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Top 10 things to know about Donatello

1. “Donatello” Was A Nickname

Born in Florence, probably in 1386, his real name was Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi. He was given the nickname “Donatello” by his family at a young age. His father, Niccolo di Betto Bardi, was no artist, but was a successful member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild. As such, Donatello received a good education with the Martellis, prosperous bankers and art patrons with close connections to the powerful Medici family, Donatello’s future patrons.

Donatello in the Louvre, Paris
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Donatello in the Louvre, Paris

2. Donatello Mastered Multiple Different Mediums For His Sculptures

As a teenager, Donatello worked in both a stone mason’s workshop and a goldsmith’s workshop. In 1403 he went on to apprentice with a sculptor famous for his bronze work. These varying influences served him well throughout his artistic career, as he was talented in marble and other stone, bronze, wood, clay, stucco, and wax.

Maria Magdalena by Donatello in wood, Museum Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy
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Maria Magdalena by Donatello in wood, Museum Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy

3. His Apprenticeship Placed Some Of His Work On The Florence Baptistery

In 1403, after leaving the goldsmith’s workshop, Donatello apprenticed in the studio of artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. There he learned both traditional gothic techniques and the hints of early Renaissance development. By the age of seventeen, he was already taking independent commissions. Due to his relationship with Ghiberti, Donatello assisted in creating the north doors of the famous Baptistery of Florence.

North doors (panel detail) of Florence Baptistry by Lorenza Ghiberti, Museo deli'Opera del Duomo
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North doors (panel detail) of Florence Baptistry by Lorenza Ghiberti, Museo deli’Opera del Duomo

4. Considered One Of The Fore-Runners Of The Renaissance

After his apprenticeship, Donatello struck up a friendship with well-known architect Filippo Brunelleschi. The two of them decided to journey together to the city of Rome. From 1404 to 1407, the two stayed in Rome, engaging in unprecedented investigations of ancient Roman ruins. The experience had a deep effect on both of them, who absorbed the style and beauty of classical Greek and Roman art and began to use that influence in their works.

North doors (panel detail) of Florence Baptistry by Lorenza Ghiberti, Museo deli'Opera del Duomo
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North doors (panel detail) of Florence Baptistry by Lorenza Ghiberti, Museo deli’Opera del Duomo

5. And Yet He Straddled Techniques Of Multiple Art Movements

St. Mark by Donatello, Church of Orsanmichele, Florence
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St. Mark by Donatello, Church of Orsanmichele, Florence

Soon after his return to Florence in 1408, he completed his first statue of David. A life-size work in marble, this David bears little resemblance to the piece that has become Donatello’s most famous. It was a traditional gothic style, with elongated features and emotionless expression.

He did not remain long in this traditional style. Instead he moved back to the classical style of the Greek and Roman art that he saw in Rome. The majority of his pieces pioneered the Renaissance movement, the literal re-birth of the classics, focusing on realistic portrayals of subjects in larger-than-life forms.

Several of Donatello’s pieces even hint at the movements that would follow the Renaissance. Two examples are the full size sculptures of St. Mark and St. John the Evangelist,completed in 1415. These two massive sculptures broke new ground in the Renaissance with their adherence to classical realism in place of the expected gothic style. Yet at the same time, the movement of the apostles’ draped garments showed early signs of the dramatic flair of mannerism and baroque.

David in bronze by Donatello, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy
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David in bronze by Donatello, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy

6. He Revived Two Specific Techniques That Had Not Been Seen Since Antiquity

Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata by Donatello, Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy
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Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata by Donatello, Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy

Donatello’s most famous piece today is his bronze statue of David. A masterful, balanced, proportional reflection of the best of classic sculpture, it was also the first known piece since antiquity to be a free-standing, three dimensional sculpture with no support from the surrounding architectural features.

Later, Donatello would revive another lost form of ancient art with his life sized Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata. Donatello completed the bronze cast statue in Padua in 1453. It was the first of its kind since antiquity, and quickly re-popularized the style. Political and military leaders clamored for similar statues, and the piece became the ancestor of all those that followed. The Gattamelata remains in the Piazza del Santo where it was first erected, a rarity for works of art.

7. Invented His Own Style Of Relief

St. George and the Dragon by Donatello, Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy
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St. George and the Dragon by Donatello, Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy

Bas relief, or low relief, sculpture is one of the earliest forms of artistic expression. By Donatello’s time high relief was also in common use. He learned how to use both styles, but also created an entire new technique now called schiacciato relief, which translates to “flattened out.” This subtle, extremely low style of relief makes use of the effects of light and shadow on a pale medium to create an illusion of depth and movement. His first use of schiacciato relief was in his piece St. George and the Dragon.

8. He Was Not A Particularly Amenable Man

Crucifix by Donatello in wood, Santa Crace Church, Florence, Italy
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Crucifix by Donatello in wood, Santa Croce Church, Florence, Italy

Although Donatello successfully maintained good relationships with several artists and patrons, he generally did not connect well with other people. Contemporaries reported that he would destroy his pieces rather than selling them to someone he found distasteful. He was also reportedly abrasive and demanding, insisting on retaining artistic license to an extent that some potential clients found unmanageable.

9. His Private Life Remains Shrouded In

Pulpit of the Passion by Donatello, San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy
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Pulpit of the Passion by Donatello, San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy

Donatello was supported by some of the most powerful men of Italy, friends with other contemporary artists, and usually employed around four assistants at any given time. Yet for all that, very little is known about his private life beyond the knowledge of his difficult personality.

One theory to explain this is the idea that he was homosexual. He never married, had simple tastes and kept to himself, and it may be that he remained secretive about his private life due to a sexuality that was considered unacceptable in that era. Though proponents of this theory point to some of his artwork, his lack of partner, and quips by Angelo Poliziano, no solid evidence confirms this theory or indicates any of his possible partners. He is also believed to have been agnostic, an irony considering how many of his commissions were for the Catholic Church.

10. His Final Works Were Completed Posthumously By His Assistant

Detail from the Pulpit of the Resurrection by Donatello, San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy
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Detail from the Pulpit of the Resurrection by Donatello, San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy

When Donatello died on December 13th, 1466 he was partway through his work on a pair of pulpits in bronze reliefs for San Lorenzo church in Florence. One of these depicted the death of Jesus in realistic, emotional detail while the other focused on Jesus’s resurrection. The pieces remained unfinished at the time of his death, and were completed by Donatello’s assistant and student, Bertoldo di Giovanni.

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