how did donatello become a artist
Saint John the Baptist (1547)
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 armour 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.
Donatello, the early Italian Renaissance sculptor, was born Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi in Florence, Italy, sometime in 1386. His friends and family gave him the nickname “Donatello.” He was the son of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild. This gave young Donatello status as the son of a craftsman and placed him on a path of working in the trades. Donatello was educated at the home of the Martellis, a wealthy and influential Florentine family of bankers and art patrons closely tied to the Medici family. It was here that Donatello probably first received artistic training from a local goldsmith. He learned metallurgy and the fabrication of metals and other substances. In 1403, he apprenticed with Florence metalsmith and sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. A few years later, Ghiberti was commissioned to create the bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral, beating out rival artist Filippo Brunelleschi. Donatello assisted Ghiberti in creating the cathedral doors.
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.
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 continued to explore the possibilities of the new technique in his marble reliefs of the 1420s and early 1430s. The most highly developed of these are The Ascension, with Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, which is so delicately carved that its full beauty can be seen only in a strongly raking light; and the Feast of Herod (1433–35), with its perspective background. The large stucco roundels with scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist (about 1434–37), below the dome of the old sacristy of San Lorenzo, Florence, show the same technique but with colour added for better legibility at a distance.
Joachim Poeschke, Donatello and His World: Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance photographs by Albert Hirmer and Irmgard Ernstmeier-Hirmer, translated by Russell Stockman (New York: Abrams, 1993).
Though Donatello was a descendant of a branch of the important Bardi family, he was brought up in a more plebeian tradition than his older contemporary Lorenzo Ghiberti. Gifted with humanistic insight and a quality of will that were highly prized in the early Renaissance, Donatello revealed the inner life of his heroic subjects, memorable images which have conditioned our very conception of 15th-century Florence. Sharing neither Ghiberti’s feeling for line nor Filippo Brunelleschi’s interest in proportion, Donatello worked creatively with bronze, stone, and wood, impatient with surface refinements and anxious to explore the optical qualities he observed in the world about him. His later art, saturated with the spirit of Roman antiquity, is frequently disturbing in its immediacy as it attains a level of dramatic force hitherto unknown in Italian sculpture.
Donatello’s earliest works were developed in the context of the two most important projects in the city at the time – both the Cathedral and Orsanmichele (a granary turned church) were being decorated with numerous sculptures. These works can be found at the Orsanmichele museum (upstairs), the Bargello Museum, and the Opera del Duomo museum (see below).
Donatello was born in 1386 (most likely) in Florence. His father, a restless man with a tumultuous life, was a member of the Wool Combers’ Guild. His initial training was as a goldsmith, where he apprenticed with Lorenzo Ghiberti, goldsmith and sculptor.