A lot is known about his life and career but little is known about his character and personality. He never married and seems to be a man of simple tastes. Patrons often found him hard to deal with and he demanded a lot of artistic freedom. The inscriptions and signatures on his works are among the earliest examples of classical Roman lettering. He had a more detailed range of knowledge of ancient sculpture than any other artist of his time. His work was inspired by ancient visual examples which he often transformed, he was really viewed as a realist but later research showed he was much more.
Early career. Donatello was the son of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, a Florentine wool carder. It is not known how he started his career but probably learned stone carving from one of the sculptors working for the cathedral of Florence about 1400. Some time between 1404 and 1407 he became a member of the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti who was a sculptor in bronze. Donatello’s earliest work was a marble statue of David. The “David” was originally made for the cathedral but was moved in 1416 to the Palazzo Vecchio which is a city hall where it long stood as a civic-patriotic symbol. From the sixteenth century on it was eclipsed by the gigantic “David” of Michelangelo which served the same purpose. Other of Donatello’s early works which were still partly Gothic are the impressive seated marble figure of St. John the Evangelist for the cathedral and a wooden crucifix in the church of Sta. Croce.
The full power of Donatello first appeared in two marble statues, “St. Mark” and “St. George” which were completed in 1415. “St. George” has been replaced and is now in the Bargello. For the first time the human body is rendered as a functional organism. The same qualities came in the series of five prophet statues that Donatello did beginning in 1416. The statues were of beardless and bearded prophets as well as a group of Abraham and Isaac in 1416-1421 and also the “Zuccone” and “Jeremiah”. “Zuccone” is famous as the finest of the campanile statues and one of the artist’s masterpieces.
Donatello invented his own bold new mode of relief in his marble panel ” St. George Killing The Dragon” (1416-1417). The technique involved shallow carving throughout, which created a more striking effect than in his earlier works. He no longer modelled his shapes but he seemed to “paint” them with his chisel.
Donatello continued to explore the possibilities of the new technique he would use in his marble reliefs of the 1420’s and early 1430’s. The best of these were ” The Ascension, with Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter,” the ” Feast of Herod” (1433-1435), the large stucco roundels with scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist (1434-1437), and the dome of the old sacristy of S. Lorenzo shows the same technique but with colour added.
Donatello had also become a major sculptor in bronze. His earliest work of this was the more than life size statue of St. Louis (1423) which was replaced half a century later. Donatello in partnership with Michelozzo helped with fine bronze effigy on the tomb of the pope John XXIII in the baptistery, the “Assumption of the Virgin” on the Brancacci tomb and the dancing angels on the outdoor pulpit of the Prato Cathedral (1433-1438). His departure from the standards of Brunelleschi did not go to well between the two old friends and was never repaired. Brunelleschi even made epigrams against Donatello.
During his partnership with Michelozzo, Donatello made works of pure sculpture, including several works of bronze. The earliest and most important of these was the “Feast of Herod” (1423-1427). He also made two statuettes of Virtues and then three nude child angels (one which was stolen and is now in the Berlin museum). These statues prepared the way for the bronze statue of David, the first large scale, free-standing nude statue of the Renaissance. It was the most classical of Donatello’s works and was done for a private patron. Its recorded history begins with the wedding of Lorenzo the magnificent in 1469, when it was placed in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Whether the “David” was requested by the Medici or not, Donatello worked for them (1433-1443), producing sculptural decorations for the Old Sacristy in S. Lorenzo, the Medici church. Works there included ten large reliefs in coloured stucco and two sets of small bronze doors which showed saints.
Paduan period. In 1443 Donatello was about to start work on two more bronze doors for the cathedral. He started work on a statue of Erasmo da Narmi, called Gattamelata, who had died shortly before. Donatello did most of the work on the statue between 1447 and 1450 but the statue was not placed on the pedestal until 1453. It shows him in classical armour, the baton of command in his raised right hand. This statue was the ancestor of all the monuments erected since. Its fame was spread far and wide. Even before it was on public view, the King of Naples wanted Donatello to do the same kind of statue for him.
In the early 1450’s, Donatello started to work on some important works for the Paduan church of S. Antonio. These works included a bronze crucifix and a new high altar. His richly decorated architectural works of marble and limestone include seven life-size bronze statues, twenty-one bronze reliefs of various sizes, and a large limestone relief, “Entombment of Christ.” The housing for these was destroyed a century later and the present arrangement, dating from 1895 is wrong historically. The Madonna and St. Francis are outstanding and the finest of the reliefs are the four miracles of St. Anthony. Donatello was great in handling large numbers of figures ( one relief has more than one hundred ) which predicts the construction standards of the High Renaissance.
Donatello was not doing much work the last three years at Padua, the work for the S. Antonio altar was unpaid for and the Gattamelata monument not placed until 1453. Offers of other places reached him from Mantua, Modena, Ferrara, and even Naples, but nothing came of them. He was clearly passing through a crisis that prevented him from working. He was later quoted as saying that he almost died “among those frogs in Padua.” in 1456 the Florentine physician Giovanni Chellini noted he had successfully treated the master for a protracted illness. Donatello only completed two works between 1450 and 1455, the wooden statue “St. John the Baptist” and a figure of Mary Magdalen. Both works show new reality, Donatello’s formerly powerful bodies have become withered and spidery. When the ” Magdalen” was damaged in the 1966 flood at Florence, restoration work revealed the original painted surface, including realistic flesh tones and golden highlights throughout the saint’s hair.
Late Florentine period. During his absence, a new generation of sculptors who excelled in the treatment of marble surfaces had rose in Florence. With the change in Florentine taste, all of Donatello’s important requests came from outside Florence. They included the bronze group “Judith and Holofernes” which is now standing before the Palazzo Vecchio and a bronze statue of St. John the Baptist for Siena cathedral, also undertook the work of the pair of bronze doors in the late 1450’s. This project, which might have rivalled Ghiberti’s doors for the Florentine baptistery, was abandoned about 1460 for unknown reasons.
The last years of Donatello’s life were spent designing twin bronze pulpits for S. Lorenzo, and again in the service of his old patrons the Medici, he died on December 13, 1466. These twin bronze pulpits covered with reliefs showing the passion of Christ, are works of tremendous spiritual depth and complexity. Even though some parts were left unfinished, they had to be completed by lesser artists.