Sculptor (c. 1385/6 - 1466)

01.12.11: Biography

Donatello was not only the greatest Florentine sculptor before Michelangelo; he was the most individual artist of the 15th century. Much of the later 15th-century painting in Florence stems from him, as does the whole Paduan School, while, through Mantegna and Bellini, his influence was felt even in Venice. Practically every later sculptor, including Michelangelo, was deeply indebted to him; while the heroic types he invented have coloured our whole conception of Renaissance Florence.

He was apprenticed to Ghiberti and worked on the First Baptistry Doors in 1403, but had left by 1406, when he was working with Nanni di Banco on the Cathedral; he continued to work for the Cathedral on and off for the next thirty years. In 1408/9 he carved his marble David (reworked 1416: Florence, Bargello): this shows him as still very influenced by Gothic formal ideas, but his own heroic style is first seen in the St Mark (1414-12: Florence, Orsanmichele) and the St John Evangelist (1413-15: Cathedral) which made his reputation. In both these he created a new kind of humanity, slightly larger than life, and exemplifying those qualities of will and virtu that were so highly prized in the Early Renaissance. The knowledge of ancient Roman sculpture shown in these works makes it likely that he had visited Rome 1409/11. In 1415 he began his series of statues for the Campanile and from 1416 to c.1420 he worked on his St George for Orsanmichele (now in the Bargello). The saint is a portrayal of the Christian hero, but perhaps even more significant was the relief below (still on Orsanmichele) of St George killing the dragon. This is the earliest surviving datable example (c.1417) of the new science of perspective being used to create a defined, measurable, space for the figures to inhabit: it was probably only slightly later than the theoretical studies by Brunelleschi, Donatello's friend, and precedes the work of Masaccio by several years.

About 1425 Donatello entered into partnership with the sculptor and architect Michelozzo, with whom he produced a series of works, including the tomb of the Antipope John XXIII (Florence, Baptistry) and the tomb of Cardinal Brancacci (Naples, S. Angelo a Nilo), both of which were being worked on in 1427, in which year he also finished the Salome for the Baptistry Font in Siena. The tomb of John XXIII established a type of wall-tomb, with the dead man lying on a bier, which derived from much earlier examples (e.g. by Amolfo di Cambio), but which was decisive for the later Florentine examples (e.g. those by the Rossellini or Desiderio). Both the marble relief from the Brancacci tomb and the bronze one of Salome show Donatello exploiting the dramatic possibilities of a combination of very low relief (rilievo schiacciato) with the new perspective effects, and these mark his full maturity as a tragic artist. The relief of the Ascension and the Giving of the Keys to Peter (London, V&A) is another example of about the same date, and may have come from the Brancacci chapel in Florence.

In 1431-3 he was in Rome, probably with Brunelleschi, and there he seems to have produced little, presumably because he was absorbed in the study of antiquity. Certainly his later works are saturated in the spirit of Roman classical art and architecture, which he understood more profoundly than any other 15th-century artist, with the possible exception of Mantegna. Properly speaking, he was as much influenced by Early Christian art as by pagan Roman but he would not have regarded the distinction as valid. It was probably after his return to Florence that he made the very classical bronze David (Bargello), one of the earliest of Renaissance independent nude statues. He was also commissioned to carve the Cantoria, or Singing Gallery, for the Cathedral (1433—9: Cath. Mus.) to match the one already begun by Luca della Robbia.

During these years he also made the external pulpit for Prato Cathedral (still in partnership with Michelozzo), and carried out the elaborate decorations for the Old Sacristy of S. Lorenzo, Florence. These include two bronze doors, much less ambitious than Ghiberti's, but which far surpass his in the interpretation of human character.

From 1443 to 1453 Donatello was in Padua, where he made the High Altar of the Santo (now altered) and the equestrian monument to Gattamelata, the first reworking in modern times of the ancient Roman type, and clearly owing much to the most famous antique example, the Marcus Aurelius in Rome. He also made a wooden statue of the Baptist for the Frari in Venice. His works in Padua were models for all North Italian artists.

On his return to Florence he explored new possibilities of romantic distortion and religious emotion by following his wooden Baptist with another carved and painted wooden figure, of the Magdalen (Florence, Baptistry), which shows the dramatic impact of extreme ugliness. This, which was perhaps his last statue in the round, was of great importance in the development of Florentine painting, for it has the qualities of expressive contour and tense drama that painters like Castagno or, later, Botticelli sought.

At his death he left two unfinished pulpits in S. Lorenzo with reliefs that show the extreme distortion he was prepared to practise in his old age. They were completed by his pupil Bertoldo. Other works by or attributed to Donatello are in Berlin, Boston, Faenza, Florence (Sta Croce Mus., Piazza della Signoria), Lille, London (V&A), Pisa, Rome (St Peter's, Aracoeli), Siena Cathedral and Washington (NG).

  • Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)

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