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.
Donatello had nurtured a close and lucrative relationship with Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence. In 1430, the eminent art patron commissioned Donatello to do another statue of David, this time in bronze. This is probably Donatello’s most famous work. The sculpture is fully independent from any architectural surroundings that might support it. Standing a little over five feet tall, David represents an allegory of civic virtue triumphing over brutality and irrationality.
2. The artist progressed during his life from humble beginnings as the son of a wool carder to a final resting place beside his lifelong supporter, Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, who was a wealthy banker, an art patron and the founder of the powerful Medici dynasty of Italy, de facto rulers of Florence during the artist’s lifetime. The elder Medici had commissioned Donatello’s best-known work, the bronze David, in 1430 as well as many other artworks. The men’s remains are entombed side by side in Florence’s Basilica of San Lorenzo.
During the same period of time in which he was developing his work within marble panels, Donatello had also become accomplished at casting figures in bronze. Around 1423 he completed his first major bronze work entitled St. Louise of Toulouse. Though the initial response was underwhelming, the work is now considered a great artistic achievement. Part of the reason for the poor reception initially may have been the difference in it’s two locations and the surrounding materials. Originally installed as a part of a niche at Orsanmichele, in 1460 the statue was moved to Santa Croce. There the surrounding plaster background did not harmonize with the work to the same effect that the marble in the Orsanmichele niche appeared to.
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.
Meanwhile, Donatello had also become a major sculptor in bronze. His earliest such work was the more than life-size statue of St. Louis of Toulouse (c. 1423) for a niche at Orsanmichele (replaced a half-century later by Verrocchio’s bronze group of Christ and the doubting Thomas). About 1460 the St. Louis was transferred to Santa Croce and is now in the museum attached to the church. Early scholars had an unfavourable opinion of St. Louis, but later opinion held it to be an achievement of the first rank, both technically and artistically. The garments completely hide the body of the figure, but Donatello successfully conveyed the impression of harmonious organic structure beneath the drapery. Donatello had been commissioned to do not only the statue but the niche and its framework. The niche is the earliest to display Brunelleschi’s new Renaissance architectural style without residual Gothic forms. Donatello could hardly have designed it alone; Michelozzo, a sculptor and architect with whom he entered into a limited partnership a year or two later, may have assisted him. In the partnership, Donatello contributed only the sculptural centre for the fine bronze effigy on the tomb of the schismatic antipope John XXIII in the Baptistery; the relief of the Assumption of the Virgin on the Brancacci tomb in Sant’Angelo a Nilo, Naples; and the balustrade reliefs of dancing angels on the outdoor pulpit of the Prato Cathedral (1433–38). Michelozzo was responsible for the architectural framework and the decorative sculpture. The architecture of these partnership projects resembles that of Brunelleschi and differs sharply from that of comparable works done by Donatello alone in the 1430s. All of his work done alone shows an unorthodox ornamental vocabulary drawn from both Classical and medieval sources and an un-Brunelleschian tendency to blur the distinction between the architectural and the sculptural elements. Both the Annunciation tabernacle in Santa Croce and the Cantoria (the singer’s pulpit) in the Duomo (now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) show a vastly increased repertory of forms derived from ancient art, the harvest of Donatello’s long stay in Rome (1430–33). His departure from the standards of Brunelleschi produced an estrangement between the two old friends that was never repaired. Brunelleschi even composed epigrams against Donatello.
Donatello’s return to Florence almost coincided with Cosimo’s. In May 1434, he signed a contract for the marble pulpit on the facade of Prato cathedral, the last project executed in collaboration with Michelozzo. This work, a passionate, pagan, rhythmically conceived bacchanalian dance of half-nude putti, was the forerunner of the great Cantoria, or singing tribune, at the Duomo in Florence on which Donatello worked intermittently from 1433 to 1440 and was inspired by ancient sarcophagi and Byzantine ivory chests. In 1435, he executed the Annunciation for the Cavalcanti altar in Santa Croce, inspired by 14th-century iconography, and in 1437–1443, he worked in the Old Sacristy of the San Lorenzo in Florence, on two doors and lunettes portraying saints, as well as eight stucco tondoes. From 1438 is the wooden statue of St. John the Baptist for Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Around 1440, he executed a bust of a Young Man with a Cameo now in the Bargello, the first example of a lay bust portrait since the classical era.
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.
Donatello later completed more works for the area where the Florence Baptistery is located. This center was important to Roman Catholicism in Florence. Donatello completed five statues for Il Duomo’s campanile, or belltower. Il Duomo is situated directly across from the Baptistery.
In keeping with the power and spirit of the Italian Renaissance, Donatello developed relationships with the Medici family. For example, Cosimo di Medici nominated Donatello to produce a tomb for Pope Baldassare Cossa, for inclusion in the Baptistery. The funding for this project was provided by Cosimo and his father. For the top of the tomb, Donatello composed a bronze version of the dead Pope.