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First Among Sculptors

Portrait of Donatello

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, is better known as Donatello (1386–1466). The greatest Renaissance sculptor appeared as suddenly as a comet at the beginning of Florence’s quattrocento. Never equalled in technical ability, expressiveness, or imaginative content, his works influenced Renaissance painters as much as sculptors. A prolific worker, and a quiet fellow who lived with his mum, Donatello was the perfect model of the early Renaissance artist – passionate about art, self-effacing, occasionally hot-tempered and more than a little eccentric.

The few antecdotes about his life make for an attractive character. Besides the famous dropping his eggs incident at Santa Maria Novella, another story tells how he gave money to a beggar asking alms for the love of God. 'No, not for the love of God,' Donatello said. 'But because you need it.'

Donatello's talent was recognized early on. Like many Florentines artists, he was first apprenticed as a goldsmith, and then worked as a sculptor with Ghiberti. In 1402, he and his friend Brunelleschi set off on a teenage junket (both were about seventeen) to Rome, where they spent most of two years studying the works of the ancients. Back in Florence, he was the assistant to Ghiberti on the north doors of the Baptistry.

There's not much to record about his personal life after that, just years of quiet, steady work and one masterpiece after another: the St George and St. Mark (now replaced by copies), in the niches of Orsanmichele, a Crucifix and the relief of the Annunciation in Santa Croce, the decoration of the Sagrestia Vecchia at San Lorenzo, the Marzocco, the symbolic Florentine lion, St John the Evangelist and other sculptures in the Duomo, and the tomb of Pope John XXIII in the Baptistry, one of many works he achieved in collaboration with the architect Michelozzo.

San Giorgio (Orsanmichele)

In these years, Donatello made one great technical contribution to sculpture, the elegant technique of stiacciato bas-reliefs; employing Brunelleschi's discovery of perspective to create the illusion of depth in a relief that is really extremely shallow (the panel under the Orsanmichele St. George is a good example).

In the full maturity of his career Donatello began to produce startling statues in the round, with a realism and psychological depth never seen in art. Some of these were also intensely raw and spiritual, beginning with the prophets Jeremiah and Habbakuk, made for Giotto's Campanile and now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. One of his last and greatest works in this vein was the harrowing Mary Magdalene.

Maria Maddalena, at the Cathedral Museum

For his refined Medici patrons, Donatello created something entirely different: provocative, psychologically fascinating bronzes of mythological subjects unlike anything made since antiquity, notably the Cupid Atys and the David, both now in the Bargello.

Always much in demand, Donatello also found time to work in Pisa, Siena, Prato (the famous exterior pulpit of the Cathedral), Naples and Rome. In Padua, where he spent a decade, he cast the Monument to Gattamelata, the first full-size equestrian bronze since ancient times.

Donatello's David, in the Bargello

Returning to Florence after those ten years, the sculptor found that times had changed. Other talented artists had caught the public's fancy, and with all the new styles and advances the man who started it all began to seem somewhat dated.

His rough and radical late style, exemplified in the Mary Magdalene, did not find favour with the Florentines. Even his old friend Brunelleschi was criticizing him. Illness kept him from working in his last years, and his old patron Cosimo de' Medici gave him a pension and a house near the family villa at Cafaggiolo. He died in 1466, and was buried near Cosimo in San Lorenzo.

Donatello is perhaps the main reason for visiting the Bargello– home to his greatest works, including the original St George from Orsanmichele, David and Cupid Atys. Also at San Lorenzo, Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce, the Palazzo Vecchio (Judith and Holofernes) and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (his stunning Cantoria, the Mary Magdalene, and more).

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Patrick A. Rodgers, Anonymous, Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License, Donatello