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Donatello

Italian Sculptor

Movement: Early Renaissance

Born: c. 1386 - Florence

Died: December 13, 1466 - Florence

Donatello Timeline

Important Art by Donatello

The below artworks are the most important by Donatello - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Saint John the Evangelist (1408-15)

Saint John the Evangelist (1408-15)

Artwork description & Analysis: The precise date for this early work by Donatello is not known, but between 1408-1415 the artist worked on this large-scale marble figurative sculpture depicting Saint John the Evangelist. Typically depicted as a young man, Donatello decided to portray the apostle as an aging prophet, holding the Bible, which was a departure from legend toward a more humanizing rendition. While the top half of the sculpture still represents an idealized point of view, the subject's facial expression is carefully considered, and the sculpting of the legs and hands points to a more realistic figuration. Donatello pays attention to the anatomy of the saint's legs, even though they are hidden under his robes, demonstrating a new preoccupation with representing the body with accuracy and naturalism. The work was displayed in a niche in the façade of the Duomo Cathedral in Florence, a project that brought together works by some of the city's most important artists over the course of two centuries.

This sculpture is seen as an important step away from the Gothic style that predominated in Florentine (and European) art at this point. Moreover, Donatello shows a new understanding of the requirements of perspective, compensating for the fact that viewers would see the sculpture from below and therefore making the body disproportionately longer than the legs. As the curator and art historian Daniel M. Zolli points out, Donatello was aware that the base of the sculpture would be set approximately four feet above human height: "Not only are John's proportions far closer to nature when observed from this angle, but his presence is much more formidable: the fabric of his raiment hangs heavily from the frame of his body, and the whole composition organizes itself into a stable pyramid."

Marble - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence

St George (1415-1417)

St George (1415-1417)

Artwork description & Analysis: Donatello was commissioned by the swordmakers' and armorers' guild to carve this sculpture of their patron saint, St. George, for a niche on the exterior of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence. The work is a life-sized depiction of the saint standing atop a marble panel which is carved to illustrate the famous mythical moment when George slayed the dragon. Although the work was meant to reflect the Florentine spirit of holding strong against all adversaries, Donatello's meticulous rendering of the emotionality of the face also betrays a distinct vulnerability and softness. This expertise in portraying emotion, as is also seen in his equestrian statue of condottiero Erasmo da Narni, was a signature technique of the artist toward humanizing subjects that would traditionally be presented in a more idealized fashion.

The work marks an important moment in the development of sculpture because Donatello brought back the ideals of classical sculpture and married them with a new realism, departing boldly from the prior Gothic mannerism. The marble panel at the base is also an important work of art in its own right. It is a key early example of a bas-relief made using the principles of linear perspective, which was infiltrating painting at the time. The shift from empirical perspective to linear perspective is one of the key discoveries that contributed to the development of Renaissance art. Donatello would have been familiar with the experiments with perspective drawn by his friend Brunelleschi, and his skill was to apply them to the challenging medium of bas-relief carving.

Marble - Bargello Museum, Florence

Bust of Niccolo da Uzzano (c.1433)

Bust of Niccolo da Uzzano (c.1433)

Artwork description & Analysis: Niccolo da Uzzano was an important figure in Florentine politics in the early decades of the 15th century, who acted as a respected intermediary figure between the city's powerful rival families. Donatello produced the bust (although its authorship is sometimes contested) soon after Uzzano's death in 1433. It was the first half-bust of a private citizen produced since antiquity.

Donatello's use of carefully molded terracotta clay, the unusual facial expression, and the choice of polychrome paint all suggest that this was intended to be an accurate portrait of an individual, rather than an idealized image representing an abstract concept of leadership or virtue. Donatello's craft emphasizes Uzzano's humanity and personality in a way that had not previously been seen, or felt credible in art. Yet alongside the Humanist movement in Florence at the time, artists were transitioning to a more authentic rendition of people, whether royal or plebian, that emphasized genuine expression.

The Florentine Renaissance expert Irving Lavin argues that presenting the figure as a half-bust is key to its power and highlights Donatello's revolutionary approach. By cutting off the figure at the bust and avoiding traditional presentation on an elaborate plinth, Donatello suggests that this is a true portrait, and a mimetic representation of a real human being: "The arbitrary amputation specifically suggests that what is visible is part of a larger whole, that there is more than meets the eye. By focusing on the upper part of the body but deliberately emphasizing that it is only a fragment, the Renaissance bust evokes the complete individual - that sum total of physical and psychological characteristics that make up the "whole man"."

