Accomplished as a sculptor in relief and in the round, equally skilled in wood, bronze, and stone, Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, ca. 1386–1466) was the son of Niccolò di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild. At the age of 17 Donatello accompanied his older friend Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) to Rome in the aftermath of the latter’s defeat by Ghiberti in the competition to provide sculpted doors depicting biblical prophets for the Florentine baptistery. They spent half their time working in goldsmiths’ shops in order to earn their livelihood and the rest of it drawing and making excavations in pursuit of ancient art. The enterprise would affect the future work of both artists.

Donatello

David (1428–1432). Donatello’s bronze sculpture is the first known instance of a free-standing nude since antiquity.

Scala/ Art Resource, N.Y.

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Early Success.

Upon his return to Florence in late 1406, Donatello achieved quick success, first assisting Ghiberti in fashioning statues of prophets for the north door of the Baptistery and then providing statuary for niches—the idea of statues in niches, where they are not seen from all sides is itself typical of Roman, rather than Greek, sculpture—on the exterior of a number of structures.

These works offer largely biblical—in diversely Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic-Orthodox senses of that term—themes. Among the earliest was a seated John the Evangelist (ca. 1410), placed in a niche on the cathedral façade. Marking a significant departure from earlier statuary—an emphatic transition from the staid and stylized patterns associated with Romanesque and Gothic style—the naturalism of the marble work, particularly with regard to the figure’s face, hands, and garment folds, offered a beginning point for Italian Renaissance sculpture. One might imagine that Michelangelo, who a century later would remark on the dazzling doors by Ghiberti just across the way, would have been inspired by the general format of this work to shape his Moses.

After this, Donatello’s most significant works stand rather than sit. His 1411 St. Mark occupied one of the guild niches (the linen-weavers and peddlers guild) of the Orsanmichele. Beyond a biblical subject repertoire, he also sculpted a bronze St. George there, for the armorers guild, in 1415; the schiacciato (very low-relief-carved) base, in stone, offered one of the earliest examples of one-point perspective in sculpture. Through 1426 he produced five marble works for niches in the cathedral campanile: four Israelite prophets and an Abraham and Isaac (1421) cut out of one block. This work echoes aesthetic concerns expressed in classical art: dynamic contrasts (symmetria in Greek; contrapposto in Italian) of both body position (their heads turned the opposite direction from their limbs—Abraham’s slightly turned up and his extended arms forward; Isaac’s slightly turned down and his arms bent back behind him) and texture—Abraham enveloped in drapery, his hair thickly clumped; Isaac’s hair delicate and flowing, his naked body exposed.

Coming into Prominence.

Three important developments are evident in the next decade or so—two pertaining to Donatello’s art and one to its patronage. First, he continued to expand his relief-carved repertoire after the St. George statue pedestal. This is most evident on the bronze relief of the Feast of Herod created for the baptistery in Siena around 1427. Whereas the foreground figures are shaped in relatively high relief, the middle and background ones, seen through a progressively diminishing series of arches, are depicted in increasingly thin schiacciato. Moreover, there is a dramatic tension between the center of action, off to the left, where the head of John the Baptist is being presented to Herod Antipas and Salome, and the compositional center, marked by the antithetical diagonals of the extended arms of the two central figures: Salome, leaning in toward the severed head, her left arm extended downward, and an anonymous member of the court, leaning away in horror at the sight, his right arm bent upward to cover his eyes. Clumps of foreground figures, equally disposed to the left and right but diversely configured, offer further contrapposto.

The effect of the bodiless head presented on a platter by a kneeling servant is that of a stone dropped in water: concentric circles of repulsion push away from that visual point in all directions, including out toward the viewer. On the other hand, the central opening space leads the eye toward a musician in the second register, continuing to play, unaware of what is happening in the foreground, and toward the third register, where Salome calmly receives the head. The classical interest in contrasting modes of artistic expression—ethos (calm, nonemotive distancing) and pathos (distressed emotional engagement)—distinguish background from foreground. Two disparate chronological moments in the narrative within one overall framework offer a further counterpoint to the double visual centering. They also offer a medievalism to counterbalance the Renaissance development of one-point perspective.

