The Life Of Donatello: One Of The Original Artists Of The Renaissance

Born in 1386 as Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi and better known as Donatello, the Italian sculptor was one of the earliest artists of the Renaissance. Born in Florence, he studied classical sculpture, which allowed him to establish his own innovative styles of the period. Donatello’s career has been broken into the three cities of Rome, Padua, and Siena. He is regarded for his ability to work with a number of different mediums for his sculptures as well as having more assistants than most. Today, he is considered to be one of the most influential sculptors of all time.

His First Major Work Was A Marble Of Statue Of David

Statue of David
Alinari Archives/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Alinari Archives/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Donatello received what is believed to be his first major commission in 1408 when he was asked to carve a statue of David. The life-sized marble sculpture follows the International Gothic style, which was popular at the time.

While the statue of David was originally intended to be placed in the Florence Cathedral, it never found itself there. Instead, it was erected at the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall, until it was eventually replaced by Michelangelo’s more well-known David.

He Invented His Own Technique For Making Relief

St. George and the Dragon
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For his famous sculpture, St. George and the Dragon, Donatello developed his own type of relief work, which has come to be known as Schiacciato, or ‘flattened out’ in English. His technique involved creating a low relief carving where the plane is only slightly lower than the sculpted elements, creating an illusion of depth.

One of the most notable effects of the technique involves how the pale materials, such as marble, react with the light. St. George and the Dragon is also considered to be one of the first examples of a central-point perspective in sculpture.

His Most Famous Work Is Arguably His Bronze Statue Of David

Bronze statue of David
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Completed by Donatello around the early 1440s, his bronze statue of David is considered to be the first free-standing nude made since antiquity. Easily one of Donatello’s most recognizable works, it is also considered by many to be one of the early major works of Renaissance sculpture.

It is also assumed that the statue was made for Cosimo de’ Medici, one of the most well-known art patrons at the time and one of the first leaders of the wealthy and politically powerful Medici family. The bronze statue of David can now be seen in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, Italy.

He Transitioned From Gothic To Classical Art

Statue of Saint George
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Although Donatello may have started out with a Gothic style in his works, around 1410, he began evolving his art, taking on a style of his own that would be considered more classical and dramatic.

Around 1415, however, he completed the two marble statues St. Mark and St. George, which were clear evidence how much his style had changed from his earlier works. They had much more emotion than most of the art that had been created since Classical antiquity, making him one of the first true Renaissance artists.

He Was Buried Next To Cosimo de ‘Medici

Sculpture of Cosimo
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

At one point in his life, in 1453, Donatello returned to Florence. There, he received his last commission which were the reliefs for the bronze pulpits in the Basilica of San Lorenzo.

This was commissioned by the Medici family, who had been a huge supporter of Donatello throughout his career. He passed away on December 13, 1466 in Florence, where he was buried next to Cosimo de’ Medici, one of his earliest supporters and most renowned patrons.

He Was A Friends With The Famous Architect Filippo Brunelleschi

Portrait of Brunelleschi
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although Filippo Brunelleschi was ten years Donatello’s senior, as a young man, Donatello met and befriended the artist. Although it isn’t entirely confirmed, there are rumors that in the first decade of the 15th century, Donatello and Brunelleschi took a trip to Rome to study the ancient ruins.

This was an endeavor that few had done up to that point. Nevertheless, the two would go on to be some of the first Renaissance artists, known for their skill in architecture and sculpture.

He Apprenticed With The Renowned Sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti

Portrait of Lorenzo
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Although it is unknown the exact year of Donatello’s birth, it is estimated that he was born in 1386 in Florence, Italy, and was born Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi. The artist was the son of Niccolo di Beto Bardi, a Florentine wool carder, and his wife Orso Bardi. He was educated under the Martelli family, a Florentine family of bankers and art patrons.

After some artistic training in a goldsmith’s workshop, Donatello went on to become a student of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a beloved sculptor best known for his creation of the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery.

He Collaborated With Michelozzo

Decorated Tomb
DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini via Getty Images

In the mid-1420s, Donatello became partners with Michelozzo, an Italian architect and sculptor who had also apprenticed under Ghiberti. Together, the two artists constructed numerous architectural tombs, including those for Antipope John XXIII and Cardinal Brancacci.

Unsurprisingly, the collaboration between these two Renaissance artists meant that many of these tombs were considered to be influential. In the following years, the duo’s style of tombs can be seen as being copied for many other later Florentine’s tombs.

He Fell Ill In Padua

Drawing of Donatello
Rischgitz/Getty Images
Rischgitz/Getty Images

During a period of time when Donatello was completing commissions for the Church of San Antonio in Padua, it appears that Donatello suffered from some kind of crisis or illness in the small Venetian town.

Work slowed down or was halted completely on numerous projects, although he did manage to complete a series of reliefs and a sculpture of Marble Madonna. However, it was later discovered in the writings of a Florentine physician that he had indeed treated Donatello for an illness during that time.

He Is Noted For His Equestrian Statue Of Gattamelta

Statue of a man on a horse
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

In 1443, Donatello was requested to arrive in Padua, a small Venitian village to create a bronze statue of Erasmo of Narni, one of the most famous military leaders of the Republic of Venice, that had died that same year.

