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Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, called Donatello, was the preeminent genius of early Renaissance sculpture in Italy. Donatello was born in Florence, the son of a wool comber. When he was 17 years old, he assisted the noted sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti in constructing and decorating the famous bronze doors of the baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence. Later, Donatello was also an associate of the noted architect Filippo Brunelleschi, with whom he reputedly visited Rome in order to study the monuments of antiquity.

Donatello's career may be divided into three periods. The first and formative period comprised the years before 1425, when his work is marked by the influence of Gothic sculpture but also shows classical and realistic tendencies. As early as the marble St. Mark (1411-13; Orsanmichele, Florence) Donatello had rediscovered contrapposto (the opposition in a body of contrasted masses) and adapted the drapery to the body's movement. The result is a figure of great organic vitality and unity. From this point on, Donatello sought to characterize his figures as individual personalities rather than as types. In the marble St. George (c. 1415-17; Bargello, Florence; made originally for Orsanmichele) Donatello slightly twisted the saint's body and intensified the face to present a proud, youthful, self-confident hero, a Renaissance ideal. In the relief at the base, St. George and the Dragon, his virtuosity is shown by the rilievo schiacciato ("crushed" or "flattened" relief), in which the field of action seems deep but the sculptural plane is actually extremely shallow. Donatello's accomplishment in such reliefs is fully realized in his gilt bronze Herod's Feast (c. 1425; Baptistery of San Giovanni, Siena). In the gilt bronze St. Louis of Toulouse (c. 1423-25; Museo dell'Opera di S. Croce, Florence; made for Orsanmichele) he showed his familiarity with the ideas of Masaccio in characterizing the active inner life of the saint through drapery suggesting strong movement framed by a silhouette. Other works from this period include John the Evangelist (Opera del Duomo, Florence), and Joshua (campanile of the cathedral, Florence).

The second period (1425-1443) is generally characterized by a reliance on the models and principles of the sculpture of antiquity. From 1425 to 1435 Donatello worked with the Florentine sculptor and architect Michelozzo on a number of projects, including the monument to Bartolomeo Aragazzi (Cathedral of Montepulciano). In their joint work Michelozzo executed the architectural designs and also helped in the making of the bronze castings; Donatello executed most of the statues. From 1430 to 1433 Donatello spent periods in Rome, where he created a number of works, notably the ciborium in the sacristy of the Basilica of Saint Peter, decorated with the reliefs Worshiping Angels and Burial of Christ. It was in Florence, however, that he created the most noted work of this period—the bronze David (c. 1430-1435, Bargello). In this work Donatello created probably the first free-standing bronze nude since antiquity, and the adolescent's slim sinuosity, his nudity emphasized by hat, sword, and greaves, symbolizes another Renaissance ideal, physical grace and beauty.

In his third and culminating period, Donatello broke away from classical influence and in his work emphasized realism and the portrayal of character and of dramatic action. Notable examples of his sculpture of this period are Miracles of St. Anthony (Sant' Antonio, Padua), Judith and Holofernes (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence), and his wood sculpture Mary Magdalen (c. 1454-55; Baptistery, Florence). In the equestrian statue of Erasmo da Narni, called Il Gattamelata ("Slick Cat"; c. 1445-50; Piazza del Santo, Padua), Donatello, using the sole surviving ancient Roman equestrian, the Marcus Aurelius (Campidoglio, Rome), as a model, reinvented the mode of presenting a great general. He elevated the group on a high base, made the rider and horse convincingly proportionate to each other, and gave the rider an alert and commanding energy.

The sculpture of Donatello influenced that of Florence and northern Italy in the 15th century. It was also a major stimulus on the development of realism in Italian painting, notably in the work of the great Paduan artist Andrea Mantegna. Donatello, who died on December 13, 1466, had many pupils, the most important of whom was Desiderio da Settignano.

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