Friday, November 17, 2006


Donatello, real name Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (1386?-1466), Italian Renaissance sculptor, who is generally considered one of the greatest sculptors of all time and the founder of modern sculpture.

Donatello was born in Florence, the son of a wool comber. When he was 17 years old, he assisted the noted sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti in constructing and decorating the famous bronze doors of the baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence. Later, Donatello was also an associate of the noted architect Filippo Brunelleschi, with whom he reputedly visited Rome in order to study the monuments of antiquity.

Donatello's career may be divided into three periods. The first and formative period comprised the years before 1425, when his work is marked by the influence of Gothic sculpture but also shows classical and realistic tendencies. Among his sculpture of this period are the statues St. Mark (Church of Or San Michele, Florence), St. George (Bargello, Florence), John the Evangelist (Opera del Duomo, Florence), and Joshua (campanile of the cathedral, Florence)

The second period (1425-1443) is generally characterized by a reliance on the models and principles of the sculpture of antiquity. From 1425 to 1435 Donatello worked with the Florentine sculptor and architect Michelozzo on a number of projects, including the monument to Bartolomeo Aragazzi (Cathedral of Montepulciano). In their joint work Michelozzo executed the architectural designs and also helped in the making of the bronze castings; Donatello executed most of the statues. From 1430 to 1433 Donatello spent periods in Rome, where he created a number of works, notably the ciborium in the sacristy of the Basilica of Saint Peter, decorated with the reliefs Worshiping Angels and Burial of Christ. It was in Florence, however, that he created the most noted work of this period—the bronze David (circa 1430-1435, Bargello), the first nude statue of the Renaissance.

In his third and culminating period, Donatello broke away from classical influence and in his work emphasized realism and the portrayal of character and of dramatic action. Notable examples of his sculpture of this period are Miracles of St. Anthony (Sant' Antonio, Padua); Gattamelata (in the square before Sant' Antonio), the first bronze equestrian statue since ancient times; and Judith and Holofernes (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence).

The sculpture of Donatello influenced that of Florence and northern Italy in the 15th century. It was also a major stimulus on the development of realism in Italian painting, notably in the work of the great Paduan artist Andrea Mantegna. Donatello, who died on December 13, 1466, had many pupils, the most important of whom was Desiderio da Settignano.

Renaissance artists from Giotto to Michelangelo. Over the centuries, scholars have considered Vasari's engaging and anecdotal biographies an invaluable primary resource. His observations of the Florentine sculptor Donatello (1386?-1466) reveal a proud perfectionist whose many commissioned works and successful pupils demonstrated the esteem of contemporary patrons as well as his remarkable talent.

From Lives of the Artists: Donatello

By Giorgio Vasari

Donato, who was called Donatello by his relations and signed himself as such on several of his works, was born in Florence…He devoted his life to art,... and he proved himself an exceptional sculptor and a marvellous statuary as well as a skilled and competent worker in stucco, in perspective, and in architecture, for which he was highly regarded. His work showed such excellent qualities of grace and design that it was considered nearer what was done by the ancient Greeks and Romans than that of any other artist. He is therefore rightly recognized as the first to make good use of the invention of scenes done in low relief, which he executed with thoughtfulness, facility, and skill, demonstrating his intimate knowledge and mastery of the technique and producing sculptures of unusual beauty. He was superior not only to his contemporaries but even to the artists of our own times.

Donatello was brought up from early childhood in the household of Ruberto Martelli. His fine character and the way he applied his talents won him the affection of Ruberto and all his noble family. While still young he executed a number of works, so many, in fact, that they attracted little attention. He made his name, however, and showed himself for what he was, when he carved an Annunciation in grey-stone, which was put in Santa Croce at Florence, near the altar of the Cavalcanti Chapel. For this he made an ornament in the grotesque style, with a base of varied and intertwined work, surmounted by a quarter-circle, and with six putti [nude children]; these garlanded putti have their arms round each other as if they are afraid of the height and are trying to steady themselves. Donatello's ingenuity and skill are especially apparent in the figure of the Virgin herself: frightened by the unexpected appearance of the angel she makes a modest reverence with a charming, timid movement, turning with exquisite grace towards him as he makes his salutation. The Virgin's movement and expression reveal both her humility and the gratitude appropriate to an unexpected gift, particularly a gift as great as this. Moreover, Donatello created a masterly flow of folds and curves in the draperies of the Madonna and the angel, suggesting the form of the nude figures and showing how he was striving to recover the beauty of the ancients, which had been lost for so many years. He displayed such skill and facility that, to put it briefly, no one could have bettered his design, his judgement, his use of the chisel, or his execution of the work.

