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.
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.
The dating of the statue [ clarification needed ] is not settled, though recent scholarship has indicated it was made around 1460. It is certain that Cosimo de’ Medici, the foremost art patron of his era, commissioned from Donatello the bronze David (now in the Bargello) for the court of his Palazzo Medici. This is now Donatello’s most famous work, and the first known free-standing nude statue produced since antiquity. 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 is arguably the first major work of Renaissance sculpture. Also from this period is the disquietingly small Love-Atys, housed in the Bargello.
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.
By 1455, Donatello had returned to Florence and completed Magdalene Penitent, a statue of a gaunt-looking Mary Magdalene. Commissioned by the convent at Santa Maria di Cestello, the work was probably intended to provide comfort and inspiration to the repentant prostitutes at the convent. Donatello continued his work taking on commissions from wealthy patrons of the arts. His lifelong friendship with the Medici family earned him a retirement allowance to live on the rest of his life. He died of unknown causes on December 13, 1466, in Florence and was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, next to Cosimo de’ Medici. An unfinished work was faithfully completed by his student Bertoldo di Giovanni.
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.
In the early 1430s, Donatello’s friend and peer, Brunelleschi, was finalizing his ambitious design for the dome of Florence Cathedral. The Opera del Duomo, which was the body responsible for decorating and maintaining the building, turned its attention to interior decoration. They commissioned Luca della Robbia to design one of the internal organ lofts, and then, in 1433 when Donatello returned from Rome, they immediately commissioned him for the other.
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.
One of the reliefs by Donatello in St. Anthony of Padua
Year: 1423 – 1427