Donatello (1386-1466)

Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) is one of the important sculptors of all time. He started his career as a simple goldsmith apprentice, then he became the greatest Florentine sculptor. Donatello was certainly the most influential Italian artist of the 15th century.

Portrait of Donatello, unknown Florentine painter, 17th century.

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About His Life

Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, also known as Donatello,  was born in Florence around 1386.  As a young man, he was a member of “Arte della Lana” and received artistic training from a local goldsmith. He learned metallurgy and the fabrication of metals. In 1403, he apprenticed with metalsmith and sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. He assisted Ghiberti to create the bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral. He traveled to Rome to study classical art and sculpture. This experience gave Donatello a deep understanding of ornamentation and classic forms.  His association with Brunelleschi likely influenced him in the development of the Gothic style that can be seen in much of Donatello’s early work. Donatello maintained a lifelong friendship with the wealthy and famous de Medici family and upon his retirement received from them an allowance to live on for the rest of his life. The artist died on December 13, 1466.

What are his major works?

Bronze David, Donatello, 1440.

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Among his sculptures there are:

  • The bronze statue of David (1440). This Donatello masterpiece was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici for the Palazzo Medici. The sculpture was the first free-standing male nude statue since the era of Greek sculpture, and the first unsupported standing bronze statue cast during the Renaissance. The style is known as contrapposto, a sculptural scheme, originated by the ancient Greeks.
  •  Marble sculpture of David;
  • Large figure St. Mark (1411-1413) in a niche on the exterior of Orsanmichele;
  • Seated St. John the Evangelist (1415) for the facade of the Cathedral;
  • St George (1415-1417), his earliest work which displays his radical move away from the prevalent Gothic style;
  • Prophet Habakkuk (1423–1425), also known as Lo Zuccone;
  • Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata (1453) in Padua, which represents Erasmo da Narmi, a famous Venetian condottiere who died shortly before;
  • Penitent Magdalene (1453–1455), one of Donatello’s most renowned works and considered his greatest masterpiece in wood
  • Judith and Holofernes (1460).
Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, Donatello, 1453.

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Among his reliefs there are:

  • St. George Killing the Dragon (1416-1417), which introduced a new mode of relief and is also famous for being one of the first examples of central-point perspective in sculpture;
  • The Feast of Herod (1423-1427), one of Donatello’s earliest relief sculptures and his first bronze relief.
The Feast of Herod, Donatello, 1423-1427

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Sometime around 1450, Donatello undertook a massive project for the church Saint Anthony of Padua. His work contained 7 life-size bronze statues, 21 bronze reliefs of various sizes, and a large limestone relief.

One of the reliefs in St. Anthony of Padua, Donatello

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How can we identify Donatello’s Style?

  • Donatello was a master of marble and bronze and possessed an extensive knowledge of ancient sculpture.
  • In his sculptures, the human body is represented as a functional organism. In contrast to medieval art, the human personality radiates confidence in its worth.
  • Donatello paid particular attention to characteristic facial features with exceptional expressive power.
  • He also introduced another innovation, a technique known as schiacciato, stiacciato or shallow relief, which became widely used in Renaissance low relief. This technique involved extremely fine carvings and used light and shadow to create a complete painterly scene. His artistic techniques were repeatedly copied by his contemporaries and successors and still inspire artists to this day.
St. George Killing The Dragon, Donatello, 1417.
St. George Killing The Dragon, Donatello, 1417.

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Info sources: Understanding Art, A Reference Guide to Painting, Sculpture and Architecure in the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque Periods