Brief Biography of a Famous and Influential Artist 6: Donatello

Sketch of the Bust of Donatello

DONATELLO (1386-1466)

Born: Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi on 1386 in Florence, Italy

Died: December 13, 1466 [age 80] in Florence, Italy

Most Famous Works: St. George, David, and the Equestrian Monument of Gattamelata

Donatello was an Early Renaissance Italian artist and sculptor from Florence.

Donatello was the son of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild and Donatello’s mother is unknown. Donatello was educated in the house of the Martelli family and he received his artistic training in a goldsmith’s workshop, then worked briefly in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti.

In Florence, Donatello assisted Lorenzo Ghiberti with the statues of prophets for the north door of the Florence

David by Donatello

Baptistery, for which he received payment in November 1406 and early 1408. In 1409–1411 he executed the colossal seated figure of Saint John the Evangelist, which until 1588 occupied a niche of the old cathedral facade, and is now placed in a dark chapel of the Duomo. This work marks a decisive step forward from late Gothic Mannerism in the search for naturalism and the rendering of human feelings. The face, the shoulders and the bust are still idealized, while the hands and the fold of cloth over the legs are more realistic.

During the early Renaissance, works of art, architecture, and sculpture were paid for in part by newly rich, middle class families gaining power in Italian cities. For example, the Medici family rose to power in Florence and contributed two Popes in the Renaissance period. Many of Donatello’s works were financed by commissions from families like the Medici clan.

Donatello's St. George Statue

Two of Donatello’s early works were statues of St. Mark and St. George finished around 1413. St. Mark is a statue occupying one of two niches outside the Orsanmichele church in Florence. The other statue is St. George, which was eventually replaced by a copy in the Orsanmichele church. The original of St. George now resides in Italy’s Museo Nazionale de Barge. Donatello also completed a statue of St. Louis of Toulouse for the same church.

Around 1430, Cosimo de’ Medici, the foremost art patron of his era, commissioned from Donatello the bronze David (now in the Bargello) for the court of his Palazzo Medici. This is now Donatello’s most famous work. At the time of its creation, it was the first known free-standing nude statue produced since ancient times. Conceived fully in the round, independent of any architectural surroundings, and largely representing an allegory of the civic virtues triumphing over brutality and irrationality, it was the first major work of Renaissance sculpture.

In 1443, Donatello was called to Padua by the heirs of the famous condottiero Erasmo da Narni, who had died that

Equestrian Monument of Gattamelata

year. Completed in 1450 and placed in the square facing the Basilica of St. Anthony, his equestrian statue of Erasmo (also known as the Gattamelata, or “Honey-Cat”) was the first example of such a monument since ancient times. (Other equestrian statues, from the 14th century, had not been executed in bronze and had been placed over tombs rather than erected independently, in a public place.) This work became the prototype for other equestrian monuments executed in Italy and Europe in the following centuries.

For the Basilica of St. Anthony, Donatello created, most famously, the bronze Crucifix of 1444–1447 and additional statues for the choir, including a Madonna with Child and six saints, constituting a Holy Conversation, which is no longer visible since the renovation by Camillo Boito in 1895.

In his lifetime, Donatello sculpted friezes such as the Lamentation over the Dead Christ in bronze, a Roman Catholic theme more interpretative than sculptures of saints or dead Popes. The principal work for this project was completed by his assistant, Bertoldo di Giovanni (c. 1430-1491). Donatello died in Florence in 1466 of natural causes. In all of his works, the artist demonstrated how he could sculpt just about anything and achieve the effects of realism and emotion.

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