Childhood & Early Life
Donatello was born as Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi in 1386 in Florence, Italy to Niccolo di Betto Bardi. His father was a member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild.
Young Donatello attained his early education from the Martelli’s, an influential and wealthy Florentine family. His stint with art and sculpture started early, as he received his artistic training in a goldsmith's workshop. He gained knowledge about metallurgy and fabrication of metals and other substances.
In 1403, he apprenticed at the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti, learning the nuances of Gothic sculpting. Later, he assisted Ghiberti who was commissioned to create bronze doors for the Florentine Baptistery.
He befriended Filippo Brunelleschi. The two then undertook a tour of Rome from 1404 to 1407, excavating the ruins to study classical art. It was during the trip that Donatello developed an understanding of ornamentation and classical forms. The tour casted a deep influence on both Brunelleschi and Donatello, thereby changing the face of Italian art in the 15th century.
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Returning to Florentine in 1408, he took to working at the workshops of Cathedral in Florence. He assisted Ghiberti for the statues of prophets that were likely to be erected at the north door of the Cathedral.
By 1408, he completed the life-size marble sculpture of David. It was amongst the earliest works of Donatello and thus lacked the emotional touch and innovativeness that formed a vital part of his latter works. The sculpture, originally intended for the cathedral, was moved to Palazzo Vecchio in 1416 as a mark of Florentine Republic.
From 1409 to 1411, he worked on the colossal seated figure of Saint John the Evangelist. The sculpture marked the shift in Donatello’s gothic work infusing realism and naturalism. The sculpture was first seated at the old cathedral façade. It now occupies a seat at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
Donatello’s art style soon matured, as his figures boasted of becoming more dramatic and emotional. From 1411 to 1413, he worked on a statue of St. Mark for the guild church of Orsanmichele. Thereafter, he started working on the sculpture of Saint George for the Confraternity of the Cuirass-makers which he completed in 1417
From 1423, he started working on the Saint Louis of Toulouse for the Orsanmichele, which is today placed in the Museum of the Basilica di Santa Croce. Originally, he also sculpted the framework for the work.
From 1415 to 1426, he worked on five statues that were essentially created for the campanile of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The five statues include the ‘Beardless Prophet’ (1415), Bearded Prophet (1415), the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ (1421), ‘Habbakuk’ (1423–1425), and ‘Jeremiah’ (1423–1426).
Between 1425 and 1427, he befriended architect and sculpture Michelozzo. The two travelled to Rome and worked on several architectural and sculptural tombs including the tomb of Antipope John XXIII and Cardinal Rainaldo Brancacci. Additionally, he sculpted the statues of Faith and Hope for Baptistery of San Giovanni in Siena.
In the course of his artistic life, Donatello had developed close relations with several art patrons, including Cosimo de’ Medici. In 1430, Medici entrusted him with the task of sculpting a bronze statue of David for the court of his Palazzo Medici.
The bronze status of David became the magnum opus of Donatello’s art career. It depicts an allegory of civic virtues winning over brutality and irrationality. Standing a little over five feet, the statue independently rests without any architectural support of any kind. This made it the first known free-standing nude status produced since ancient times. Furthermore, it gave a head start to the Renaissance period of art, thus becoming the first major Renaissance sculpture.
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During Cosimo’s period of exile, Donatello travelled to Rome. He returned only in 1433 but not before leaving his mark on the city’s classical art façade with his two works, Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and the Ciborium at St. Peter's Basilica.
Upon reaching Florence, he was commissioned to make a marble pulpit on the façade of Prato Cathedral. Inspired by ancient sarcophagi and Byzantine ivory chests, he came up with a passionate, pagan, rhythmically conceived bacchanalian dance of half-nude putti.
Before travelling to Padua in 1443, he finished a couple of projects including Annunciation for the Cavalcanti altar in Santa Croce, wooden statue of St. John the Evangelist for Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice and bust of a Young Man with a Cameo.
In 1443, Donatello was invited to Padua by the family of the famous mercenary Erasmo da Narni, who had died earlier that year. He was entrusted with the task of sculpting a bronze statue of Erasmo riding a horse in full battle dress, minus a helmet. Fondly named Gattamelata, it became the first equestrian statue cast in bronze since the Romans. The sculpture became a model for other equestrian monuments later created in Italy and Europe.
Returning to Florence in 1453, he remained in Seina and created a St. John the Baptist for the Duomo, and models for its gates, the work which is now lost.
With help of Bartolomeo Bellano and Bertoldo di Giovanni, his students, he completed his last work of producing reliefs for the bronze pulpits in the church of San Lorenzo. He provided the general design and personally executed the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence and the Deposition from the Cross. He worked on the reliefs of Christ before Pilate and Christ before Caiphus, with Bellano
Personal Life & Legacy
If anecdotes by Angelo Poliziano in his ‘Detti piacevoli’ or studies of his magnum opus bronze sculpture of David are to be believed, Donatello was a homosexual. It is assumed that his friends were aware of his sexual orientation and tolerated the same. However, there are no strong proofs that testify the same.
He died of unknown reasons on December 13, 1466, in Florence. He was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, next to Cosimo de' Medici.
Posthumously, an unfinished work was completed by his student Bertoldo di Giovanni.