Donatello ca. 1386–1466 Florentine Sculptor

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ca. 1386–1466
Florentine sculptor

Born Donato di Niccolò in Florence, the sculptor Donatello was one of founders of the Italian Renaissance style. He took a great interest in the art of ancient Greece and Rome, combining classical models with his own inspiration to create sculptures that influenced later generations of artists. Donatello worked with an impressive range of materials, including marble, wood, bronze, terra-cotta*, glass, and brick.

Scholars know a great deal about Donatello's life and work from the many written sources that recorded his activities. The first biography of him appeared in 1550 in Lives of the Artists, by artist and historian Giorgio Vasari. This and other biographies of Donatello stress his great talent and forceful personality.

Career in Florence. From about 1403 to 1407, the artist worked as an assistant in the Florence workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, the famous goldsmith and sculptor. By 1408 he began receiving commissions of his own, mostly for statues of single figures in marble or terra-cotta. He first gained fame for the works he created for the cathedral of Florence, which included life-sized marble statues of the biblical figures King David and John the Baptist. Scholars often point to the highly realistic St. John the Evangelist as a forerunner of Michelangelo's well-known statue of Moses.

Between 1411 and 1420, Donatello created two marble statues of saints for the Orsanmichele, a multipurpose structure that served as a center for Florence's guilds*. His St. George won admiration for its realism. The artist also created a scene to accompany the statue, using a new technique called flattened relief*. Donatello treated the surface of the marble like wax, drawing on it with the corner of his chisel. This work pioneered the use of perspective* to give the illusion of depth. Donatello's other notable pieces from this period include the five marble sculptures he created for the bell tower of Florence's cathedral.

Later Career. Between 1420 and 1440, Donatello created many pieces in bronze. He worked with Michelozzo, an experienced metalworker in Ghiberti's workshop, to produce his first gilded* bronze, St. Louis of Toulouse. This sculpture led the two artists into an official partnership that lasted from 1425 until the early 1430s. With his bronze bust of St. Rossore, Donatello revived the classical form of the portrait bust. In the 1420s the artist received one of his most important commissions, a marble and bronze tomb in the Baptistery* of Florence cathedral.

Donatello's technique developed rapidly throughout the 1420s. He took an increasing interest in narrative* art. In Feast of Herod, a bronze panel, he explored the use of perspective as a way to link the space within the work to time in the story, showing the head of John the Baptist moving closer and closer to the foreground. Donatello continued to experiment with new techniques, materials, and ways of expression in the 1430s. His interest in ancient art grew, and around 1432 he traveled to Rome to explore ancient ruins. Upon his return to Florence, he began his first large-scale work for the Medici family. This project involved decorating a room constructed by Filippo Brunelleschi to house the tomb of Giovanni de' Medici.

Around 1443 Donatello left Florence for Padua. One of the most ambitious works he created during his 11 years there was a high altar complex with seven bronze figures and a series of narrative reliefs in both marble and bronze. His monumental bronze mercenary (hired soldier) on horseback, known as Gattamelata, was the first life-size equestrian statue since ancient times. From 1457 to 1459, Donatello lived in Siena, where he designed a set of bronze doors for the city's cathedral. He returned to Florence in 1459 and remained there until his death in 1466. His late works display a wide range of emotional tension and drama.

(See alsoArt; Art in Italy; Sculpture. )

* terra-cotta

type of clay used for sculpture, pottery, and architectural features

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

* relief

type of sculpture in which figures are raised slightly from a flat surface

* perspective

artistic technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface

* gilded

coated with gold

* baptistery

building where baptisms are performed

* narrative