A second relief, in marble and begun in 1425, is known as the Madonna of the Clouds, in which the gradations of schiacciato are even more subtle. The seated Virgin suggests both humility and the weight that accompanies foreknowledge of her baby’s fate: her downturned profile and the arm of the Christ child reaching up toward her are carved in the highest relief. At the same time she is the Queen of Heaven, unbearably light, borne up by clouds through which a multitude of angelic creatures float in infinitesimally delicate gradations of carved depth.

The second development is that the artist found an important patron around 1430 in Cosimo de’ Medici. Cosimo commissioned the work that most obviously exemplifies the third development: this one within Donatello’s artistry. The bronze sculpture of the young David of that year marks the first known instance of a free-standing nude since antiquity and is also the artist’s first exercise in a work intended to be seen not within an architectural framework but entirely in the round. Intended as a symbol of Florence—its civic virtues victorious over the brutish larger powers with which the city was incessantly engaged in conflicts—this David was created for the courtyard of Cosimo’s large but sober palace.

The rather flaccid, smooth-skinned little boy—his expression insouciant as he casually places the bent hand of his bent left arm against his hip in contrapposto to the extended right arm and hand, in which he holds the oversized sword of Goliath—offers a series of weight shifting, body position contrasts, and surface texture variations, from top to bottom.

In and Beyond Florence.

Cosimo and his family would shortly be exiled, and Donatello went back to Rome where he did several works, returning to Florence around the same time as did Cosimo, in 1433. He continued to expand his compositional vocabulary, placing an Annunciation carved of marble with highlights in gold leaf (this last feature a deliberate medievalism) in a niche within a side wall of the Church of Santa Croce—the Cavalcanti chapel—in 1435. The crossed arms of the kneeling angel on the left are obliquely echoed by the paralleled arms of the Virgin Mary; her glance back to the angel offers a direct diagonal down toward his upward glance toward her, as her body sways away from him in delicate shock.

Although it is not clear how, the one work from this period to have ended up in Venice—a fierce sculpture in painted wood of John the Baptist, signed and dated 1438 by the artist (this rediscovered after a 1973 cleaning and removal of two clumsy overpaintings)—is located in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Donatello’s polychrome saint, mortified by penance, is clothed in a shaggy hide echoing the chaos of his own unkempt hair and beard, with a mantle thrown over his shoulders. With one hand, extending downward, he grasps a scroll inscribed with the words Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man,” referring to Christ); the other is raised and culminates with a gesture both rhetorical and tense. Combined with his open mouth and slightly skewed, darkly glowing eyes, Donatello’s Baptist conveys an admonishing power.

In 1443 the artist was called to Padua, where he worked on a variety of pieces, both secular and religious, before returning to Florence a decade later. Original visual ideas and techniques continue in evidence through this last phase of his life. A Penitent Magdalene (ca. 1453–1455), probably commissioned for the Florence baptistery and carved of white poplar, astonished—perhaps horrified—his fellow Florentines with its unprecedented naturalism. This is a Magdalene who has aged rapidly after the death of Jesus, fasting at great length to atone for her sins. She is emaciated from the lack of physical nourishment, haggard, and intense, her skin barely clinging to her bones, clothed only in her long, snarled hair—her eyes deep-set in hollow sockets, yet paradoxically suggesting a peace derived from the realization that she has been forgiven.

One can recognize how the artist’s obsession with forceful emotion and minute naturalistic detail, so evident in the carved wood of his John the Baptist, has expanded in this work. If one might recognize that particular Baptist as a kind of opening parenthesis to the Penitent Magdalene, then surely the John the Baptist carved for the Cathedral in Siena around 1460—in bronze, however, like the earlier David—offers a closing parenthesis. The sculptor seems to have carved these pieces (particularly the Magdalene) with an interest in physical deterioration for its own sake.

In the bronze Baptist, one can hardly tell where John’s hair and beard end and the shaggy covering for his body begins. In his downward-pushing left hand—his pointing and index fingers spread to connote the dual nature of Christ—he holds a slender cross; his upraised right hand offers a benedictory gesture. The two arms accomplish three visual ends: they contrast with each other, they offer smooth-textured diagonal transversals to the rough-hewn vertical body of the saint, and they offer contrapposto vis-à-vis his head with its smooth-skinned face, turned slightly in the opposite direction from that of the hands. Most interesting is the artist’s decision to crown his figure with the archaizing feature of a halo—albeit perspectivally consonant with the angle of the head upon which it rests.