Painted terracotta - Bargello Museum, Florence

Cantoria (1433-39)

Cantoria (1433-39)

Artwork description & Analysis: In the early 1430s, Donatello's friend and peer, Brunelleschi, was finalizing his ambitious design for the dome of Florence Cathedral. The Opera del Duomo, which was the body responsible for decorating and maintaining the building, turned its attention to interior decoration. They commissioned Luca della Robbia to design one of the internal organ lofts, and then, in 1433 when Donatella returned from Rome, they immediately commissioned him for the other.

Donatella's project contrasted greatly with della Robbia's. Whereas della Robbia's divided the cantoria's panels into separate scenes illustrating the different verses of Psalm 150, Donatello's consisted of a continuous narrative that flowed around the three visible sides of the loft. This resulted in a sense of animation and movement for the viewer. What also made his work innovative was its inspiration taken directly from the classical friezes and ancient sarcophagi he had encountered in Rome.

The work also reflects Donatello's mastery of sculpture and his signature techniques, cultivated to manipulate the viewing experience. As the art historian Timothy Verdon notes, "the sculptor's design took carefully into account his cantoria's principle light source: mere feet below the work was a group of torches and candles elaborately ordered atop an architrave". Instead of polishing the marble to a customary sheen, Donatello left parts rough so that when hit by the candlelight coming up from below, various shadows, textures, and points of luminosity would add another element to the overall composition. It is interesting that Donatello took such pains over the materiality of marble in this work, as it was the last major commission that he completed in this medium.

Marble - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence

David (1440-1443)

David (1440-1443)

Artwork description & Analysis: This small but exquisite bronze is one of Donatello's most famous works. It is a five foot, freestanding bronze sculpture of David, from the classic story David and Goliath. He stands in contrapposto, a traditional classical stance of bearing more weight on one leg than the other. Instead of being depicted as a powerful man, he is presented as a young, nude boy wearing an unusual hat wreathed with laurels (a motif of victory), and a pair of elaborately gilded boots. This unconventional arrangement, combined with the figure's long hair, delicate features, and slim figure make the work a provocative, coquettish and effeminate piece. Another strange factor is that one wing of Goliath's helmet is considerably longer than the other, and points up the figure's leg to the groin. The work has been a key touch-point for arguments over Donatello's sexuality.

These speculations aside, Donatello's David is important both in technical terms and in terms of the artist's treatment of his subject matter. It was the first free-standing male nude sculpture produced since antiquity, and controversial for a non-pagan, biblical figure. Beyond the bold reintroduction of the nude in art, art historian Dr. Beth Harriet also pointed out about this Early Renaissance period, "sculpted figures have finally been detached from architecture and are once again independent in the way that they were in ancient Greece and Rome. And because he's freestanding, he's more human, more real. He seems able to move in the world, and of course the contrapposto does that too. It's easy to imagine this figure in the Medici palace garden, surrounded by the ancient Greek and Roman sculpture that they were also collecting." Indeed, due to its small stature and location, the statue was designed to evoke an intimate experience for visitors of the family.

Bronze - Bargello Museum, Florence

Magdalene Penitent (c.1455)

Magdalene Penitent (c.1455)

Artwork description & Analysis: Donatello's life-size depiction of Mary Magdalene wandering through the desert in penitence is one of his most moving works. The level of realism and emotionality achieved by the artist was unprecedented. Like with many of his works, Donatello veered from legend and preconceived notions about his subject and depicted Magdalene as an old, starving woman rather than the more common young and beautiful nude fed by angels. He cloaked her in either her own hair or a hair shirt, emphasizing her complete renouncement of her former life as a prostitute. Even though, art historian Bess Bradfield points out, "The bare flesh of the saint is exposed as much as it is hidden by this hair..."

In this work, Donatello emphasizes the humanity of biblical characters, presenting Mary Magdalene as a relatable figure to be pitied and admired on a human level as a well as idolized on a saintly level. The use of wood demonstrates Donatello's facility with multiple materials, and in this stunning choice, the grain of the wood helps to create the agonized texture of the saint's skin. The work was also painted, adding an unprecedented level of detail and realism, especially seen in the whites of the eyes and the pupils.

The 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari saw this work when it was situated in Florence's Baptistery, and he commented: "a statue from Donatello's own hand can be seen, a wooden Saint Mary Magdalene in Penitence which is very beautiful and well executed, for she has wasted away by fasting and abstinence to such an extent that every part of her body reflects a perfect and complete understanding of human anatomy."

Painted wood - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence



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Donatello Photo

Related Art and Artists

Masaccio: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426-1427)

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426-1427)

Movement: Early Renaissance

Artist: Masaccio

Artwork description & Analysis: This fresco portrays a nude Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They walk out through an arch from which black lines emanate, representing the angry voice of God, with a red clad angel holding a black sword hovering above to usher them on their way. Adam buries his face in his hands, his body language and facial expression conveying deep anguish. Eve 's face is open mouthed and stricken, her hands held in a Venus Pudica pose to cover her breasts and pubic area as if in shame. The background is bare, only earth and a singular rock formation, evoking the hard fate ahead for the expunged couple. The composition is remarkably elegant, emphasizing the pair's banishment with heightened emotion. The line dividing earth and blue sky diagonally runs from left to right to highlight the pair's forward motion, as their opposing feet mirror each other along the path. The nudity of the two figures, classically proportioned, is not sensual but suggests the starkness of their situation, stripped of God's favor.

