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The Florentine artist Donatello (full name, Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) was unquestionably one of the key figures in Italian Renaissance sculpture, and was - together with Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Tommaso Masaccio (c.1401-28) and Leon Battista Alberti (14041472) - a major creative force behind the Florentine Renaissance, which itself drove and inspired most of the Early Renaissance art throughout Italy. He reinvented the art of sculpture just as other contemporaries, like Masaccio, were reinventing painting.
He is best known for his basso rilievo, a form of shallow relief sculpture, but he also worked in bronze, as well as stone and wood. His profound knowledge of bronze casting also meant he was also a master of terracotta sculpture. He was able to bring sculpture to life by infusing it with narrative, and by combining realism with powerful emotion. His sculptures are full of energy and thought, as if ready to spring into action.
Now seen as one of the greatest sculptors in the history of art, Donatello's most famous statues include the amazing nude David (1435-53) - one of the most iconic figures of the Italian Renaissance. Other masterpieces include The Prophet Habakkuk (1423-6, Museo dell'Opera, Florence); St Mark, (1411, San Michele, Florence); St.George (c.1415, Museo Nazionale del Bargello) and Zuccone (c.1436, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence), Feast of Herod, (1439, Musee des Beaux Arts, Lille), the equestrian statue of Gattamelata [Erasmo da Narni] (1444-53, Piazza del Santo, Siena), and Mary Magdalene (1457, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence).
He assisted Ghiberti in the completion of several statues before turning to a solo-career. Another contemporary with whom he occasionally collaborated was the Sienese master Jacopo della Quercia (c.1374-1438). In 1411 he created the statue of St Mark and a few years later the statue of St George. This statue was executed in bas-relief (basso rilievo), or low relief - which meant that it is not free-standing but rather has a background from which the main elements of the composition protrude. The advantage of this method is that it allows the work to be viewed from various angles without distortion of the figures themselves. St George is also one of the first examples of central-point perspective in sculpture.
Between 1415 and 1426, Donatello created five statues for the Campanile of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, also known as the Duomo. Other important early works include Virgin and Child, 1430 (Santa Croce, Florence); Herod's Banquet, 1439 (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lille); Pazzi Madonna, 1420 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin).
As Donatello's reputation increased, so did his commissions. Around 1430, Cosimo de'Medici commissioned a bronze of David for his palace. This is Donatello's most famous statue and marked a shocking departure from traditional Christian art, in both its feminine appearance and state of undress. One of the first nude statues of Renaissance art, many Florentines were shocked by the realism of the nudity. Although David stands with the head of the dead Goliath at his feet, the slender almost feminine form seems far too slight to inflict deadly force on such an opponent. Indeed, the boy's countenance and pose denotes dreamy contemplation.
Donatello's bronze statue of David (above left) stands victorious over the head of the dead giant. He holds the large sword of the giant and wears a hat and boots. The statue caused a scandal when it was first displayed because of its nudity. While nudity was not unknown in Renaissance sculpture, traditionalists feel it to be unnecessary here, and not required by the subject, as it would be in a portrait of Adam, for example. The statue is also notable in being cast in bronze, showing the advance in that technology. While the contrapposto stance is taken from classical models, Donatello's figure of David is notably more feminine-looking than male figures in Greek sculpture. Modern critics, however, see the nudity as a powerful motif which turns the statue into a living piece of classical art. (To the Greeks, nothing was more beautiful than the human body.) Like the 4th century BCE Greek sculptors such as Leochares and Praxiteles, Donatello is trying to infuse the figure of a young warrior with real beauty. Since he is too young to be cast as a muscular brawler, Donatello gives him a more feminine shape. The shape gives the boy statue an air of insouciance, or coquettish arrogance, which perfectly reflects the Florentine sense of cultural superiority over rival city-states such as Siena and Milan - a rivalry which was contested around 1430 at the Battle of Romano, a struggle commemorated in three famous panel paintings by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475).
Donatello was noted for his choice of good looking boys as models and studio apprentices. Even so, he was generous in sharing fame with his assistants, and was considered to be very open and live a simple life. He took such pride in his work that he would destroy a masterpiece if a buyer tried to haggle over the price. He became good friends with Pope John XXIII, and when the Pope died, Donatello designed his tomb.
Donatello's other popular works include: Annunciation, 1435 (Santa Croce, Florence); Allegoric Figure of a Boy, c.1430 (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence); Candelabra Angels, c.1430 (Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris); St John the Baptist, 1438 (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice); Mary Magdalene, 1457 (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence); Judith and Holofernes, 1455 (Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, Florence) and Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1456 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
His equestrian statue of Gattamelata, 1445 (Piazza del Santo, Padua) would influence equestrian monuments for centuries to come.
After several years away, Donatello returned to Florence, only to discover that a new generation of early Renaissance artists had taken over the Florentine art scene. They were producing popular marble works and Donatellos style had become eclipsed. But he went on to receive commissions from outside Florence and worked until his death in 1466. He was buried at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, next to Cosimo de' Medici the Elder.
He is considered one of the greatest Old Masters in the history of art and one of most influential sculptors of all time. He influenced a large number of contemporaries in both sculpture and painter - see, for instance, the famous Madonna and Child by the Paduan pedagogue Francesco Squarcione (1395-1468), and works by Andrea del Castagno (c.1420-57) - as well as several generations of later sculptors and painters, including Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Giovanni Bernini (1598-1680).
Sculptures by Donatello can be seen in art museums across Europe.
For information about the best artists, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.