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Italian sculptor

Born 1386 - Died 1466

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DONATELLO (diminutive of Donato) (c. 1386-1466), Italian sculptor, was the son of Niccol di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Woolcombers Guild, and was born in Florence probably in 1386. The date is conjectural, since the scanty contemporary records of Donatello's life are contradictory, the earliest documentary reference to the master bearing the date 1406, when a payment is made to him as an independent sculptor. That Donatello was educated in the house of the Martelli family, as stated by Vasari [1511-1574], and that he owed to them his introduction to his future friend and patron, Cosimo de Medici [1389-1464], is very doubtful, in view of the fact that his father had espoused the cause of the Albizzi against the Medici, and was in consequence banished from Florence, where his property was confiscated. It is, however, certain that Donatello received his first training, according to the custom of the period, in a goldsmith's workshop, and that he worked for a short time in Ghiberti's [1378-1455] studio. He was too young to enter the competition for the Baptistery gates in 1402, from which Ghiberti issued victorious against Brunelleschi [1377-1446], Jacopo della Quercia [c.1371-1438], Niccolò d'Arezzo [1350-c.1417] and other rivals. But when Brunelleschi in his disappointment left Florence and went to Rome to study the remains of classic art he was accompanied by young Donatello. Whilst pursuing their studies and excavations on classic soil, which made them talked about amongst the Romans of the day as treasure seekers, the two young men made a living by working at the goldsmiths' shops. This Roman sojourn was decisive for the entire development of Italian art in the 15th century, for it was during this period that Brunelleschi undertook his measurements of the Pantheon dome and of other Roman buildings, which enabled him to construct the noble cupola of S. Maria del Fiore in Florence, while Donatello acquired his knowledge of classic forms and ornamentation. The two masters, each in his own sphere, were to become the leading spirits in the art movement of the 15th century. Brunelleschi's buildings and Donatello's monuments are the supreme expression of the spirit of the early Renaissance in architecture and sculpture and exercised a potent influence upon the painters of that age.

Donatello probably did not return to Florence before 1405, since the earliest works in that city that can be traced to his chisel are two small statues of prophets for the north door of the cathedral, for which he received payment in November 1406 and in the beginning of 1408. In the latter year he was entrusted with the important commissions for the marble David, now at the Bargello, and for the colossal seated figure of St John the Evangelist, which until 1588 occupied a niche of the old cathedral façade, and is now placed in a dark chapel of the Duomo. We find him next employed at Or San Michele, where between 1340 and 1406 only four of the fourteen niches had been filled. As the result of a reminder sent by the Signory to the guilds who had undertaken to furnish the statues, the services of [Bernardo] Ciuffagni [1381-1458], Nanni di Banco [act.1406-1421], Ghiberti and Donatello were enlisted, and Donatello completed between 1412 and 1415 the St Peter, the St George (the original, now in the Bargello, has been replaced by a copy) and the St Mark. He probably also assisted Nanni di Banco in his group of four saints. To this early period - in spite of Dr Bode's contention, who places it about twenty years later - belongs the wooden crucifix in S. Croce, the most striking instance of Donatello's realism in rendering the human form and his first attempt at carving the nude. It is said that this crucifix was executed in rivalry with Brunelleschi's noble work at S. Maria Novella, and that Donatello, at the sight of his friend's work, exclaimed, "It has been left to you to shape a real Christ, whilst I have made a peasant." In this early group of statues, from the prophets for the cathedral door to the St George, can be followed the gradual advance from Gothic stiffness of attitude and draping to a forceful rendering of the human form and of movement, which is a distinct approach to the classic ideal; from the massiveness of the heavily draped figure to easy poise and muscular litheness. All these figures were carved in marble and are admirably conceived in relation to their architectural setting. In fact, so strong is this tendency that the St Mark, when inspected at the master's workshop, was disapproved of by the heads of the Guild of Linen-weavers, but aroused public enthusiasm when placed in situ, and at a later date received Michelangelo's [1475-1564] unstinted admiration.

