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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Truly one of the greatest Renaissance artists, Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, or Donatello as he was better known, left a legacy of sculptures that has become one of the world's greatest treasures.

Renowned for his innovative techniques and emotional realism, his skill and artistry is said to be second only to Michelangelo, who was born almost a century after him, making Donatello's body of work all the more remarkable and ground-breaking.

Born in Florence in circa 1386, Donatello, or "little Donato", was the son of a wool carder. Being born into the artisan class meant that, as a young man, he was afforded opportunity to learn skills and a trade. Although it is documented that he received his early education with the Martelli family, he learned his love of metal work when he trained at a local Goldsmith's shop.

However, it was later, when he was apprenticed to the great Lorenzo Ghiberti, that his artistic gifts began to develop. Indeed, it is said that Ghiberti's influence stayed with Donatello throughout his career, evident in the emotion and realism of his work.

Little is known about Donatello, the man. It seems to be a general consensus that he was a quite living man who devoted himself to his work and the pursuit of artistic expression. He never married, but enjoyed a large circle of influential and learned friends. Although he, himself, was not an intellectual, he was profoundly influenced by the Humanist movement of the time.

Early Work

Donatello's apprenticeship with Ghiberti lasted less than 5 years. It appears, however, that it was sufficient time for the young artist to become confident enough to accept paid commissions of his own. There are records to indicate that he was receiving payments for work from 1406, at merely 20 years old.

Only 2 years later, in 1408, he had completed his first David, a beautiful marble statue now housed in the Bargello in Florence. The David was commissioned to sit on top of the Florence Catherdral, but in the end it was too small to be see from the ground so it ended up in the square outside the town hall.

This David, lovely though it may be, clearly shows the influence of the gothic style, popular with Donatello's contempoaries. This is evidence of a young artist who had not yet developed his own style, a style which was to change the world of art forever.

By 1408, Donatello was working on a new sculpture of St John the Evangelist. It was in this work that he first moved away from the gothic style to the classical style of which he was to become so well known. Looking at this sculpture today, which sits in the Duomo in Florence, it is clear that the artist had found his genius.

No longer did he adhere to the traditional symbolism of religious art, rather he had injected life into the stone by creating detailed realism of anatomy and facial expression. The statue is made even more imposing by Donatello's clever and classical use of perspective when, realising the statue would be sitting high above the viewer, he elongated the figure's legs to ensure realistic proportions.

Most Famous Work

Without doubt the most important and well know of Donatello's works is the bronze David. Commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici, an extremely prominent Florentine of the time, in circa 1430, the bronze is a seminal work of the renaissance as it is the first free standing nude fashioned since antiquity.

The statue stands in stark contrast to his marble rendition as it clearly details the physical as well as the emotional energy of the subject, which provides an altogether more human work. Today it is found in the Bargello Museum in Florence.

Another remarkable bronze work which at the time was considered to be Donatello's greatest work is named Gattamelatta or "Speckled-Cat". Commissioned in Padua in 1443 and complete in 1450, it depicts Erasmo da Narni, an famous soldier of fortune of the renaissance, dressed for battle astride his horse. This sculpture was the first cast bronze equine statue since the Romans.

It was and is considered so remarkably life-like, that it subsequently became a gold standard for all such bronze work since, including those of the Emperor Napolean. The statue can still be found today in the main square in Padua.

Any list of Donatello's great works would not be complete without mentioning the Magdalene Penitent. Commissioned by the convent at Santa Maria di Cestello in 1455 in Florence, it depicts the Magdalene during her time in the wilderness repenting of her sins. Scuplted from wood, it shows a woman who is gaunt and haggard in an attitude of prayer.

In this sculpture Donatello reached a pinnacle of realism that is unsurpassed. Painted to highlight the effects of her pain, the Magdalene is so emotionally crafted her anguish is palpable. The Statue is displayed today in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence.

Important Influences

Donatello's primary influence was certainly bronze sculptor, Lorenzo Ghiberti. During his apprenticeship with him, Donatello helped Ghiberti create the North Baptistery gates in Florence and he would have learned a great deal about the gothic style favoured by his mentor. As is seen in much of his work, he would also have learned the skill of bringing life and movement together.

Additional influence also came from Donatello's friendship with Brunelleschi, a fellow sculpture and architect. The pair spent several years in Rome, studying the classics. This interest became a life long quest and informed his greatest works.

His love of the classical form also led him to developing many Humanist friends, including the de'Medicis who were important patrons of the arts. While all of these influences are clear in Donatello's works, it is also true that he was an independent thinker and visionary.

Although he would, like any artist, have drawn from contemporary work at the time, he would not be swayed by the status quo or norms of his day, and that was his true genius. His clear vision is what made him an influence on the artists who followed throughout the renaissance and to this day.

Donatello's Style

Donatello's signature was his mastery of sculpture. He developed a way to bring realism and emotion together in his work like no other before him. His work most definately marked a turning point both in the way artists created, and in the way people perceived art. However, there was another important style of sculpture that Donatello pioneered. Known as schiacciato or "flattening out" it is a technique where by the sculptor can create a 3D effect with very little depth.

It was a craft which Donatello perfected and used to great effect in his St George and the Dragon, The Ascension and The Donation of the Keys and The Assumption of the Virgin among other works. His new approach to flat-surface carving was so popular that he, in fact, headed a workshop in Padua for several years training young artists to master the new skill.

The Artist's Legacy

Donatello was the first to move away from the limitations of gothic mannerism and embrace the freshness of classical realism. He brought the beauty of the Roman and Greek works into a new light and made them more fluid and human. This shift, while it may only have been an artist following his own truth, lay a framework for generations of artists who followed in his wake.

The likes of Michelangelo and Raphael were likely made bold by the changes Donatello had the courage to make; all in pursuit of perfection. Even today, artists are inspired by the breath and expression that Donatello managed to bring to his work; making life from metal, plaster and wood. See also the much later Rodin sculptures from 19th century France as well as the architecture and sculptured artworks of Catalan Antoni Gaudi.