Donatello - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Donatello
It is common thought that Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi (generally known as Donatello) was born in 1386 in Florence to Niccolo di Betto Bardi. However, the date is conjectural, based on a declaration of income submitted by the artist in 1433, stating his age at 47. He received his childhood education in the house of the Martelli family, one of Florence's richest families.
Donatello's father was part of the wool guild Arte della Lana, which was one of seven major guilds in 14th century Florence. Florence's system of governance was nominally democratic, with the guilds playing an important role in the running of the city. The guild was headquartered in the Palazzo dell' Arte della Lana, which was linked by a gallery to the church of Orsanmichele, a former marketplace whose transformation into a church was paid for by the city's guilds. The church's exterior ornamentation would later provide Donatello one of his most important commissions.
Early Training and Work
Like other Florentine sculptors such as Lorenzo Ghiberti and Benvenuto Cellini, Donatello received his early artistic training in the workshop of a goldsmith. His first major exposure as an artist arrived when he competed for the famous 1401 competition for the design of the Baptistery doors in Florence. Afterwards, he worked for a brief period of time in the studio of Ghiberti, winner of the Baptistery door competition, whose influential workshop provided training for a number of young artists.
From 1402-1404, Donatello studied with his friend and colleague Brunelleschi. According to Brunelleschi's biographer Antonio Manetti (who wrote his account during the life of both artists), the pair travelled to Rome, where they excavated and studied the ancient ruins there. This time marked the beginning of the Humanist movement in Florence, which favored the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome over the stiff and formal style of the Medieval and Gothic periods. Donatello and Brunelleschi were the first to systematically study ancient ruins for inspiration. Donatello funded this time of artistic exploration by working as a goldsmith.
In his influential account of Renaissance Florence, Lives of the Artists (1550), Giorgio Vasari specifically highlights the friendship between Brunelleschi and Donatello. Although some historians now doubt the attribution of dates, Vasari tells the story of Donatello carving a wooden crucifix for the Santa Croce church (now dated to c.1412-13). The lifelike and moving work depicted Christ as a real rather than idealized figure, with an emotionality and expression in direct opposition to the customary flat iconography of the time. This was revolutionary and would become a key characteristic of Early Renaissance artists. This led Brunelleschi to say that Donatello had carved a peasant. In an attempt to do better, he carved his own wooden crucifix (now dated to c.1410) and invited Donatello over for dinner, casually leaving his work displayed "in a good light." When Donatello came in, he dropped the food he was carrying, causing Brunelleschi to ask, "What are you about, Donatello? How are we to dine when you have dropped all the things?" "I," said Donatello, "have had enough. If you want anything, take it. To you it is given to do Christs, and to me peasants."
The first clear historical reference to Donatello is found in 1406, when he received a payment for a work of sculpture. Between 1406 and 1408, Donatello also assisted Ghiberti with statues for the north door of the Florence Baptistery. He was then commissioned to execute the large-scale figure of Saint John the Evangelist, which he worked on between 1409 and 1411, a work which significantly marked the transition in art from the late Gothic to the Early Renaissance.
After the success of this work, Donatello began to receive more significant commissions, including two important sculptures for the guild church of Orsanmichele, which had been a noted part of his childhood. He became known as the first sculptor during this period to utilize the new concepts and techniques derived from the Early Renaissance period's incorporation of mathematics, science, and architecture into art including one point perspective, anatomical accuracy, and even created a signature form of bas-relief for his carvings to emphasize depth and three-dimensionality. He also collaborated with other artists, including Michelozzo with whom he worked on a funerary monument, once again in Florence's Baptistery.
Around 1430, Donatello found himself under the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici, the head of the most powerful family in Florence which was known to be a great patron of the arts. Cosimo commissioned the artist to produce a bronze sculpture of David (a symbolic figure for the city of Florence), which resulted in the first free-standing nude statue made since antiquity.
Some critics have speculated, because of the perceived homoerotic elements in Donatello's David, that Donatello himself may have been gay. Very little is known about Donatello's personal life, but he never married or had children. Anecdotes attributed to Angelo Poliziano in 1480, sometime after Donatello's death, infer that Donatello had eroticized relationships with his apprentices, claiming that he employed only beautiful young men and "stained" them so that no one else would want them.
In 1433, Cosimo de'Medici was imprisoned and then exiled from Florence by a faction of rival families. In the absence of his patron, Donatello travelled to Rome and reinforced the classical influence on his work. He returned to his home city the following year, along with Cosimo, and began work on projects for Florence's Duomo and the cathedral in nearby Prato. This marked a period of significant maturity and success for the artist. As Vasari recalled, "He was most liberal and courteous, and kinder to his friends than himself; nor did he care for money, keeping it in a basket hanging from the ceiling, where his workmen and friends could help themselves without saying anything to him."
Although he had worked in Florence for most of his life, in 1443 Donatello was summoned to Padua in order to sculpt a funerary monument for the condottiero Erasmo da Narni, who was known as Gattamelata (honey-cat). His equestrian statue was the first of its kind since antiquity. Although the work was well received in Padua, Donatello insisted on returning to Florence.
He spent the rest of his years there, setting up a workshop with apprentices, where he continued to receive financial support from Cosimo de' Medici. According to Vasari, when Cosimo died, he asked his son Piero to continue to care for Donatello, and Piero accordingly gave Donatello a farm in Cafaggiuolo. However, although the artist was initially pleased, he found the rural life too domestic for him, so he returned the land and received a monetary allowance instead, and "passed all the rest of his life as friend and servant of the Medici without trouble or care."
The Legacy of Donatello
Donatello and his innovations in perspective and sculpture during the Early Renaissance contributed greatly to the overall foundation of what would become the flourishing Italian Renaissance. This included the earliest recognized works of Renaissance sculpture, which moved firmly away from the late Gothic style that had predominated before. His revolutionary work, particularly in his representation of the human body, would go on to inspire the early Italian Renaissance painters, including Masaccio, whose paintings in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence in particular mark a turning point for pictorial art in Europe. Donatello also made a significant mark in Padua, where he worked briefly, particularly on Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), who was an important figure in the development of the Venetian Renaissance. He influenced and taught a number of sculptors, including Nanni di Banco.
Donatello's place in history was affirmed by Vasari in particular, who claimed, "He may be said to have been the first to illustrate the art of sculpture among the moderns." His appeal has been long lasting, even making its way into contemporary popular culture. For example, as the namesake to one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles alongside other Renaissance stars Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael.