No, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, but rather the man who has been called the greatest sculptor of the early renaissance. Let’s start with a few quick facts about him.
Full name: Donato de Niccolo de Betto Bardi
Born: 1386 in Florence
Died: 1466 in Florence (at the age of 80!)
By the early age of 14, Donatello had started to learn the art of sculpture and by 1404 he was apprenticed to the great Lorenzo Ghiberti. He was a member of the Arte de Pietra e Legname (the Guild of the Workers in Stone and Wood).
Most of his life was spent in Florence, but he did go to Padua for 11 years. Apparently while he was there his work got a lot of praise, something he didn’t really enjoy. He graciously welcomed the criticism he would receive from Florentines as it would push him to create even better work. In this way I feel like I really connect with Donatello. It is really difficult to try to improve upon your work when all you are hearing is praises. I find it much more helpful to hear critique so that I can make an even stronger piece the next time around.
Donatello was very innovative in his work, though his style really varied on the nature of his commission. His work has been described as very tense and impulsive. His impulsiveness may have tied in with his temper. One account says that once he threw a thin cast bronze head out of a window after the client claimed he was being overcharged! Despite this, Donatello was also described as not being concerned with money. He was very immersed in his work and eventually died a poor man. Through his long life, Donatello created countless pieces which even impacted Michelangelo a century later.
While researching Donatello, the pieces that really stood out to me were his relief sculptures. What really intrigues me about these pieces was how much depth he could create by just carving a few millimeters into the material.
This first piece is a bronze relief that is part of the base of the baptismal font in the Siena Cathedral’s Baptistry. It shows John the Baptist’s head being presented to King Herod from Matthew 14. I really like how Donatello created the illusion of space and then used that to be able to show multiple scenes from the story. This piece also shows Donatello’s interest in human emotion through the expressiveness of the figures.
On a side note, one of the videos I watched about this piece ended quite abruptly and I found it really hilarious. You can listen to it here.
"The Agony in the Garden" comes from a pair of pulpits for the Church of San Lorenzo. It was Donatello’s last work and was actually completed by his students. What I find really interesting about this is how the figures are breaking out of the “panel,” which is very different from his earlier pieces. This piece in particular really emphasizes Jesus’ isolation in the face of death. Throughout the pulpits, Donatello really emphasizes Jesus’ death, mourning, funeral and resurrection.
In many of his pieces, Donatello was able to reveal human suffering and emotion very clearly. John Pope-Hennessy wrote “Donatello’s prime concern was to address the minds of those who came in contact with his work.” Thus viewers could really connect with his pieces and the emotions being expressed by the figures. The two pieces below are very different but really show Donatello’s attention to emotion of individuals.
This piece was one of many originally found in niches outside Or San Michele. It revives classical forms with its contrapposto stance and you can really see how the body moves even under the heavy drapery. Unlike some of the other figures at this site (see right), Saint Mark’s expression is able to connect with viewers in a realistic way.
This late piece by Donatello seems to be an antithesis of figures he had done before. It shows his sympathy for humanity and his interest in the individual. It seems interesting that this figure seems to be reverting to Gothic sculpture, except that she is still standing in a contrapposto stance.
All the Sculpture of Donatello, Part I, by Luigi Grassi, translated by Paul Colacicchi.
Donatello: Sculptor by John Pope-Hennessy
Draper, James David. "Donatello (ca. 1386–1466)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dona/hd_dona.htm (October 2002)
History of Italian Renaissance Art: painting, sculpture, architecture, by Frederick Hartt.
Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello by Jules Lubbock. Pages 176-203, 245-267.
Various Articles and Videos from http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/