The soldier was also referred to as Gatttamelata, meaning “honeyed cat,” which helped to inspire the name. Donatello’s Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata is one of the first examples of such a monument with all other equestrian statues after being considered to be inspired by Donatello’s.

A Historian Considers One Of His Works To Be Perfect

The Penitent Magdalene
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Penitent Magdalene is a wooden sculpture that Donatello created between 1453 and 1455, which was commissioned for the Baptistery of Florence. Year later, Giorgio Vasari, a Renaissance historian, took a particular liking to the piece.

The historian describes the statue as being essentially perfect, with no mistakes and a perfect anatomy. Impressively, Donatello was already more than sixty years old when he created this sculpture, and after having spent working years on other projects in Padua.

He Worked With The Man He Apprenticed Under

Doors of the baptistery
Laura Lezza/Getty Images
Laura Lezza/Getty Images

After leaving the goldsmith’s workshop in 1403, Donatello became an artist’s apprentice in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti. Under Ghiberti’s tutelage, Donatello learned a variety of techniques including Gothic, as well as some early Renaissance styles.

By the time he was seventeen, he was already taking on his own commissions, which was incredibly impressive at that time. So, considering his close relationship with Ghiberti, Donatello was asked to help him with the famous north doors of the Florence Baptistery.

His Sexuality Has Been Discussed

Portrait of Donatello
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Although this isn’t the most prominent topic of discussion surrounding Donatello among scholars, some have claimed that he may have been a homosexual. Although not much is known about his personal life, he was described as a “man of simple tastes” and may have had more knowledge about ancient sculpture than the majority of other artists during his time.

While Donatello may have never married, some have suggested that he may have been a homosexual, and apparently made no efforts to hide it. Of course, this is all just speculation.

The Master Of Motion

Statue of St. John
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Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Donatello is highly regarded for his ability to demonstrate motion out of the inanimate objects that he used to create his sculptures. The Italian name for the technique that he used often to show objects, usually people, in motion is known as figura serpentina.

Although it is similar, it isn’t the same as another popular style known as contrapposto, which was used by numerous other artists. However, following in Donatello’s footsteps, other major Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo would also go on to adopt Donatello’s figura serpentina.

Not Necessarily Well-Liked

Statue of Donatello
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While Donatello may be praised by historians and loved by his patrons, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was all that well-liked as a person during his life. One thing that annoyed a lot of people was how he was more likely to destroy as sculpture rather than allow someone he didn’t approve of buying it.

Being very firm on keeping his own artistic freedom, he was known to be brash and difficult to work. However, being under the protection of the Medici family, he didn’t have to worry about his image or any consequences of his behavior.

Not All Of His Work Resides In Italy

Marble Madonna
Sergio Anelli / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images
Sergio Anelli / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Donatello is widely associated with Florence, as that’s where he was born and did a lot of his work. Surprisingly, today the vast majority of his art can be found in both Florence and Rome.

Yet, there was no way that the world was going to let Italy be the gatekeeper for all of Donatello’s world. One single piece of his art can be found in the United States. Today, his Marble Madonna is on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

He Made A Good Living

Statue of a man thinking
Bruno Balestrini / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images
Bruno Balestrini / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

While many artists throughout history and even today live paycheck-to-paycheck, that wasn’t necessarily the case for Donatello. Being the successful artist that he was, he enjoyed his fair share of fame and financial success during his career, starting from almost the beginning.

Although this is mostly due to his natural talent, skill, ambition, and vision, it didn’t hurt that he was under the wing of the Medici family, one of the most powerful families in Europe at the time.

There Were Key Factors That Led To His Success

Picture of Florence
Kevin Britland/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Kevin Britland/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although Donatello was highly talented in his own right, there were other factors that resulted in him becoming as popular and exalted as he did. First off, he was an artist born in Florence, which was considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance. It’s not the most difficult place to be as an artist.

Furthermore, his home of Florence also had a burgeoning merchant class and was full of other like-minded individuals. In close proximity to Rome, artists from the two cities could easily communicate and collaborate with one another.

His Final Works Were Completed Posthumously By His Assistant

Coin of Bertoldo
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When Donatello passed away on December 13, 1466, he was in the middle of working on a pair of bronze pulpits in bronze reliefs for San Lorenzo Church in Florence. One of these pulpits demonstrated the death in great detail and emotion, while the other was of Jesus’ resurrection.

Although the two pieces remained uncompleted at the time of his death, they were eventually completed by no other than his assistant and student, Bertoldo di Giovanni.

Recent Discoveries

Portrait of Donatello
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In 2020, art historian Gianaluca Amata was researching crucifixes between the 13th and 16th centuries for his doctoral thesis at the University of Naples Federico II. It was during this time that he discovered that Donatello sculpted the crucifix of the church of Sant’Angelo a Lenganaia.

This discovery was historically evaluated considering that the work supposedly belonged to Compagnia di Sant’Agostino, which was based in the oratory that was adjacent to the mother church od Sant’Angelo a Lenganaia.