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Donatello (1386-1466) was a master of sculpture in bronze and marble and
was one of the greatest Italian Renaissance artists of his time.
A lot is known about his life and career but little is known about his
character and personality. He never married and seems to be a man of simple
tastes. Patrons often found him hard to deal with and he demanded a lot of
artistic freedom. The inscriptions and signatures on his works are among the
earliest examples of classical Roman lettering. He had a more detailed range of
knowledge of ancient sculpture than any other artist of his time. His work was
inspired by ancient visual examples which he often transformed, he was really
viewed as a realist but later research showed he was much more.
Early career. Donatello was the son of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, a
Florentine wool carder. It is not known how he started his career but probably
learned stone carving from one of the sculptors working for the cathedral of
Florence about 1400. Some time between 1404 and 1407 he became a member of the
workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti who was a sculptor in bronze. Donatello's earliest
work was a marble statue of David. The "David" was originally made for the
cathedral but was moved in 1416 to the Palazzo Vecchio which is a city hall
where it long stood as a civic-patriotic symbol. From the sixteenth century on
it was eclipsed by the gigantic "David" of Michelangelo which served the same
purpose. Other of Donatello's early works which were still partly Gothic are the
impressive seated marble figure of St. John the Evangelist for the cathedral and
a wooden crucifix in the church of Sta. Croce.
The full power of Donatello first appeared in two marble statues, "St.
Mark" and "St. George" which were completed in 1415. "St. George" has been
replaced and is now in the Bargello. For the first time the human body is
rendered as a functional organism. The same qualities came in the series of five
prophet statues that Donatello did beginning in 1416. The statues were of
beardless and bearded prophets as well as a group of Abraham and Isaac in 1416-
1421 and also the "Zuccone" and "Jeremiah". "Zuccone" is famous as the finest of
the campanile statues and one of the artist's masterpieces.
Donatello invented his own bold new mode of relief in his marble panel "
St. George Killing The Dragon" (1416-1417). The technique involved shallow
carving throughout, which created a more striking effect than in his earlier
works. He no longer modelled his shapes but he seemed to "paint" them with his
Donatello continued to explore the possibilities of the new technique he
would use in his marble reliefs of the 1420's and early 1430's. The best of
these were " The Ascension, with Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter," the "
Feast of Herod" (1433-1435), the large stucco roundels with scenes from the life
of St. John the Evangelist (1434-1437), and the dome of the old sacristy of S.
Lorenzo shows the same technique but with colour added.
Donatello had also become a major sculptor in bronze. His earliest work
of this was the more than life size statue of St. Louis (1423) which was
replaced half a century later. Donatello in partnership with Michelozzo helped
with fine bronze effigy on the tomb of the pope John XXIII in the baptistery,
the "Assumption of the Virgin" on the Brancacci tomb and the dancing angels on
the outdoor pulpit of the Prato Cathedral (1433-1438). His departure from the
standards of Brunelleschi did not go to well between the two old friends and was
never repaired. Brunelleschi even made epigrams against Donatello.
During his partnership with Michelozzo, Donatello made works of pure
sculpture, including several works of bronze. The earliest and most important of
these was the "Feast of Herod" (1423-1427). He also made two statuettes of
Virtues and then three nude child angels (one which was stolen and is now in the
Berlin museum). These statues prepared the way for the bronze sta...
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