1429. (Vasari states that Donatello went to Rome with Brunelleschi. 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 S. Angelo a Nilo, Naples, both of which were in progress in 1427. The first of these established a type of wall tomb that was decisive for many later Florentine examples.

Probably just after the trip to Rome, Donatello created the well-known gilded limestone Annunciation tabernacle in Sta Croce, Florence, enclosing a lyrical pair of Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. He was also commissioned to carve for the Cathedral a Singing Gallery 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 of wildly dancing putti. It was begun in 1433, completed 6 years later, and installed in 1450.

Later Works

Much of Donatello's later work manifests his understanding of classical art, for example, the bronze David in the Bargello, a preadolescent boy clothed only in boots and a pointed hat. This enigmatic figure is in all probability the earliest existing freestanding nude since antiquity.

From 1443 to 1453 Donatello was in Padua, where he created the colossal bronze equestrian monument to the Venetian condottiere called Gattamelata in the Piazza del Santo. It was the first important sculptural repetition of the 2d-century equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. Donatello portrayed Gattamelata as the ideal man of the Renaissance. Another major commission in Padua was the high altar of S. Antonio, decorated with four large narrative reliefs representing the life of St. Anthony, smaller reliefs, and seven life-sized statues in bronze, including a seated Madonna and Child and a bronze Crucifixion. Donatello had earlier made remarkable experiments with illusionistic space in his large stucco medallions for the Old Sacristy of S. Lorenzo in Florence; now his major bronze Paduan reliefs present an explosive conception of space with sketchy figures and a very excited continuous 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, emaciated Mary Magdalen from poplar wood for the Baptistery (1454-1455). Romantically distorted in extreme ugliness, the figure of the penitent saint in the wilderness originally had sun-tanned skin and gilding 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.

At his death on Dec. 13, 1466, Donatello left two unfinished bronze pulpits in S. 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 pioneering exploration of the dark realms of man's experience.

Further Reading

The best scholarly study of Donatello in English is H. W. Janson, The Sculpture of Donatello (2 vols., 1957; 1 vol., 1963). Recommended for the reproduction of wonderful photographic details of selected sculptures are Ludwig Goldscheider, Donatello (1941), and the small but compendious book by Luigi Grassi, All the Sculpture of Donatello (1958; trans., 2 vols., 1964), which includes many works of debatable authenticity. □

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Donatello

Donatello

Born: c. 1386
Florence, Italy
Died: c. 1466 Florence, Italy

Italian artist and sculptor

The Italian sculptor Donatello was the greatest Florentine sculptor before Michelangelo (14751564), 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. 13781455). 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.

Early works

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.

Middle period

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. It was ordered in 1418 for the papal (of the pope) apartments in Saint Maria Novella (now in the Museo Nazionale). Donatello's style in relief sculpture reached its height in the bronze Feast of Herod, completed in 1427 for the font in the Baptistery, Siena. Ghiberti, Jacopo della Quercia (c. 13741438), and other sculptors also executed reliefs for the front of the Baptistery. In Donatello's very low relief composition he nearly, but purposefully, avoided the accurate construction of one-point architectural perspective.

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 [13771446]. 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.

Later works

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 (14541455). 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.

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Donatello (1386–1466)

Donatello (13861466)

A sculptor who revolutionized the art in Florence during the early Renaissance. Born as Donato di Niccolo Bardi, he was an apprentice in the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, and assisted Ghiberti in creating the famous bronze doors of the Baptistry of Florence. Donatello's first known work is a marble sculpture of the biblical figure of David that was intended for display on the exterior of the cathedral of Florence. Impressed by the work, and seeing in it a symbol of the entire city, the leaders of the city ordered it to be placed in the front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government. His reputation secured by this work, Donatello was given commissions to complete a marble Saint Mark for the church of Orsanmichele and statue of Saint John for the cathedral. Both of these were large, realistic works that broke with medieval sculptural tradition, which elongated and idealized the human face and figure. A statue of Saint George completed in 1417 was raised over a smaller relief of Saint George slaying the dragon, the first sculpture to use perspective to create a realistic illusion of space.

Donatello gave his figures lifelike and vigorous poses. His sculpture surprised and impressed viewers with its mastery of small details, such as facial expression and drapery, and the way it used and commanded the surrounding space. He brought out the inner emotions and character of his subjects, subtly distorting figures for dramatic effect, and mastered several different sculptural media, including wood, bronze, and marble. His reputation spread throughout Italy and he traveled often at the invitation of wealthy patrons. In the 1420s he completed a bronze Feast of St. Herod for the Baptistery of Siena. In this work he created a new sculptural technique, schiacciato, or shallow relief, which creates an illusion of depth through distortion of the figures.

