art by donatello
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. He 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 a number of Humanists well, the artist was not a cultured intellectual. His Humanist friends attest that he was a connoisseur of ancient art. The inscriptions and signatures on his works are among the earliest examples of the revival of classical Roman lettering. He had a more detailed and wide-ranging knowledge of ancient sculpture than any other artist of his day. His work was inspired by ancient visual examples, which he often daringly transformed. Though he was traditionally viewed as essentially a realist, later research indicates he was much more.
Prato Cathedral, outside pulpit by Donatello and Michelozzo
In 1443, Donatello was called to Padua by the heirs of the famous condottiero Erasmo da Narni (better known as the Gattamelata, or “Honey-Cat”), who had died that year. Completed in 1450 and placed in the square facing the Basilica of St. Anthony, his Equestrian Monument of Gattamelata 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.
In 1411–1413, Donatello worked on a statue of St. Mark for the guild church of Orsanmichele. In 1417 he completed the Saint George for the Confraternity of the Cuirass-makers. The elegant St. George and the Dragon relief on the statue’s base, executed in schiacciato (a very low bas-relief) is one of the first examples of one-point perspective in sculpture. From 1423 is the Saint Louis of Toulouse for the Orsanmichele, now in the Museum of the Basilica di Santa Croce. Donatello had also sculpted the classical frame for this work, which remains, while the statue was moved in 1460 and replaced by the Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Verrocchio.
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 (1423–27), 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. To the Siena font Donatello also contributed two statuettes of Virtues, austerely beautiful figures whose style points toward the Virgin and angel of the Santa Croce Annunciation, and three nude putti, or child angels (one of which was stolen and is now in the Berlin museum). These putti, evidently influenced by Etruscan bronze figurines, prepared the way for the bronze David, the first large-scale free-standing nude statue of the Renaissance. Well proportioned and superbly poised, it was conceived independently of any architectural setting. Its harmonious calm makes it the most classical of Donatello’s works. The statue was undoubtedly done for a private patron, but his identity is in doubt. Its recorded history begins with the wedding of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1469, when it occupied the centre of the courtyard of the Medici palace in Florence. After the expulsion of the Medici in 1496, the statue was placed in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio and eventually moved to the Bargello.
The cause of Donatello’s death is not widely written about, but it is known that the last years of his life were spent designing twin bronze pulpits for San Lorenzo. He died at the age of 79 or 80.
By this time, Donatello was gaining a reputation for creating imposing, larger-than-life figures using innovative techniques and extraordinary skills. His style incorporated the new science of perspective, which allowed the sculptor to create figures that occupied measurable space. Before this time, European sculptors used a flat background upon which figures were placed. Donatello also drew heavily from reality for inspiration in his sculptures, accurately showing suffering, joy and sorrow in his figures’ faces and body positions.
There are accounts by some historians that Donatello and Brunelleschi struck up a friendship around 1407 and traveled to Rome to study classical art. Details of the trip are not well known, but it is believed that the two artists gained valuable knowledge excavating the ruins of classical Rome. The experience gave Donatello a deep understanding of ornamentation and classic forms, important knowledge that would eventually change the face of 15th-century Italian art. His association with Brunelleschi likely influenced him in the Gothic style that can be seen in much of Donatello’s early work.
Year: 1416 – 1417
Type: Wood Statue