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Artists Donatello
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Donatello

Italian Sculptor

Movement: Early Renaissance

Born: c. 1386 - Florence

Died: December 13, 1466 - Florence

Donatello Timeline

Quotes

"Donatello made his figures in such a way that in the room where he worked they did not look half as well as when they were put in their places."
Giorgio Vasari
"As Henry Moore carved or modelled his sculpture every day, he strove to surpass Donatello and failed, but woke the next morning elated for another try."
Donald Hall

"He may be said to have been the first to illustrate the art of sculpture among the moderns."

Giorgio Vasari

Synopsis

Donatello would become known as the most important sculptor to resuscitate classical sculpture from its tomb in antiquity, through an invigorated style that departed from the Gothic period's flat iconography. He broke ground by introducing new aesthetics in line with the time's flourishing move toward Humanism - a movement that emphasized a departure from medieval scholasticism and favoured deep immersion into the humanities, resulting in art that no longer focused solely on the secular realm of religion but explored man's place in the natural world. Donatello's signature lifelike and highly emotional works would place him as one of the most influential artists in 15th century Italy, and an early forefather to the Italian Renaissance.

Key Ideas

Donatello's work was highly influenced by the revival of interest in the sciences, mathematics, and architecture that was taking place in Florence. This included the use of one point perspective to create a new kind of bas-relief for architectural works and a precise anatomical correctness for his figures.
The figure was a central point of mastery for the artist, and he was in fact the first to reintroduce the nude sculpture. With the addition of realistic proportion, emotionality, and expression to his subjects whether they be mythic, historical, or everyday people, he created works that conveyed a genuine reality over the idealized imagery of before.
Donatello was a prolific master of many mediums including stone, bronze, wood, stucco, clay, and wax. He was the first to illustrate the art of sculpture among the modern artists. His versatility and ingenuity would lay a foundation for many future sculptors looking to discover new possibilities in materiality.

Biography

Donatello Photo

Childhood

It is common thought that Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi (generally known as Donatello) was born in 1386 in Florence to Niccolo di Betto Bardi. However, the date is conjectural, based on a declaration of income submitted by the artist in 1433, stating his age at 47. He received his childhood education in the house of the Martelli family, one of Florence's richest families.

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Donatello Biography Continues

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

More Donatello Artwork and Analysis:



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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Donatello
Interactive chart with Donatello's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Lorenzo Ghiberti
Filippo Brunelleschi

Personal Contacts

Filippo Brunelleschi

Movements

Classical art
Gothic ArtGothic Art

Influences on Artist
Donatello
Donatello
Years Worked: 1406 - 1466
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Michelozzo
Massaccio
Andrea de MantegnaAndrea de Mantegna

Personal Contacts

Movements

RenaissanceRenaissance
MannerismMannerism

Useful Resources on Donatello

Videos

Books

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello Recomended resource

By Timothy Verdon and Daniel Zolli

Donatello and his World: Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance

By Joachim Poeschke

The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini Recomended resource

By Keith Christiansen and‎ Stefan Weppelmann

Lives of the Artists: Donatello

By Giorgio Vasari
1550

Donatello's Masterpieces in Santa Croce Recomended resource

Santa Croce in Florence
April 18, 2013

Donatello

Visual Arts Cork University

Donatello

Art in Tuscany

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Cite this page

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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