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Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi or Donatello was born in Florence, Italy, sometime around 1386, and was an outstanding early Italian Renaissance sculptor. He is especially known for his work in bas-relief, a form of shallow relief sculpture that nevertheless can show depth and detail. Donatello’s work is significant because it incorporated significant 15th-century developments in perspectival illusionism, art that appears to share physical space with the viewer. His sculptures are considered the supreme expression of the spirit of his era, and they exercised a potent influence upon the artists of the age. I picked him specifically because he is one of the earliest sculptors to create figures with accurate anatomy.
He was the son of a member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild and received his early artistic training in a goldsmith’s workshop and then briefly worked in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti, the artist to whom the commission for the bronze Baptistry doors was given, over Brunelleschi. Donatello assisted Ghiberti in creating the cathedral doors.
Masterpieces survive from his early career, an example of which is his St. George. Georgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects is considered the foundation of art history writing, wrote of the young Donatello’s work: “…There is a marvelous suggestion of life bursting out of the stone.”
Donatello went to Rome with Brunelleschi, and the experience gave Donatello a deep understanding of classic forms, while his association with Brunelleschi likely influenced him in the Gothic style that can be seen in much of his early work. During this period, Donatello perfected his skills, which are apparent in his bronze relief of the Feast of Herod on the baptismal font in the Baptistery of Siena (1425–29). Note that the relief is employs a rigorous application of perspective so that each figure emerges clearly, even though the scene was modeled at a shallow depth. By 1408, Donatello was back in Florence at the workshops of the cathedral where he completed a life-sized marble sculpture David. Note that the figure follows a Gothic style, popular at the time, with long graceful lines and an expressionless face.
Around 1430, Cosimo de’ Medici, the foremost art patron of his era, commissioned from Donatello a bronze David for the courtyard of his Palazzo Medici. This is Donatello’s most famous work, the first known free-standing nude statue produced since ancient times. Conceived fully in the round, independent of any architectural surroundings, it was the first major work of Renaissance sculpture. Compare this David with the earlier one.
In 1443, Donatello was called to Padua by the heirs of Erasmo da Narni to create a sculpture in his honor. Completed in 1450 and placed in the square facing the Basilica of St. Anthony, his equestrian statue was the first equestrian statue cast in bronze since the Romans. Donatello returned to Florence in 1453. Two of his major works after that time are Judith and Holofernes for the Duomo di Siena, later acquired by the Medici, and what is probably my favorite of all of his sculptures, Magdalene Penitent, a statue of a gaunt-looking Mary Magdelene, a work apparently intended to provide comfort and inspiration to the repentant prostitutes at the convent.
Donatello continued his work by taking on commissions from wealthy patrons of the arts. His lifelong friendship with the Medici family earned him a retirement allowance; 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.