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Artist Spotlight: Donatello



Welcome


Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! For this week’s post, I have another edition of my Artist Spotlight Series! Donatello was one of the early masters of the Italian Renaissance, but he often gets overshadowed by the artists of the High Renaissance. However, he was an incredible artist who developed and refined sculpture techniques. In fact, Donatello was so talented that Giorgio Vasari described his works as “a marvelous suggestion of life bursting out of the stone.” So to learn more about him, keep on reading!


Life



Not much is known about Donatello’s early life. He was born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, sometime around 1386. His father, Niccolo, worked in the wool comber’s guild in Florence, which is likely how Donatello entered into craftsmanship. Niccolo must have had good connections in the city because Donatello was sent to live and learn at the household of the Martelli family. This family were not only wealthy bankers, but had close ties with the Medici’s, the ruling family of Florence. By 1403, Donatello had secured an apprenticeship with Lorenzo Ghilberti. He even assisted in the creation of the doors of the Florence Baptistry, known as the Gates of Paradise.


After finishing his apprenticeship, Donatello traveled to Rome with his friend, Filippo Brunelleschi. They wanted to study the ancient ruins and works of art that had been uncovered to learn more about the classical past. When they returned to Florence a year later, Donatello hit the ground running. He received many prestigious commissions and eventually grew close with Florence’s ruler, Cosimo de Medici. After several years, Donatello worked in Padua and Rome, but eventually returned home. During the last decade or so of his life, Donatello lived in comfortable retirement. His close relationship with the Medici family gave him a large pension. He died on December 13, 1466 at age 80. Donatello was buried at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, next to Cosimo de' Medici. This was a huge honor and spoke to the impact he had on Florence and her art.


Work 1 - St. George

One of Donatello’s first major commissions for this stone statue of St. George. He was asked to create it by the sword and armor makers guild of Florence, as St. George was their patron saint. It was one of fourteen saint statues commissioned by various guilds in the city that served as decoration for the exterior of the Orsanmichele church.


What makes this work so remarkable is how life-like St. George appears. Donatello utilized contrapposto, or the shift of the body’s weight on the hips, to give him a more naturalistic appearance. His left foot also slides forward. This combined with his shield (and the fact that he likely held a sword as well) give a strong sense of movement, as if St. George is preparing himself for battle. The viewer can see the muscles underneath his armor, a remarkable detail. Finally, Donatello added a hint of nerves to St. George’s face. This expression resonates deeply with viewers, who wouldn’t be scared of facing a dragon?!


Beneath the statue of St. George, Donatello added a narrative relief carving. It shows St. George bravely fighting a dragon to protect a princess. Although this part might just seem like an extraneous decorative detail, Donatello actually took the opportunity to experiment. He used both high and low relief to add depth and create a sense of three dimensionality. This was a big shift, again not seen since antiquity. It’s possible that he was influenced by his time in Rome. Today, both this relief and the statute itself can be found in the Bargello museum in Florence.



Work 2 - David (Bronze)



I couldn’t make a post about Donatello without focusing on his bronze sculpture of David! Sculpted around 1440, this work is not only the first unsupported bronze piece from the Renaissance, but was also the first free standing nude sculpture seen since antiquity! This was quite revolutionary!


Records about this work are a bit scarce, but art historians believe that it was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici. David was often seen as a symbol for the city of Florence, who was up against the Goliath of Rome.


In this work, David is shown as a young, slight man. He is completely nude, save for a jaunty hat. His pose is one of extreme contrapposto and he stands above the slain Goliath’s severed head. These details are extremely important to the story. His nudity and slight build show that his power came from God. David didn’t need big muscles or fancy armor to protect himself or win the battle. God was on his side and that was what was important. Florence, therefore, would also receive its power and protection from Heaven.


Viewers have also commented on how beautiful David is. Some art historians have theorized that Donatello based his design off of classical statues of Antinous, the favored companion of Emperor Hadrian who was known for his beauty.


Today, you can also visit David at the Bargello!


Work 3 - Penitent Magdalene


The final work by Donatello that I’m going to discuss in this post is called the Penitent Magdalene. It was sculpted around 1453-55, shortly before the artist entered into retirement. This piece is carved from white popular, but was painted and gilded. (Some traces of this can still be seen today!) In this work, Mary Magdalene is shown as a withered, old woman. This is atypical, as she is usually shown as young and beautiful. She is nude, but her long hair covers her body well. Her hands are grasped in prayer and she looks up towards heaven.


What makes this work so remarkable is Donatello’s use of realism. He didn’t try to make Mary Magdalene into something she was not. According to her hagiography, she spent 30 years in the desert to repent for her time as a sex worker. Donatello showed the effects of this on her skin, making it dry and stretched over her bones. Her hair, though long and thick, is tangled. There is a sense of contrapposto, but not as strong as in his David. Instead, Donatello wants the viewer to focus on Mary Magdalene’s devotion to God.


Today, you can view this work at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, also in Florence.


Conclusion


These three works show that Donatello was a master of sculptor as he was able to create three masterpieces using different materials: stone, bronze, and wood. He wasn’t afraid to create or utilize new techniques, making him a true Renaissance man!


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