The Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi; c. 1386, Florence - 1466, Florence), master of sculpture in both marble and bronze, is one of the greatest of all Italian Renaissance artists.
A good deal is known about Donatello's life and career, but little is known about his character and personality, and what is known is not wholly reliable. He seems to be a person of simple tastes. However, patrons often found him hard to deal with in those days when artists' working conditions were regulated by guild rules. Donatello seemingly demanded a measure of artistic freedom. Although he knew a number of Humanists well, the artist was not a cultured intellectual. His Humanist friends attest that he was a connoisseur of ancient art. The inscriptions and signatures on his works are among the earliest examples of the revival of classical Roman lettering. He had a more detailed and wide-ranging knowledge of ancient sculpture than any other artist of his day. His work was inspired by ancient visual examples, which he often daringly transformed. Though he was traditionally viewed as essentially a realist, later research indicates he was much more.
Donatello realized most of his activities in Florence. He was the son of Niccolò di Betto Bardi, a Florentine wool carder. It is not known how he began his career, but it seems likely that he learned stone carving from one of the sculptors working for the cathedral of Florence about 1400. Some time between 1404 and 1407 he became a member of the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a sculptor in bronze who in 1402 had won the competition for the doors of the Florentine baptistery. Donatello's earliest work of which there is certain knowledge, a marble statue of David, shows an artistic debt to Ghiberti, who was then the leading Florentine exponent of International Gothic, a style of graceful, softly curved lines strongly influenced by northern European art.
Museo Nazionale del Bargello
The full artistic power of Donatello first appeared in two marble statues, St. Mark and St. George (both completed c. 1416), for niches on the exterior of Or San Michele, the church of Florentine guilds (St. George has been replaced by a copy; the original is now in the Bargello Palace in Florence). Here, for the first time since classical antiquity and in striking contrast to medieval art, the human body is rendered as a self-activating, functional organism, and the human personality shown with a confidence in its own worth. Giorgio Vasari writes in Le Vite: «For the Armourers' Guild Donatello made a very spirited figure of St. George in armour, expressing in the head of his saint the beauty of youth, courage and valour in arms, and a terrible ardour. Life itself seems to be stirring vigorously within the stone.» The tensed expression of St. George's face shows its affinity with the ideal of David in the Bargello Palace. The cloak gathered over the chest in a tight knot falls in folds whose spiral line retains an echo of the Gothic world, as does the position of the statue in its niche. But here the problem a space has been overcome, and the St. George, turning on the axis of the shield, moves with a great visionary force.
The base of the niche represents St. George's combat with the dragon for the freeing of the Princess of Cappadocia (its iconography is based on The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine), also assumes a role of great importance due to the artist's use of the technique of rilievo schiacciato, flattened relief.
Donatello, St George killing the Dragon, c. 1416. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
In the early years of the 15th century, a pictorial tendency in sculpture had begun with Ghiberti´s narrative relief panels (1403-24) for the north door of the Baptistery in Florence, 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, however, invented his own bold new mode of relief in his marble panel of St. George Killing the Dragon (1416-17, base of the St. George niche at Or San Michele). 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 tacitle perceptions and thus must be seen.
St. George killing the Dragon is the first example of a long series of scenes in which the artist applied techniques characteristic of medal-making, painting and drawing, to relief in marble. The shallowness of the cutting enabled Donatello to place figures in movement against a landscape, in which careful attention to linear perspective created an illusion of space. Once more Donatello was experimenting with new forms of artistic expression unknown to either the classical or Gothic worlds. Vasari describes: «And to be sure no modern statues have the vivacity and spirit produced by nature and art, through the hand of Donatello, in this marble. On the base of the shrine he carved a low relief in marble of St George killing the dragon, with a horse that is very highly praised and regarded; and in the frontal he made a half-length figure of God the Father, again in low relief.»
Basilica di San Pietro, Rome
During the years of 1430-1433, Donatello stayed in Rome. The two works that testify to his presence in this city were the Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and the Ciborium (1432-1433) at St. Peter's Basilica. Both works bear a strong stamp of classical influence. The upper relief of the Ciborium shows the deposition of Christ. It is horizontal, framed by curtains drawn back by two putti to reveal Christ. There are references to antique sculpture, from the scenes of mourning over the dead Meleager to representations of maenads with raised arms The position of the relief on the attic of the ciborium recalls Roman triumphal arches. The image of the Virgin in the centre, the Madonna della Febbre, is attributed to Lippo Memmi. The ciborium is now in the Treasury of the Cappella della Sagrestia dei Beneficiati in St Peter's.
Gilded pietra serena
Santa Croce, Florence
After returning to Florence, Donatello executed in 1435 the Annunciation tabernacle in the Church of Santa Croce, which shows a vastly increased repertory of forms derived from ancient art, the harvest of Donatello's long stay in Rome: unorthodox ornamental vocabulary drawn from both classical and medieval sources and a un-Brunelleschian tendency to blur the distinction between the architectural and the sculptural elements.
The setting is elaborately classical - though the composition recalls iconographical precedents of the 14th century - and is richly decorated with lavish gilding on stone. The composition conveys a strong impression of the episode of the Annunciation: of an unlooked for gift received with serene grace. However, other works of this period are inspired by an entirely different spirit. Vasari says: «It was put near the altar of the Cavalcanti Chapel. For this he made an ornament in the grotesque style, with a base of varied and intertwined work, surmounted by a quartercircle, and with six putti; these garlanded putti have their arms round each other as if they are afraid of the height and are trying to steady themselves. Donatello's ingenuity and skill are specially apparent in the figure of the Virgin herself: frightened by the unexpected appearance of the angel she makes a modest reverence with a charming, timid movement, turning with exquisite grace towards him as he makes his salutation. The Virgin's movement and expression reveal both her humility and the gratitude appropriate to an unexpected gift, particularly a gift as great as this. Moreover, Donatello created a masterly flow of folds and curves in the draperies of the Madonna and angel, suggesting the form of the nude figures and showing how he was striving to recover the beauty of the ancients, which had been lost for so many years. He displayed such skill and facility that, in short, no one could have bettered his design, his judgement, his use of the chisel, or his execution of the work.»
The last years of Donatello's life were spent designing twin bronze pulpits for San Lorenzo. Covered with reliefs showing the passion of Christ, the pulpits are works of tremendous spiritual depth and complexity, even though some parts were left unfinished and had to be completed by lesser artists.
Donatello died in Florence in 1466 and was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, next to Cosimo de'Medici the Elder.