Christened as Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, Donatello, was a major figure of the Italian Renaissance Art (circa 1400 to 1600). How he got his unmatched talent in marble and bronze sculpting must be due to his father’s artistic skills, which goes by the name of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, a famous wood carder of the Florentine Woolcombers Guild.

However, during Donatello’s adolescent years, he worked closely with the famous goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti instead of his father. Later on, Donatello had fomented collaborations with several artists and patrons of the arts like Brunelleschi, Medici, and Michelozzo.

Early Life

The di Betto Bardi family hailed from Florence, Italy, where Donatello was born in 1386. He was three years younger than Cosimo de’ Medici, who later on had made a huge impact on Donatello’s highly successful career.

More about Donatello’s early life, he received his education through private mentorship with the help of the Martelli family. He studied in the said family’s house over the years until he started doing excavations with the famous architect and engineer, Filippo Brunelleschi. They had traveled throughout Rome from 1404 to 1407 looking for treasures while examining multiple buildings and heritage sites on the side.

Early Success

The struggles of being an explorer led Donatello to work at a goldsmith’s studio, as he needed extra source of income to support his needs. Luckily for the young artist, his companion was becoming increasingly popular among his peers as during this period, 15th century, was the re-invention of Roman buildings. The talented Brunelleschi was contracted for creating Pantheon-inspired buildings, while Donatello concentrated on creating sculptures.

Donatello’s unique style and design brought him immediate success to his name. He became well-known for carving realistic and idealistic, powerful and eloquent detailing on his first few statues. Art historians and critics would classify this technique as bas-relief.

Bas-relief, which traces its roots back as far as pre-historic wall paintings, allows sculptors to design a statue with its elements looking more prominent than the original, flat background. The design appears to be embossed so you can have a more detailed and realistic look to the details of the statue.

Donatello’s Prominence in Florence

Having enough experience to pursue his career in sculpture, he went back to Florence to work for Lorenzo Ghiberti as an apprentice. He provided assistance for Ghiberti’s works on the figures of prophets for the Florence Cathedral. These statues were placed at the north wing of the said Baptistery. This apprenticeship for Ghiberti earned him some money, which inspired him to even work harder on his eventual colossal statues.

From 1406 to 1415, Donatello had been working as an independent sculptor. He got paid as he completes his works of art, with the figure of St. John the Evangelist as the most famous. This seated statue of the said Evangelist was completed in 1415, and what made it extremely popular among Florentines was due to the imposing and seemingly alive impression that it’ll make upon first inspection.

Donatello made a perfect imitation of John the Evangelist from his tentacle-like beard, bushy eyebrows, austere eyes and long, slender fingers. Also included in the detail of the figure was St. John’s Gospel book, which he’d carry with him always in most paintings. This colossal figure was then placed at the cathedral’s façade until 1588.

According to critics, the Saint John work of Donatello had raised the bar higher in sculpture because it was certainly a development from Gothic Mannerism which depicted naturalism and human feelings in the art pieces. In Italy, Donatello was at the forefront in pushing the Humanist movement, as they move on from the Dark Ages, coinciding Europe’s own rebirth, naval explorations and scientific enlightenment.

Depicting Humanism in Donatello’s Famous Works

In Donatello’s works, one can see through realism, idealism, individuality and the tragedy of the human flaw. Although he has high regard to the prophets that he’d been using as an inspiration, he did not compromise his own artistic interpretations of the lives that those prophets had lived alongside of his own introspection. This is where the David statue would come in as a prime example.

In 1430, patron of the art Cosimo de’ Medici asked Donatello to create a bronze statue of David, which would be placed in Palazzo Medici. This commissioned work was to celebrate the triumph of Cosimo over his family’s arch rivals.

Consequently, after Donatello’s years of carving the bronze statue, it turned out to be as perfect and magnificent as people thought it should be. David, as we all know was a hero as told in the Old Testament of the Bible, triumphing over a tyrant leader in Goliath. In relation to the Medici’s, the statue with David being nude, standing atop of the enemy’s head with his sword stuck onto that figure, would mean triumph over inhumaneness and absurdity.

