Born in Florence, Italy, around 1386, sculptor Donatello apprenticed early with well-known sculptors and quickly learned the Gothic style. Before he was 20, he was receiving commissions for his work. Over his career he developed a style of lifelike, highly emotional sculptures and a reputation second only to Michelangelo’s.
By 1408, Donatello was back in Florence at the workshops of the cathedral. That year, he completed the life-sized marble sculpture, David. The figure follows a Gothic style, popular at the time, with long graceful lines and an expressionless face. The work reflects the influences of sculptors of the time. Technically, it’s very well executed, but it lacks the emotional style and innovative technique that would mark Donatello’s later work. Originally, the sculpture was intended for placement in the cathedral. Instead, however, it was set up in the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall) as an inspiring symbol of defiance of authority to Florentines, who were engaged in a struggle with the king of Naples at the time.
A pictorial tendency in sculpture had begun with Ghiberti’s narrative relief panels for the north door of the Baptistery, in which he extended the apparent depth of the scene by placing boldly rounded foreground figures against more delicately modeled settings of landscape and architecture. Donatello invented his own bold new mode of relief in his marble panel St. George Killing the Dragon (1416–17, base of the St. George niche at Orsanmichele). Known as schiacciato (“flattened out”), the technique involved extremely shallow carving throughout, which created a far more-striking effect of atmospheric space than before. The sculptor no longer modeled his shapes in the usual way but rather seemed to “paint” them with his chisel. A blind man could “read” a Ghiberti relief with his fingertips; a schiacciato panel depends on visual rather than tactile perceptions and thus must be seen.
Donatello was a very prolific sculptor whose works included: St. Mark and St. George (c. 1415), two separate sculptures commissioned for the niches of Orasanmichele; David (undated), the first large-scale freestanding nude sculpture since antiquity; the so-called Gattamelata (1447–53), an influential equestrian monument; and St. Mary Magdalene (c. 1450–55).
While Donatello did take on a few more important commissions for the Church of San Antonio in Padua, he also seems to have gone through a personal crisis or illness in the small Venetian town. Work was stalled on various projects and though a series of majestic reliefs and the sculpture of Marble Madonna were completed, a Florentine physician recorded a statement that he had treated Donatello for an illness.
Donatello’s father was Niccolo di Betto Bardi. The Bardi family were commercially successful and Niccolo Bardi was a wool carder that had earned a modest place in Florence’s bourgeois society. This social rank likely earned Donatello an apprenticeship around 1400 to learn stone-carving with one of the many sculptors who worked nearby during the construction of the Florence’s cathedral, the Duomo.
Between 1415 and 1426, Donatello created five statues for the campanile of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, also known as the Duomo. These works are the Beardless Prophet; Bearded Prophet (both from 1415); the Sacrifice of Isaac (1421); Habbakuk (1423–25); and Jeremiah (1423–26); which follow the classical models for orators and are characterized by strong portrait details. From the late teens is the Pazzi Madonna relief in Berlin. In 1425, he executed the notable Crucifix for Santa Croce; this work portrays Christ in a moment of the agony, eyes and mouth partially opened, the body contracted in an ungraceful posture.
In 2020 thanks to Gianluca Amato art historian, who did the doctoral thesis at the University of Naples Federico II on the wooden crucifixes between the late thirteenth and the first half of the sixteenth century, with studies he discovered that the crucifix of the church of Sant’Angelo a Legnaia is of the hand of Donatello. This discovery has been historically evaluated considering that the work belonged to the Compagnia di Sant’Agostino which was based in the oratory adjacent to the mother church of Sant’Angelo a Legnaia. The promoters of the research were Don Moreno Bucalossi and Anna Bisceglia functionary and historian of the art of the superintendence who in 2012 considered the work worthy of study and restoration. Silvia Bensì took care of the restoration that brought the work that has now returned to its home to its former glory.    
Donatello was commissioned by the swordmakers’ and armorers’ guild to carve this sculpture of their patron saint, St. George, for a niche on the exterior of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence. The work is a life-sized depiction of the saint standing atop a marble panel which is carved to illustrate the famous mythical moment when George slayed the dragon. Although the work was meant to reflect the Florentine spirit of holding strong against all adversaries, Donatello’s meticulous rendering of the emotionality of the face also betrays a distinct vulnerability and softness. This expertise in portraying emotion, as is also seen in his equestrian statue of condottiero Erasmo da Narni, was a signature technique of the artist toward humanizing subjects that would traditionally be presented in a more idealized fashion.
Painted terracotta – Bargello Museum, Florence