A revolutionary talent and one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance

An Adoring Angel
San Rossore
Head of a Bearded Man, possibly a Prophet
Lamentation over the Dead Christ
Circle of Donatello, Bust of a Young Man (Platonic Bust)
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Florence Epicentre of the Renaissance

Donatello did not come from a wealthy or prestigious family, yet he was still identified as a brilliant sculptor at a young age. He lived in a time and place when all the essentials to fully develop his prodigious talents coalesced. Florence was the epicentre of Humanism; the fifteenth century was the start of the Renaissance that generated opportunities to interact with mentors, fellow artists, and patrons. He had access to ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture and lived a long life.

He frequently challenged tradition and innovated throughout his career; his work inspired Michelangelo and still inspires art aficionados even after 600 years.    

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi  

Donatello was born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (b.1386-1466). Beyond being the name inspiration for a Ninja Turtle, he is more famously known for creating a prepubescent bronze sculpture called David (1440), the first life-sized free-standing nude of the Renaissance, which he completed a generation before Michelangelo’s five-metre-tall muscle-bound marble statue of the same name.    

Humanist Philosophy

Although nudity in Middle Ages and the Renaissance represented the nakedness of the soul before God, the eroticism in Donatello’s David should have scandalised the Catholic clergy of the Middle Ages. But the cultural elite in Florence subscribed to a Humanist philosophy, which postulates that humans, not God, are at the centre of the universe. This new philosophy challenged the Mediaeval premise that God was at the centre of the universe and dramatically changed how paintings, architecture and sculptures were made.

During the Middle Ages, subjects in art were idealised caricatures meant to convey how obedience to God would lead to a better afterlife or how disobedience would lead to eternal damnation. During the Renaissance, Humanist ideas were based on ancient Greek and Roman thoughts of human beauty, individual identity, experience and the potential in this life, rather than an afterlife. As a result, art was created to emphasise individual features, expressions, emotions and single-point perspective.

Filippo Brunelleschi

Early in his career, Donatello’s friend Filippo Brunelleschi (b.1377-1446) lost a sculptor competition for a commission to make bronze reliefs for the door of the Baptistery of Florence. In 1402 the two friends went to Rome to study surviving examples of ancient Roman buildings and sculptures. This brought about a profound change in the way each viewed their artwork. They were reminded of the detailed features, expressions and emotions that could be carved into sculptures and rediscovered one-point perspective. Brunelleschi used this insight to become an influential architect. Donatello became a connoisseur of classic Greek and Roman art and incorporated this into his art and was, soon after, copied.  

David Victorious

Donatello’s development from a Gothic to a Humanist perspective can be seen when comparing his marble David Victorious (1408-9; 1416) to the bronze Attis-Amorino (1435-40). They confirm Donatello’s mastery of marble and bronze and his ability to make static material dynamic. But the lines of David Victorious are softer, the facial expression more idealised. In contrast, Attis-Amorino better depicts human beauty, a distinct individual, and a believable human expression (joy) in face and body language. Attis-Amorino also displays a signature contorted body pose which encourages viewers to explore different views of the work by walking around it. 

Cosimo de Medici

None of this would have been possible without commissions from the Catholic church, but equally so from like-minded patrons such as Cosimo de Medici (b.1389-1464), who was the head of the most influential family in Florence. Donatello’s bad boy reputation and fame continued when he accepted a commission for a bronze equestrian statue of a mercenary captain, Gattamelata (1453). Commissioned by a famous Venetian condottiere, Erasmo da Narmi, it was outrageous because monuments like these were traditionally reserved for rulers. 

Madonna of the Clouds

Freedom from financial concerns meant that Donatello could explore new media and techniques. His studies of bas reliefs on Roman burial sarcophagi led to his invention of the rilievo schiacciato (squashed relief) technique. This bas reliefs marble carving technique calls for an extremely light touch with the chisel but can result in an image that has more in common with paintings than sculptures. Shifting light is integral to the viewing experience as shadows dramatically change the scene’s highlights. The Ascension, with Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter (c.1428-1430) and Madonna of the Clouds (1425-35) illustrate not only the power of this technique at the hands of a master but, as this technique is not often copied, its difficulty.  

Pazzi Madonna

Pazzi Madonna (1422) is another example of the squashed relief technique, but it also departs from Mediaeval tradition in that it emphasises humanity over divinity. This Madonna is not a saint with a halo, and Jesus is not a weightless deity. Instead, in this image, we see the beautiful Mary as a real mother looking adoringly at her ordinary baby.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Donatello

That said, as Donatello aged, he was willing to concede some of his work to portray darker emotions. Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1455–1460) is a test piece for an uncompleted bronze door commission. In it, we see an aged, hollowed-eyed Mary in abject anguish over her dead son, a tacit admission that Humanism does not answer the question of life after death.

Text Martin Wray / Photos Victoria & Albert Museum