This scene is part of a fresco cycle of Biblical scenes in the Brancacci Chapel painted by Masaccio, as well as Masolino and other artists. In depicting the two naked, the artist departed from the Biblical account in which they wore fig leaves, and also, boldly, created the first nudes in painting since the Roman era. He also added the arch and reduced the multiple cherubs mentioned in the Biblical account to focus on one angel.

The scene resides at the left entrance to the Chapel hall, becoming the first image encountered by visitors, launching them into the famous narrative, as Adam and Eve walk out of the arch that is a painted extension of an architectural column. The artist's inclusion of the architecture into the pictorial space was not his only radical innovation. His use of linear perspective, chiaroscuro (the strategic use of shadow and light to create depth), and a realistic figurative approach were in direct opposition to the standard flat iconographic style of presenting religious stories and figures. The result is that Adam and Eve become humanized, rather than relegated on the devotional pedestal as sacred symbols. The pair are fully embodied and expressive, inhabiting real space, their shoulders bent, and their steps weighed down by the enormity of their expulsion. Art critic Clyde Haberman noted that Masaccio "broke with medieval traditions by giving raw realism to human forms and expressions. No one can doubt the anguish of his Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Paradise."

Subsequent artists would go on to envision their own work within this new aesthetic paradigm of Masaccio's vision. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci extensively visited the Chapel to study and sketch Masaccio's human figures, which da Vinci called "perfect." Later artists like the sculptor Henry Moore also studied his works.

Fresco - Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Andrea de Mantegna: Camera Degli Sposi Frescoes (1465-74)

Camera Degli Sposi Frescoes (1465-74)

Movement: Early Renaissance

Artist: Andrea de Mantegna

Artwork description & Analysis: This fresco depicts an illusory oculus, opening to reveal a painted sky. The oculus is ringed with figures looking down into the room below. An orange tree and a peacock, both symbolizing Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, perch prominently on the edge.. A number of Cupids - one placing a wreath on his head, one holding an arrow while looking out at the sky, and a third holding an apple that seems as if it might suddenly drop, ring the balustrade. Three housemaids, clustered beside the orange tree, gaze down smiling. On the other side of the tree, an aristocratic young woman stands beside a slave woman in a striped turban.

Mantegna's fresco was groundbreaking for the time as it was the first example of di sotto in sù, or illusionistic ceiling painting. It also employed trompe d'oeil to create a scene where the architecture and painting become indistinguishable from each other within the fictive space. He incorporated the fresco into the building by painting the ceiling ribs and lozenges to resemble marble, and the triangular areas at the edge to look like mosaics.

He also used extreme foreshortening in the figures to tweak the viewer's perception of the height of the ceiling. This work embodied Alberti's argument in his De Pictura (1435) that a painting should be a window into reality.

The Gonzaga family commissioned this piece for their Camera degli Sposi, a small square reception room in their Ducal Palace. In addition to the ceiling fresco, he also painted The Court Scene (1465-1471), portraying the Gonzaga family on the north wall, and The Meeting (1465-1471), with two other smaller scenes on the west wall, and the last two walls with a decorative pattern.

Mantegna's work greatly influenced not only Renaissance artists like Raphael, but also artists of the Baroque and Rococo movements.

Fresco - Palazzo Ducale di Mantova, Mantua, Italy

Auguste Rodin: The Thinker (1880 (bronze cast in 1902))

The Thinker (1880 (bronze cast in 1902))

Artist: Auguste Rodin

Artwork description & Analysis: Although The Gates of Hell was never completed to Rodin's satisfaction in his own lifetime, his work on the project did inspire many other finished works, and The Thinker is the most famous example. Deriving from a figure at the top of the sculpture who gazes with melancholy over the hellish scenes below him, he represents Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy that inspired The Gates of Hell (1899). Highly influenced by Michelangelo, the figure also represents modern, secular man - strong in mind and body, but lonely and doubtful in the position he has created for himself as master of his own universe. Although the seated figure is deeply lost in thought, the dynamic pose gives him a sense of movement. At first glance, the pose appears natural, but in fact the man's right arm on his left knee is twisted in an exaggerated fashion. Over fifty casts were made of this sculpture, which are today scattered throughout the world, making it one of Rodin's most famous works. Rodin also chose The Thinker as his tombstone.

Bronze - Musée Rodin, Paris

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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