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.
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.
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.
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 on Donatello
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.