Donatello spent several years in Rome, investigating ancient ruins with his friend and mentor Filippo Brunelleschi. In 1443 Donatello moved to Padua, a city near Venice, where he was commissioned to raise an equestrian statue of Erasmo da Narni, a famous condottiere (mercenary soldier) known better by his nickname Gattamelata. This was an imitation of a well-known statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. It was placed in a central square of Padua and began a craze for equestrian statues that continued throughout Europe well after the time of the Renaissance. Also in Padua he decorated the high altar of the church of San Antonio with an impressive series of reliefs representing the life of Saint Anthony.

In 1432 Donatello created his most famous work, a bronze statue of David, the first freestanding nude statue created since the time of ancient Rome. The statue, a symbol of Renaissance virtue triumphing over the superstition and violence of the past, was meant to stand independently and be seen from all sides. Later in life he continued experimenting in the form and expression of his subjects. He completed a dramatic series of bronze pulpits for the church of San Lorenzo. For the Baptistery of Florence he carved a striking portrait of Mary Magdalene in wood that represents her as thin, ugly, and a pathetic woman lost in the wilderness. A group of figures in bronze illustrates the biblical tale of Judith slaying Holofernes, a work originally intended for a courtyard in the palace of the Medici rulers.

See Also: Florence; Ghiberti, Lorenzo; sculpture

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Donatello

Donatello (dŏnətĕl´ō, Ital. dōnätĕl´lō), c.1386–1466, Italian sculptor, major innovator in Renaissance art, b. Florence. His full name was Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi. In his formative years he assisted Ghiberti in Florence with the bronze doors for the baptistery. By 1406 he had begun to work on the cathedral. His marble David (Bargello, Florence) still echoed the Gothic form, but his St. Mark (Orsanmichele, Florence) and St. John the Evangelist (cathedral mus., Florence) mark a turning point toward a new humanistic expression. His St. George (now in the Bargello) is a striking portrayal of ideal youth. Even more important is the accompanying scene, St. George and the Dragon (c.1416), a pioneering attempt to work out a system of perspective.

During the next decade, he worked on the famous scene Salome for the Siena baptistery, which he completed in 1427. He invented a technique known as schiacciato (shallow relief), in which he ingeniously achieved effects of spatial depth. During that period he carved several prophets for the Florentine Campanile, including the Zuccone (Baldhead), a vibrant characterization. In 1430–32, he went to Rome with Brunelleschi and became one of the first Renaissance artists interested in ancient monuments. Reflections of classical putti (male infants) can be found in his rendering of the lively cherubs in the Singing Gallery (1433–38, cathedral mus.) and in the pulpit at Prato. Classical influence is also evident in his bronze David (c.1432, Bargello), one of the earliest freestanding nude figures of the Renaissance.

In demand throughout Italy, Donatello was invited to Padua in 1443, where he stayed for 10 years as the head of an enormous workshop. He designed the equestrian statue of Gattamelata (1447–53) and the high altar for Sant' Antonio (1446–50). Upon his return to Florence, he carved the acutely expressive Magdalen (c.1460?, baptistery), which was greatly damaged by the flood of 1966. In his last years he worked on the pulpits of San Lorenzo, creating a magnificent series of reliefs. He was one of the most influential painters and sculptors of his time. Most of his works have remained in Florence, but a good representation can be seen in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Two examples of his work can be found in American collections, an unfinished David (National Gall. of Art, Washington, D.C.) and the Shaw Madonna (Boston Mus.).

See studies by F. Hartt with photographs by D. Finn (1973) and by J. Pope-Hennessy (1994); Donatello and His World (1994) by J. Poeschke.

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Donatello

Donatello (c.1386–1466) Greatest European sculptor of the 15th century, joint creator of the Renaissance style in Florence. His work is a turning point in European sculpture, moving from a formulaic Gothic style to a more vital means of expression. Inspired by humanism, his initial innovations included standing figures of saints in the Church of Or San Michele. His reliefs and free-standing statues, have been likened to ‘drawing in stone’. After a visit to Rome (1430–32), his work, such as the Cantoria for Florence Cathedral and the bronze David, adopted a more classical feel. His late work, such as Judith and Holofernes and his wood carving of Mary Magdalene (1455), shows even greater emotional intensity. Donatello greatly influenced Michelangelo.

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Donatello

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