di Niccol˛ di Betto Bardi, universally known as Donatello, was born in
Florence around 1386 and died there in 1466. Donatello left behind him
so much work through the world that it may rightly be asserted that no
artist worked as hard as he did. Donatello was a master of sculpture in
both marble and bronze, and is one of the greatest of all Italian
Donatello was an all-round sculptor; he was equally at home in low relief and figures in the round, in wood as well as marble and bronze. With Donatello, in Florence, the art of sculpture was born anew. His figures ranged from the martial St. George to Mary Magdalene (shown here) "consumed by fasting and abstinence," the arresting expressiveness of the latter being due in part at least, writes Vasari, "to his thorough knowledge of anatomy."
Donatello (diminutive of Donato) was the son of Niccol˛ di Betto Bardi, a Florentine wool carder. It is not known how he began his career, but it seems likely that he learned stone carving from one of the sculptors working for the cathedral of Florence about 1400.
Some time between 1404 and 1407 Donatello became a member of the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a sculptor in bronze who in 1402 had won the competition for the doors of the Florentine baptistery. Donatello's earliest work of which there is certain knowledge, a marble statue of David, shows an artistic debt to Ghiberti, who was then the leading Florentine exponent of International Gothic, a style of graceful, softly curved lines strongly influenced by northern European art. The David, originally intended for the cathedral, was moved in 1416 to the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall, where it long stood as a civic-patriotic symbol, although from the 16th century on it was eclipsed by the gigantic David of Michelangelo, which served the same purpose.
A good deal is known about Donatello's life and career, but little is known about his character and personality, and what is known is not wholly reliable. Donatello never married and he seems to have been a man of simple tastes. Patrons often found him hard to deal with in a day when artists' working conditions were regulated by guild rules. Donatello seemingly demanded a measure of artistic freedom. Although he knew aZuccone statue by Donatello number of Humanists well, Donatello was not a cultured intellectual. His Humanist friends attest that he was a connoisseur of ancient art. The inscriptions and signatures on Donatello's works are among the earliest examples of the revival of classical Roman lettering.
Donatello had a more detailed and wide-ranging knowledge of ancient sculpture than any other artist of his day. The full power of Donatello first appeared in two marble statues, St Mark and St George (both completed c. 1415), for niches on the exterior of Or San Michele, the church of Florentine guilds. Here, for the first time since classical antiquity and in striking contrast to medieval art, the human body is rendered as a self-activating, functional organism, and the human personality is shown with a confidence in its own worth.
The same qualities came increasingly to the fore in a series of five prophet statues that Donatello did beginning in 1416 for the niches of the campanile, the bell tower of the cathedral. The statues were of a beardless and a bearded prophet, as well as a group of Abraham and Isaac for the eastern niches. The so-called Zuccone ("pumpkin," because of its bald head); and Jeremiah were created for the western niches.
The Zuccone (shown here) is deservedly famous as the finest of the campanile statues and one of the artist's masterpieces. In both the Zuccone and the Jeremiah, their whole appearance, especially highly individual features inspired by ancient Roman portrait busts, suggests classical orators of singular expressive force. The statues are so different from the traditional images of Old Testament prophets that by the end of the 15th century they could be mistaken for portrait statues. Other of Donatello's early works, still partly Gothic in style, are the impressive seated marble figure of St John the Evangelist for the cathedral fašade and a wooden crucifix in the church of Santa Croce. The latter, according to an unproved anecdote, was made in friendly competition with Brunelleschi, a sculptor and an architect.
During his partnership with Michelozzo, Donatello carried out independent commissions of pure sculpture, including several works of bronze for the baptismal font of San Giovanni in Siena. The earliest and most important of these was the Feast of Herod, an intensely dramatic relief with an architectural background that first displayed Donatello's command of scientific linear perspective, which Brunelleschi had invented only a few years earlier.
Around 1430, Cosimo de' Medici, the foremost art patron of his era, commissioned from Donatello the bronze David (shown here) 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.
From Florence, Donatello went to Rome, remaining until 1433. The two works that testify to his presence in this city, the Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and the Ciborium at St. Peter's Basilica, bear a strong stamp of classical influence.
In 1443, when Donatello was about to start work on two much more ambitious pairs of bronze doors for the sacristies of the cathedral, he was lured to Padua by a commission for a bronze equestrian statue of a famous Venetian condottiere, Erasmo da Narmi, popularly called Gattamelata (The Honeyed Cat), who had died shortly before. Such a project was unprecedented - indeed, scandalous- for since the days of the Roman Empire bronze equestrian monuments had been the sole prerogative of rulers.
The execution of the monument was plagued by delays. Donatello did most of the work between 1447 and 1450, yet the statue was not placed on its pedestal until 1453. It portrays Gattamelata in pseudo-classical armor calmly astride his mount, the baton of command in his raised right hand. The head is an idealized portrait with intellectual power and Roman nobility. This statue was the ancestor of all the equestrian monuments erected since. Its fame, enhanced by the controversy, spread far and wide. Even before it was on public view, the king of Naples wanted Donatello to do the same kind of equestrian statue for him.