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Donatello s work has forever changed the way that art is created, viewed, and interpreted. Generally, this Italian Renaissance sculptor is considered by most experts to be one of the greatest sculptors of all time; he is also thought of as the founder of modern sculpture. Donatello s impact on the art world will never be able to be truly measured. He had such an influence on artists that his techniques are still used by sculptors today.
Donatello was born Donnato Di Niccolo Di Betto Bardi in Florence, Italy. Most records show that he was born in the year 1386, although the actual date of his birth is unknown. His father, Niccolo di Betto Bardi, was a Florentine wool comber; but Donatello, unlike most sons of that time, had no plans of following in his father s footsteps. While nothing is known of his childhood, education, nor of his training in sculpture, it is assumed that around 1400 he began learning stone carving from one of the sculptors working for the cathedral of Florence. It has been estab-lished that at the age of seventeen, he met, learned from, and worked for Lorenzo Ghiberti, a noted sculptor in bronze. As a member of Ghiberti s workshop, Donatello assisted in constructing and decorating the famous bronze north doors of the baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, a project that took more than twenty years to complete.
Not only did Donatello work with noted sculptors of his time, but also with the famous architect, Filippo Brunelleschi. With Brunelleschi, Donatello reputedly visited Rome in the early years of the 15th century in order to study the monuments of antiquity. Oddly enough, Filippo started out as more of a sculptor in silver and gold than as an architect. He had entered the contest for the famous design competition for the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401 but, of course, he lost the competition to Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was assisted by Donatello. After working with Lorenzo and Filippo, Donatello started his own career as a sculptor.
Donatello s sculpting career can be divided into three periods where the influences in his work took on different styles. The first or formative years came before 1425, when Donatello used a Gothic influence along with realistic and classical motif. The graceful, softly curved lines of the Gothic style paid tribute to his debt to Ghiberti s teachings. Donatello s sculptures which showed this particular style were all created for churches and other large buildings in Florence: Saint Mark at the Church of Or San Michele,
Saint John the Evangelist at the Opera del Duomo, Saint George at the Museo Nazionale, and Joshua , at the campanile of the cathedral.
The statue of Saint Mark was commissioned by the Arte del Linaioli (the Guild of Linen Merchants) in 1411. Saint Mark was made for the church of Orsanmichele and kept in its tabernacle until recently when it was restored and removed to be placed in a museum. The statue of Saint Mark is an excellent example of the classical style that Donatello had in the first period of his work.
Soon after Donatello finished the work of Saint Mark, he started on Saint John the Evangelist, which he worked on from 1413 through 1415. This statue was paired with the other Evangelists and all were placed together in the tabernacle of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. In 1587, all of the Evangelist statues, including Saint John, were taken to the Museum of the Opera del Duomo where presently they are still seen today.
Another sculpture that demonstrates this first period of Donatello s work is the sculpture of Saint George. Following the creation of his statue of Saint John, Donatello s Saint George, commissioned by the Armourer s
Guild, was sculpted about 1416 and placed in a niche of the north wall in the church of Orsanmichele. The Italian writer, Giorgio Vasari, gave his positive appraisal of Saint George in his best known book on the lives of major artists of the Italian Renaissance: Vite de Piu Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architetti Italiani (English translation: Lives of the Artists). Later, when the statue of Saint George was transferred to the tabernacle of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, its beauty was diminished, which also led to decreasing its fame. After creating these sculptures, Donatello extended a different influence to his works.
The second period of Donatello s career existed between the years of 1425 and 1443. During this period, Donatello s work took on more of a reliance on the models and the principles of the sculpture of antiquity. In the 1420 s and 1430 s, Donatello became a partner with the famous architect and sculptor, Michelozzo Di Bartolomeo, as they worked in the Baptistery on the tomb for antipope John XXIII and the monument to Bartolomeo Aragazzi among other commissions. On these works, Michelozzo would give Donatello the architectural designs and then Donatello would transform the plans into statues. As young artists, the
two men had worked together when they assisted Lorenzo Ghiberti with the famous bronze north doors of the Florence Baptistery. Subsequently, after working together for a time, Michelozzo became the chief architect for the Medici family; Donatello went on to sculpt in Rome.
During the years of 1430 through 1433, Donatello spent most of his time in Rome where he created such great works as the ciborium in the sacristy of the Basilica of Saint Peter. This brilliant sculpture was decorated with two of his most famous reliefs: Worshipping Angels and the Burial of Christ. After spending time in Rome, Donatello moved on to Florence where he then created a piece of art that is remembered by all who view it his statue of David.
