Donatello’s real name is Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi (1386-1466). Donatello was a master of sculpture in bronze and marble and was one of the greatest Italian Renaissance artists of his time. A lot is known about his life and career but little is known about his character and personality. He never married and seems to be a man of simple tastes. Patrons often found him hard to deal with and he demanded a lot of artistic freedom. The inscriptions and signatures on his works are among the earliest examples of classical Roman lettering. He had a more detailed range of knowledge of ancient sculpture than any other artist of his time. His work was inspired by ancient visual examples which he often transformed, he was really viewed as a realist but later research showed he was much more.
Donatello was the son of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, a Florentine wool carder. It is not known how he started his career but probably learned stone carving from one of the sculptors working for the cathedral of Florence about 1400. Sometime between 1404 and 1407 he became a member of the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti who was a sculptor in bronze. Donatello’s earliest work was a marble statue of David. The “David” was originally made for the cathedral but was moved in 1416 to the Palazzo Vecchio which is a city hall where it long stood as a civic patriotic symbol. From the sixteenth century on it was eclipsed by the gigantic “David” of Michelangelo which served the same purpose. Other of Donatello’s early works which were still partly gothic are the impressive seated marble figure of St. John the Evangelist for the cathedral and a wooden crucifix in the church of Sta. Croce.
The full power of Donatello first appeared in two marble statues, “St. Mark” and “St. George” which were completed in 1415. “St. George” has been replaced and is now in the Bargello. For the first time the human body is rendered as a functional organism. The same qualities came in the series of five prophet statues that Donatello did beginning in 1416. The statues were of beardless and bearded prophets as well as a group of Abraham and Isaac in 1416-1421 and also the “Zuccone” and “Jeremiah”. “Zuccone” is famous as the finest of the campanile statues and one of the artist’s masterpieces. Donatello invented his own bold new mode of relief in his marble panel “St. George Killi…
…e, a new generation of sculptors who excelled in the treatment of marble surfaces had rose in Florence. With the change in Florentine taste, all of Donatello’s important requests came from outside Florence. They included the bronze group “Judith and Holofernes” which is now standing before the Palazzo Vecchio and a bronze statue of St. John the Baptist for Siena cathedral, also undertook the work of the pair of bronze doors in the late 1450’s. This project, which might have rivalled Ghiberti’s doors for the Florentine baptistery, was abandoned about 1460 for unknown reasons.
The last years of Donatello’s life were spent designing twin bronze pulpits for St. Lorenzo, and again in the service of his old patrons the Medici, he died on December 13, 1466. These twin bronze pulpits covered with reliefs showing the passion of Christ, are works of tremendous spiritual depth and complexity. Even though some parts were left unfinished, they had to be completed by lesser artists.
1. 1998 Microsoft Encarta. Copyright 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
2. Craven, Thomas. “A Treasury of Art Masterpieces.” Copyright 1958 Simon and Schuster Inc. New York, New York.