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Donatello

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia

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Bronze David by Donatello

Sculpture of David in Bronze by Donatello

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DONATELLO (diminutive of Donato) (c. 1386-1466), Italian sculptor, was the son of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Woolcombers' Gild, 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 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 Ghiberti's studio. He was too young to enter the competition for the baptistery gates in 1402, from which Ghiberti issued victorious against Brunelleschi, Jacopo, della Quercia, Niccolo d'Arezzo and other rivals. But when Brunelleschi in his disappointment left Florence and went to Rome to study the remains of classic art he was accompanied by young Donatello. Whilst pursuing their studies and excavations on classic soil, which made them talked about amongst the Romans of the day as "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, which enabled him to construct the noble cupola of S. 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 the leading spirits in the art movement of the 15th century. Brunelleschi's buildings and Donatello's monuments are the supreme expression of the spirit of the early Renaissance in architecture and sculpture and exercised a potent influence upon the painters of that age.

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," now at the Bargello, and for the colossal seated figure of " St 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. We find him next employed at Or San Michele, where between 1340 and 1406 only four of the fourteen niches had been filled. As the result of a reminder sent by the Signory to the g ilds who had undertaken to furnish the statues, the services of Ciuffagni,Nanni di Banco, Ghiberti and Donatello were enlisted, and Donatello completed between 1412 and 1415 the "St Peter," the "St George" (the original, now in the Bargello, has been replaced by a copy) and the "St Mark." He probably also assisted Nanni di Banco in his group of four saints. To this early period - in spite of Dr Bode's contention, who places it about twenty years later - belongs the wooden crucifix in S. Croce, the most striking instance of Donatello's realism in rendering the human form and his first attempt at carving the nude. It is said that this crucifix was executed in rivalry with Brunelleschi's noble work at S. 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 " St George," can be followed the gradual advance from Gothic stiffness of attitude and draping to a forceful rendering of the human form and of movement, which is a distinct approach to the classic ideal; from the massiveness of the heavily draped figure to easy poise and muscular litheness. 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 "St Mark," when inspected at the master's workshop, was disapproved of by the heads of the Gild of Linen-weavers, but aroused public enthusiasm when placed in situ, and at a later date received Michelangelo's unstinted admiration.

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This article is from the 1911 edition of an encyclopedia, which is out of copyright here in the U.S. See the encyclopedia main page for disclaimer and copyright information.

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