Donatello, master of sculpture in both marble and bronze, is one of the greatest Italian Renaissance artists of all time. His remarkable knowledge of ancient art and his supreme mastery of sculpture resulted in breakthroughs in Renaissance art that continues to inspire artists to this day.
Donato di Nicolo di Beto Bardi was born to Niccolò di Betto Bardi, a wool carder in Florence, Italy, in 1386. While not much is really known about his early years, it is believed that he learned stone carving from one of the sculptors working for the cathedral of Florence in the early 1400’s.
The artist was educated in the house of the Martelli family, and somewhere between 1404 and 1407 he became a member of the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a goldsmith who worked in bronze. Ghiberti at that time was considered the leading Florentine exponent of International Gothic influenced by northern European art. When Donatello was seventeen, he assisted the noted sculptor in constructing and decorating the famous bronze doors of the baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence.
Known as a man of simple tastes, Donatello was a realist, unlike some of his cultured friends and peers. The artist demanded a certain measure of artistic freedom which often characterized him as being ‘hard to work with’. Inspired by Gothic sculpture, he possessed classical and powerful realistic tendencies in his art, an attribute that added a certain distinction to the sculptures he created. At twenty-six, he carved the wooden crucifix in the Church of Santa Croce which is considered to be the first of his greatest accomplishments.
In 1416, Donatello invented a bold new mode of relief in his marble panel ‘St. George Killing the Dragon’, known as ‘schiacciato’ (shallow relief - the flattening out of surfaces). This technique involved extremely shallow carving, which created the sense of space within the sculpture. He continued to explore the possibilities of this new technique in his marble reliefs of the 1420s and early 1430s. Some of the more popular works of this time include ‘The Ascension, with Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter,” and the ‘Feast of Herod’.
Collaboration with Florentine sculptor and architect Michelozzo during the latter part of the 1420’s and early 1430’s resulted in the creation of the monument to Bartolomeo Aragazzi (Cathedral of Montepulciano). While Donatello was the master of sculpting, Michelozzo created the architectural designs and aided in the making of the bronze castings.
It was in Florence, sometime around 1430, that Donatello’s magnificent bronze ‘David’ was created. Gothic inspired art such as ‘David’ was distinguished by long, graceful forms and decorative details. Immune to the controversy that always seemed to follow him; he surprised the art world by sculpting the first free-standing bronze nude of the Renaissance period.
Donatello’s last important work of art came in 1460 when he created the bronze reliefs for the pulpit of S. Lorenzo. Upon his death, his pupil Bertoldo finished the work his teacher had begun. Donetello greatly impacted Renaissance art in the 15th century and helped to develop realism in Italian painting. He died on December 13, 1466 at the age of eighty, never having married, never having had children. He made contributions to the art world right up until his death.