Donatello was an Italian sculptor, active mostly in the fifteenth century, who pioneered several sculptural techniques and created some of the most famous works in the history of the art. Along with Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello gave western art a different direction and is considered a founding father of the Italian Renaissance. Know about the family, life, art, achievements and death of this renowned artist through these 10 interesting facts.
#1 He apprenticed with prominent Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti
Donatello was born Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi in Florence, Italy. Though the exact date of his birth is not known with certainty, he was most likely born in 1386. Donatello was the son of Niccolò di Betto Bardi, a Florentine wool carder, and his wife Orsa Bardi. He was educated in the house of the Martelli family, an influential Florentine family of bankers and art patrons. After receiving his early artistic training in a goldsmith’s workshop, Donatello became a member of the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a sculptor famous for creating the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery.
#2 Donatello was a friend of the famous architect Filippo Brunelleschi
Early in his life, Donatello became friends with Filippo Brunelleschi, who was around ten years elder to him. Though not certain, it is said that somewhere in the first decade of the 15th century, Donatello and Brunelleschi took a trip to Rome to study the ancient Roman ruins, an endeavor no one had attempted in such great detail till then. Donatello and Brunelleschi would go on to become founding fathers of the Renaissance with their works being considered supreme achievements in sculpture and architecture respectively. They would exert an immense and long lasting influence on future artists of the movement.
#3 His first major work was the marble David
In 1408, Donatello received his earliest known important commission which was to carve a statue of David. With graceful, softly curved lines and an expressionless face, the life-sized marble sculpture follows the International Gothic style which was prevalent at the time. The marble David was originally intended for the Florence Cathedral but was never placed there. Instead it stood at the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall, as a civic-patriotic symbol until it was replaced by Michelangelo’s famous David.
#4 He radically moved away from medieval art and towards classical techniques
In the early 1410s Donatello moved away from the Gothic style in his works and developed his own style with his figures being more dramatic and emotional. Around 1415, he completed two marble statues, St. Mark and St. George, which showcased his extraordinary talent and the move towards the classical technique. These works strikingly differed from medieval art and for the first time since Classical antiquity the human personality was shown with such confidence in its own worth.
#5 Donatello invented his own mode of relief known as schiacciato
In his famous sculpture St. George and the Dragon, Donatello invented his bold new mode of relief now known as schiacciato (flattened out). Stiacciato is an extremely subtle type of flat, low relief carving where the plane is only very slightly lower than the sculpted elements creating the illusion of depth and figures moving in space. The effect of the technique depends largely on how pale materials like marble respond to light. St. George and the Dragon is also one of the first examples of central-point perspective in sculpture.
#6 He collaborated with Michelozzo to produce architectural-sculptural tombs
In the mid-1420s Donatello entered into a partnership with Michelozzo, an Italian architect and sculptor who had also apprenticed under Ghiberti. Together they made innovations while producing several architectural-sculptural tombs, including those of Antipope John XXIII and Cardinal Brancacci. These innovations would later influence many Florentine tombs. Donatello remained in Rome from around 1930 to 1933 further developing his style and departing from the standards of Brunelleschi. This led to a rift in his old friendship with Brunelleschi which would never mend.
#7 Donatello’s most famous work is his bronze statue of David
The bronze statue of David completed by Donatello around the early 1440s was the first known free-standing nude statue produced since antiquity. It is considered by many as the first major work of Renaissance sculpture and is the most famous statue created by Donatello. It has been suggested that the statue was made for Cosimo de’ Medici, part of the wealthy and influential Medici family, and the foremost art patron of the time. Donatello’s bronze David now resides in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence.
#8 His Equestrian statue of Gattamelata is regarded the forefather of all such works
In 1443, Donatello was called to Padua to execute a bronze equestrian statue of Erasmo of Narni, who was one of the most famous of the condottieri or military leaders of the Republic of Venice and who had died the same year. He was also known as Gattamelata (honeyed cat). Donatello’s Equestrian statue of Gattamelata was the first example of such a monument since ancient times and is considered the ancestor of all equestrian monuments erected since. Other famous works of his Padua period include the bronze Crucifix of 1444–47 and 4 extremely important reliefs with scenes from the life of St. Anthony for the high altar in the basilica dedicated to the memory of the saint.
#9 He was buried next to his major patron Cosimo de’ Medici
Donatello returned to Florence in 1453. His last commission was to produce reliefs for the bronze pulpits in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. He was commissioned for the work by the Medici family who had been his major patrons throughout his life. He spent the last years of his life designing twin bronze pulpits for his last commission. Donatello died on 13th December 1466 in Florence, Italy. He was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, next to his principal patron Cosimo de’ Medici.
#10 Donatello might have been a homosexual
Not much is known about Donatello’s personal life. He is said to be a man of simple tastes and not a cultured intellectual. His patrons found him difficult to deal as he demanded a measure of artistic freedom. He was an expert on ancient art and had more detailed knowledge about ancient sculpture than any other artist of his day. Donatello never married and it has been suggested that he was a homosexual and made no secret of his sexuality. This, however, cannot be established with certainty and details about his romantic relationships remain speculative.