The Life of Donatello
Donatello was the son of Nicolo di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Woolcombers Guild, and was born in Florence, probably in 1386. The date is conjectural, since the scanty contemporary records of Donatello's life are contradictory, the earliest documentary reference to the master bearing the date 1406, when a payment is made to him as an independent sculptor. That Donatello was educated in the house of the Martelli family, as stated by Giorgio Vasari, and that he owed to them his introduction to his future friend and patron, Cosimo de' Medici, is very doubtful, in view of the fact that his father had espoused the cause of the Albizzi against the Medici, and was in consequence banished from Florence, where his property was confiscated. It is, however, certain that Donatello received his first training, according to the custom of the period, in a goldsmith's workshop, and that he worked for a short time in Lorenzo Ghiberti's studio. He was too young to enter the competition for the North Baptistery gates in 1402, from which Ghiberti emerged victorious over Filippo Brunelleschi, Jacopo della Quercia, Nicolo d'Arezzo, and other rivals. When Brunelleschi left Florence in disappointment and went to Rome to study the remains of classic art, he was accompanied by young Donatello. While pursuing their studies and excavations on classic soil, which gained them the reputation of treasure seekers, the two young men made a living by working at the goldsmiths' shops. This Roman sojourn was decisive for the entire development of Italian art in the 15th century, for it was during this period that Brunelleschi undertook his measurements of the Pantheon dome and of other Roman buildings. These investigations helped him develop an understanding of linear perspective and eventually construct the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, while Donatello acquired his knowledge of classic forms and ornamentation. The two masters, each in his own sphere, were to become two of the leading spirits of the Early Renaissance. Brunelleschi's buildings and Donatello's monuments are the supreme expression of the spirit of this era in architecture and sculpture and exercised a potent influence upon the painters of that age.
Work in Florence
Donatello probably did not return to Florence before 1405, since the earliest works in that city that can be traced to his chisel are two small statues of prophets for the north door of the cathedral, for which he received payment in November 1406 and in the beginning of 1408. In the latter year, he was entrusted with the important commissions for the marble David (not to be confused with his later bronze version), now at the Bargello, and for the colossal seated figure of Saint John the Evangelist, which until 1588 occupied a niche of the old cathedral facade, and is now placed in a dark chapel of the Duomo. He was next employed at Orsanmichele, where only four of the 14 niches had been filled by 1406. As the result of a reminder sent by the Signory to the guilds who had undertaken the creation of the statues, the services of Ciuffagni, Nanni di Banco, Ghiberti, and Donatello were enlisted. In service of this project, Donatello completed three sculptures between 1412 and 1415 - Saint Peter, Saint George, and Saint Mark. He probably also assisted Nanni di Banco in his group of four saints. To this early period belongs the wooden crucifix in Santa Croce, the most striking instance of Donatello's realism in rendering the human form and his first attempt at carving the nude. It is reputed that this crucifix was executed in rivalry with Brunelleschi's The Crucifix at Santa Maria Novella, and that Donatello, at the sight of his friend's work, exclaimed, "It has been left to you to shape a real Christ, whilst I have made a peasant". In this early group of statues, from the prophets for the cathedral door to the Saint George, Donatello's gradual maturation is visible. It can be followed from a Gothic stiffness of attitude and draping to an easy poise, muscular litheness, and forceful rendering of the human form and movement, which are distinct elements of the classical ideal. All these figures were carved in marble and are admirably conceived in relation to their architectural setting. In fact, so strong is this tendency that the Saint Mark, when inspected at the master's workshop, was disapproved of by the heads of the Guild of Linen-weavers. It aroused public enthusiasm, however, when placed in situ, and at a later date received Michelangelo's unstinted admiration.