Continued Innovation.

Donatello also sculpted a dynamic Judith and Holofernes for the Siena Cathedral in 1455–1460. Judith stands firmly with upraised sword, holding the head of a limp, dazed Holofernes by his hair. The statue was originally gilded and in the sunlight must have dazzled onlookers (some gilding remains on the sword). Subsequently acquired for Florence by the Medici (some argue that Piero, son of Cosimo commissioned it, and not the Sienese), it offers a Judith who is considered the symbol of liberty and victory of the weak but virtuous over the strong but nefarious. Like David, she can represent Florence—but also the Medici themselves, self-viewed as saviors of Florence as Judith saved Jerusalem.

Among the artist’s more robust late biblical works is a spectacular 1460–1465 bronze relief for the so-called Passion Pulpit in San Lorenzo (Florence), presenting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane just outside Jerusalem. Against the staid vertical and horizontal geometricity of the framing pilasters and lintel, an irregular cacophony of figures surges up toward the kneeling Christ, alone at the top of this mountainous configuration, his arms raised in prayer toward the heavens from which an angelic being descends—and simultaneously cascades down, the figures spilling out of the frame toward the viewer in a creative composition that recalls Hellenistic style and anticipates that of the Baroque more than a century later.

A culminating symbol of Donatello’s imaginative genius, the panel diverges from the Gospel text in representing all of the Apostles as present, not just Peter, John, and James—their heads and bodies twisting and turning in various positions of discomfort as they struggle and fail to remain awake through this fateful night. A careful count reveals, however, that there are only eleven Apostles: the twelfth, Judas Iscariot, is gone, for he is on his way, at this moment, to fulfill his destiny of betrayal, propelling the Christian drama forward.

There are classic discussions of Donatello’s work (and its sometimes uncertain dates) beginning with Vasari’s 1568 essay and continuing with mid-twentieth-century books by Kauffmann (1935) and Janson (1957). Interest in him has burgeoned since the 1980s as books by Greenhalgh (1982), Bennett and Wilkins (1984), Avery (1991), Pope-Hennessy (1993)—this is perhaps the consummate work on Donatello—and Poeschke (1993) have appeared in English, German, and Italian, together with discussions that are part of larger topics (e.g., Randolph, 2002).

[See also MICHELANGELO and RENAISSANCE VISUAL ART.]

Bibliography

  • Avery, Charles. Donatello. Catalogo completo delle opere. Florence: Cantini, 1991. A complete catalog and brief discussion of the artist’s work, in Italian.
  • Bennett, Bonnie A., and David G. Wilkins. Donatello. Oxford: Phaidon, 1984. A basic thematic (rather than chronological) introduction, useful but with surprisingly little depth of analysis.
  • Greenhalgh, Michael. Donatello and His Sources. London: Duckworth, 1982. An excellent discussion of the ancient and medieval works that inspired Donatello.
  • Janson, Horst W. The Sculpture of Donatello. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957. Janson incorporates notes and photographs by the late Hungarian art historian Jeno Lanyi.
  • Kauffmann, Hans. Donatello. Berlin: n.p., 1935. In German, this is a classic work and worth the read, if difficult to find other than in libraries.
  • Poeschke, Joachim. Donatello and His World. Translated by Russell Stockman. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993. A superb discussion of Donatello within the larger contexts of early Italian—particularly Florentine—Renaissance sculpture.
  • Pope-Hennessy, John Wyndham. Donatello: Sculptor. London: Abbeville, 1993. Pope-Hennessy’s masterpiece, this magisterial volume includes good illustrations and stylistic analyses and also discusses Donatello’s working methods.
  • Randolph, Adrian W. B. Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Superb analysis of politics and artistic symbolism, especially gender, in which the discussion of the role of Donatello’s work is embedded.
  • Vasari, Giorgio. Le Vite de’piu eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects). Florence, 1568. Early classic work by an artist who personally knew many of those whom he discusses. The Penguin paperback one-volume edition is particularly convenient.

Ori Z. Soltes