Between the completion of the niches for Or San Michele and his second journey to Rome in 1433, Donatello was chiefly occupied with statuary work for the campanile and the cathedral, though from this period dates the bronze figure of the Baptist for the christening font of Orvieto Cathedral, which was never delivered and is now among the treasures of the Berlin museum. This, and the St Louis of Toulouse, which originally occupied a niche at Or San Michele and is now badly placed at S. Croce, were the first works in bronze which owed their origin to the partnership of Donatello with Michelozzo [1396-1472], who undertook the casting of the models supplied by his senior. The marble statues for the campanile, which are either proved to he Donatello's by documentary evidence or can be recognized as his work from their style, are the Abraham, wrought by the master in conjunction with Giovanni di Bartolo (il Rosso) [1419-1451]; the St John the Baptist; the so-called Zuccone (Jonah?); Jeremiah; Habakuk (?); the unknown prophet who is supposed to bear the features of the humanist Poggio Bracciolirri [1380-1459]; and possibly he may have had a share in the completion of the Joshua commenced by Ciuffagni in 1415. All these statues, and the St John at the Bargello, mark a bold departure from the statuesque balance of the St Mark and St George to an almost instantaneous impression of life. The fall of the draperies is no longer arranged in harmonious lines, but is treated in an accidental, massive, bold manner. At the same time the heads are no longer, as it were, impersonal, but almost cruelly realistic character portraits of actual people, just as the arms and legs and necks are faithfully copied from life with all their angularities and deviations from the lines of beauty. During this period Donatello executed some work for the baptismal font at S. Giovanni in Siena, which Jacopo della Quercia and his assistants had begun in 1416. Though the Florentine's share in it is confined to a relief which may have been designed, or even begun, by Jacopo, and a few statuettes, it is of considerable importance in Donatello's life-work, as it includes his first attempt at relief sculpture, except the marble relief on the socle of the St George his first female figures, Faith and Hope, and his first putti. The relief, Herod's Feast, shows already that power of dramatic narration and the skill of expressing the depth of space by varying the treatment from plastic roundness to the finest stiacciato, which was to find its mature expression in the panels of the altar of S. Antonio in Padua and of the pulpit of S. Lorenzo in Florence. The casting of the pieces for the Siena font was probably done by Michelozzo, who is also credited with an important share in the next two monumental works, in the designing of which Donatello had to face a new problem: the tomb of [Antipope] John XXIII. [1370-1419] in the baptistery (begun about 1425), and that of Cardinal Brancacci at S. Angelo a Nib in Naples (executed in Pisa, 1427). The noble recumbent figure of the defunct on the former, the relief on the sarcophagus, and the whole architectural design, are unquestionably due to Donatello; the figure of the [anti]pope is the most beautiful tomb figure of the 15th century, and served as the model off which [Antonio] Rossellino [1427-1479], Desiderio [ca.1430-1464], and other sculptors of the following period based their treatment of similar problems. Donatello's share in the Naples monument is probably confined to the characteristic low relief of the Ascension. The baptistery tomb shows how completely Donatello had mastered the forms of Renaissance architecture, even before his second visit to Rome. An earlier proof of his knowledge of classic art is his niche for the St Louis at Or S. Michele, now occupied by Verrocchio's [1435-1488] Christ and St Thomas [1476-1483]. Similar in treatment to the Ascension relief is the Charge to St Peter at South Kensington, which is almost impressionistic in its suggestion of distance and intervening atmosphere expressed by the extreme slightness of the relief. Another important work of this period, and not, as Vasari maintains, of Donatello's youth, is the Annunciation relief, with its wealth of delicately wrought Renaissance motifs in the architectural setting.

When Cosimo, the greatest art patron of his time, was exiled from Florence in 1433, Michelozzo accompanied him to Venice, whilst Donatello for the second time went to Rome to drink once more at the source of classic art. The two works which still testify to his presence in this city, the Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli at S. Maria in Aracoeli, and the Ciborium at St Peters, bear the stamp of classic influence. Donatello's return to Florence in the following year almost coincides with Cosimo's. Almost immediately, in May 1434, he signed a contract for the marble pulpit on the façade of Prato cathedral, the last work executed in collaboration with Michelozzo, a veritable bacchanlian dance of half-nude putti, pagan in spirit, passionate in its wonderful rhythmic movement, the forerunner of the singing tribune for Florence cathedral, at which he worked intermittently from 1433 to 1440, and which is now restored to its original complete form at the museum of the Opera del Duomo. [...]

Source: Entry on the artist in the 1911 Edition Encyclopedia.


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