The bronze statue of David, created by Donatello, was the first nude, freestanding sculpture of the Renaissance; the intricate details show the depth of Donatello s creativity. Vasari s description of Donatello s David is illuminating: In the courtyard in the palace of the Sigtnoria stands a bronze statue of David, a nude figure, life-size; having cut off the head of Goliath, David is raising his foot and placing it on him, and he has a sword in his right hand. This figure is so natural
in its vivacity and softness that artists find it hardly possible to believe it was not molded on the living form. It once stood in the courtyard of the house of the Medici, but was moved to its new position after Cosimo s exile. It is questionable whether the city of Florence or a private patron commissioned the 185-cm statue. Although it was originally intended for the cathedral, David was placed in the main courtyard of the Medici Riccardi palace. In 1495, David was moved to the courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio (the city hall) and placed on a marble platform where it stood as a civic-patriotic symbol until 1555. After numerous moves David was transferred to the Bargello where it still stands today. This beautiful statue was Donatello s last before he moved into the final stage of his career. However, from the 16th century on, Donatello s David was over-shadowed by Michelangelo s larger-than-life David, which is still more widely seen today in the Louvre in Paris.
It was during Donatello s third and final stage of his career that he left Florence and traveled to Padua. It was here he broke away from classical influences and his work emphasized realism–the portrayal of character and dramatic action. Important sculptures at this time included
work for the Paduan church of St. Antonio: a bronze crucifix and a new high altar containing 7 life-size bronze statues; a large limestone relief entitled Entombment of Christ ; and 21 bronze reliefs, the finest being the four miracles of St. Anthony (one relief consists of more than 100 figures). Donatello s Gattamelata was the first bronze equestrian statue since the Roman Empire when such statues were limited to rulers; it is considered to be one of the best-proportioned sculptures ever. Another famous Donatello bronze is the dramatic group, Judith and Holofernes.
Donatello originated the sculpting technique known as stiacciato, which means flattened out ; this involves extremely shallow carving throughout a panel, creating a more striking effect of atmospheric space. While a Ghiberti relief is tactile and can be read by a blind man, a rilievo stiacciato, or flattened relief panel depends on visual perceptions and seems to be made of much deeper cuts and carvings.
As with his childhood, there seems to be little reliable information known about Donatello s character and personality. He never married nor had children. A man of simple tastes, Donatello was not considered easy to work with, demanding his own measure of artistic freedom in a
time when working conditions for artists were regulated by guild rules. While not a cultured intellect like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Donatello was essentially a realist. Greatly influenced by antique art and Humanist theories, Donatello s Humanist friends considered him a connoisseur of ancient art.
Donatello died December 13, 1466. Although his final work, the twin bronze pulpits for St. Lorenzo, had to be completed by lesser artists, the pulpits show great spiritual depth and complexity. His introduction of the shallow-relief technique (rilievo stiacciato), bronze sculpture, and characterized figures as individuals, provided stepping stones for other sculptors of his day and were a major influence in developing realism in Italian painting. Considered one of the greatest Italian sculptors, Donatello s influence and impact on the art and artists of Florence and northern Italy in the 15th century was truly great. Among his numerous pupils, Desiderio da Settignano, who helped in the construction of David, was perhaps the most important.
In the sixteenth century Donatello s work became well known with positive writings from such great authors as Vasari, who gave
Donatello the real attention that his work deserved for all of its detail and beauty. Although Donatello knew some fame throughout his life- time, during the 17th and 18th centuries, his works went largely unnoticed by the public and were seemingly known only in local guilds. It was not until the 19th century that Donatello s works were finally rediscovered and his masterpieces of Saint George and David became an emblem of early Renaissance statuary. Today Donatello s work is world-renown; it has influenced the lives of sculptors and is admired by practically every art connoisseur and layman alike who views it.
The term, Renaissance Man , does not refer exclusively to someone who lived during the 14th through the 16th centuries, the period in history known as the Renaissance. It refers to a person who can do many things and excel in all of them. To be able to fit this title, you must have skills in a variety of areas. You cannot just do many different things, but you have to be able to do all of them very well. There are many people who define the title of a Renaissance Man.
Perhaps the most famous example of a Renaissance Man would be Leonardo da Vinci. Not only was da Vinci famous for his paintings, in particular, the Mona Lisa; but, he also succeeded in studying the world itself and medicine. Many sketches and drawings of da Vinci s show how he studied the wings of birds; they illustrate how he thought humans could use wings to fly by themselves. Another, Michelangelo, fit the definition because of his excellent skills as a sculptor, artist/painter, musician, and architect. These were not just trades Michelangelo could perform, but he excelled in every one of them.
While Donatello does not fit the true description of a Renaissance Man, as many of his contemporaries do, his achievements in sculpting alone make him an important part of art history. Even though he is not a Renaissance man by definition, Donatello has achieved his own note-worthy fame. The niche that Donatello carved for himself in the art world has had an extremely long-reaching influence on present-day sculptors for that we can be most thankful.
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