The erotic statue also had an inscription underneath it that says;
“The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe. Behold – a boy overcame a great tyrant! Conquer, O citizens! Kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtues. Behold the neck of pride, severed by the hand of humility”

However, not all people were happy about this particular work of Donatello because of its eroticism and androgyny. Some said that this design was meant to reflect the sculptor’s true sexual orientation; being a homosexual which was despised by the people of his time. Thus, he received harsh criticisms about his rather magnificent professional and personal life.
Homosexuality was not uncommon both during the classical and renaissance periods. It was also the time when the Church’s power to influence people was weak, so it was a great moment for the Humanists to break all conventions for the sake of art, originality and individuality, which Donatello did.

In-and-Out of Florence

After the David statue controversy and when Cosimo was exiled from Florence, Donatello decided to transfer to Rome. He stayed over there until 1433 yet he remained very productive with the creation of the Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli in Aracoeli and the Ciborium at St. Peter’s Basilica.

In 1434, Donatello went back to Florence to collaborate with Michelzoo. He was commissioned to sculpt a pulpit which was going to be placed at Prato Cathedral’s façade. The statue was built on marble, and in assistance of the other sculptor. His return to Florence was a series of classical period-inspired projects like the Annunciation for the famous Cavalcanti altar, Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, another sculpture of St. John the Evangelist for Venice’s Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, and in 1440, he made a bust version of a Young Man with a Cameo.
Donatello went to Padua as requested by the affluent condottiero Erasmo da Narni in 1443. The Florentine artist was contracted to immortalize Erasmo through an equestrian statue, which now people refer to as the Gattamelata (Honey-Cat in English translation). This work was finished in 1450 and was placed in front of Saint Anthony Basilica.

Gattamelata was a pioneer statue because it was the first one to be placed in a plaza rather than established in a tomb like how well-to-do families did it during the ancient times. Later on, prominent Italians and other Europeans started placing equestrian statues in public as a commemoration for their major contributions to the society.

Donatello’s arrival to Padua had paved the way for him to create another priceless masterpiece that the world will forever treasure; the Madonna with Child. He executed this for the high altar of the Basilica of Saint Anthony anywhere between 1446 and 1450. The figure was also accompanied by a throne and two sphinxes that symbolize wisdom and knowledge.

Apparently, this was a unique or rather unusual representation of the Madonna. She is in the moment of rising based on her stance as she seemingly raising the Child as well, which Donatello might have had the Byzantine/Estruscan icon in mind while executing this statue.
He had stayed in Padua for almost ten years.

Old Age and Death

After his 10-year career stint in Padua, Donatello returned home in 1453. He still continued being an independent artist working for Duomo di Siena from 1455 to 1460. He had made them the Judith and Holofernes, St. John the Baptist, and entrances for its entranceway.

The last few works that he had executed was the bronze pulpits for the San Lorenzo church. This time, he had the luxury to be assisted by his students Bertoldo di Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bellano. It was Donatello who did the design and sculpted mainly of the Deposition from the Cross, statues of Christ before Pilate, Christ before Caiphus and the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence while working together with Bellano.

Most of the works mentioned above displayed a high level of spiritual greatness and magnitude of beauty that’ll speak to you; that’ll penetrate your inner being and mind. It was believed that Donatello did utilize the so-called non-finito technique to effect drama and intensity to the onlookers.

And what a way for the revered sculptor to bid the world goodbye with these masterpieces! Donatello died in 1466 at Florence. His remains were buried in Basilica of San Lorenzo. Today, we remember him through his works such as follows:

  • The Feast of Herod located at Baptistry of San Giovanni, Siena
  • Magdalene Penitent at Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence
  • David and St. George Tabernacle – Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
  • Madonna of the Clouds – Museum of Fine Arts in Boston