Between the completion of the niches for Orsanmichele and his second journey to Rome in 1433, Donatello was chiefly occupied with statuary work for the campanile and the cathedral, though from this period dates the bronze figure of the Baptist for the christening font of Orvieto Cathedral, which was never delivered. This, and the Saint Louis of Toulouse, which originally occupied a niche at Orsanmichele, was the first works in bronze which owed their origin to the partnership of Donatello with Michelozzo. The marble statues Donatello carved for the campanile are Abraham, wrought by the master in conjunction with Giovanni di Bartolo, Saint John the Baptist, Habakkuk (the statue is also called Zuccone, meaning Pumpkin, for its bald head), Jeremiah, and an unknown prophet who is supposed to bear the features of the humanist Poggio Bracciolirri. He may have also partially worked on a Joshua commenced by Ciuffagni in 1415. All these statues, and the Saint John at the Bargello, mark a bold departure from the statuesque balance of the Saint Mark and Saint George to an almost instantaneous impression of life. The fall of the draperies is no longer arranged in harmonious lines, but is treated in an accidental, massive, bold manner. At the same time the heads are not impersonal, but almost cruelly realistic character portraits of actual people, just as the arms and legs and necks are faithfully copied from life with all their angularities and deviations from the lines of beauty.
During this period Donatello executed some work for the baptismal font at San Giovanni in Siena, which Jacopo della Quercia and his assistants had begun in 1416. Though Donatello's share in it is confined to a relief which may have been designed, or even begun, by Jacopo, the font is of considerable importance in Donatello's canon for it was his one of his first attempt at relief sculpture. The relief, The Feast of Herod, shows a power of dramatic narration and the ability to express great depth and space, which was to find its mature expression in the panels of the altar of San Antonio in Padua and of the pulpit of San Lorenzo in Florence.
The casting of the pieces for the Siena font was probably done by Michelozzo, who is also credited with an important share in Donatello's next two monumental works - the tomb of Pope John XXIII in the Baptistery (begun about 1425) and the tomb of Cardinal Brancacci at San Angelo a Nib in Naples (1427). The noble recumbent figure on the former, the relief on the sarcophagus, and the whole architectural design are unquestionably the work of Donatello. The figure of the pope served as the model off which Bernardo Rossellino, Desiderio, and other sculptors of the following period based their treatment of similar works. Donatello's share in the Naples monument is probably confined to the characteristic low relief of The Ascension. The Baptistery tomb shows how completely Donatello had mastered the forms of Renaissance architecture, even before his second visit to Rome.
One of Donatello's great contributions to statuary was the introduction of perspective - factoring the viewer and his point of view into the final product. For example, his statue of Saint Mark was supposedly at first rejected as horrid and monstrous by its commissioners, the linen guild of Florence. He listened to their grievances and agreed to fix it. The next week, he placed it in its niche at the Orsanmichele and the commissioners were awestruck with what he had done with it. In truth, he had altered nothing, simply adjusting the placement of the viewer in relation to the statue.
When Cosimo, the greatest art patron of his time, was exiled from Florence in 1433, Bimbo accompanied him to Venice, while Donatello went to Rome to drink for the second time at the source of classic art. The two works which still testify to his presence in this city, the Tomb of Giovanni Crivelli at Santa Mariain Aracoeli, and the Ciborium at St. Peter's Basilica, bear the stamp of classic influence. Donatello's return to Florence in the following year almost coincides with Cosimo's. Almost immediately, in May 1434, he signed a contract for the marble pulpit on the facade of Prato cathedral, the last work executed in collaboration with Michelozzo, a veritable bacchanalian dance of half-nude putti, pagan in spirit, passionate in its wonderful rhythmic movement the forerunner of the singing tribune for Florence cathedral, at which he worked intermittently from 1433 to 1440. But Donatello's greatest achievement of his classic period is the bronze David, which is currently located at the Bargello in Florence. At the time of its creation, it was the first free-standing nude statue since ancient times. Conceived fully in the round and independent of any architectural surroundings, it was the first major work of Renaissance sculpture.