Below the screen in the same church, next to the scene by Taddeo Gaddi [a 14th-century Florentine painter and architect], he made a wooden crucifix over which he took extraordinary pains. When he had finished it, convinced that he had produced a very rare work, he asked his close friend, Filippo Brunelleschi [a Florentine architect], for his opinion. But Filippo, in view of what he had already been told by Donatello, was expecting to be shown something far better; and when he saw what it was he merely smiled to himself. At this Donatello begged him for the sake of their friendship to say what he thought of it. So Filippo, being always ready to oblige, answered that it seemed to him that Donatello had put on the cross the body of a peasant, not the body of Jesus Christ which was most delicate and in every part the most perfect human form ever created. Finding that instead of being praised, as he had hoped, he was being criticized, and more sharply than he could ever have imagined, Donatello retorted: `If it was as easy to make something as it is to criticize, my Christ would really look to you like Christ. So you get some wood and try to make one yourself.'

Without another word, Filippo returned home and secretly started work on a crucifix, determined to vindicate his own judgement by surpassing Donatello; and after several months he brought it to perfection. Then one morning he asked Donatello to have dinner with him, and Donatello accepted. On their way to Filippo's house they came to the Old Market where Filippo bought a few things and gave them to Donatello, saying: `Take these home and wait for me. I shall be along in a moment.'

So Donatello went on ahead into the house, and going into the hall he saw, placed in a good light, Filippo's crucifix. He paused to study it and found it so perfect that he was completely overwhelmed and dropped his hands in astonishment; whereupon his apron fell and the eggs, the cheeses, and the rest of the shopping tumbled to the floor and everything was broken into pieces. He was still standing there in amazement, looking as if he had lost his wits, when Filippo came up and said laughingly:

`What's your design, Donatello? What are we going to eat now that you've broken everything?'

`Myself,' Donatello answered, `I've had my share for this morning. If you want yours, you take it. But no more, please. Your job is making Christs and mine is making peasants.'…

For the main front of the Campanile of Santa Maria del Fiore Donatello made four marble figures, each ten feet high, of which the two in the middle were portrayed from life, one being Francesco Soderini as a young man and the other Giovanni di Barduccio Cherichini, now known as Il Zuccone. The latter was regarded as an outstanding work, finer than anything else he had ever made; and so whenever Donatello wanted to swear convincingly to the truth of anything he used to protest `by the faith I have in my Zuccone'.

And while he was working on this statue he would look at it and keep muttering: `Speak, damn you, speak!'

Over the door of the Campanile facing the Canon's house he represented Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, with another of the prophets; and these figures were placed between two other statues.

For the Signoria of Florence Donatello made a casting in metal, showing Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes, which was placed in the piazza under one of the arches of their loggia. This is an excellent and accomplished work in which, by the appearance of Judith and the simplicity of her garments, Donatello reveals to the onlooker the woman's hidden courage and the inner strength she derives from God. Similarly, one can see the effect of wine and sleep in the expression of Holofernes and the presence of death in his limbs which, as his soul has departed, are cold and limp. Donatello worked so well that the casting emerged very delicate and beautiful, and then he finished it so carefully that it is a marvel to see. The base, which is a simply designed granite baluster, is also pleasing to the eye and very graceful. Donatello was so satisfied with the results that he decided, for the first time, to put his name on one of his works; and it is seen in these words: Donatello Opus.

In the courtyard on the palace of the Signoria stands a bronze statue of David, a nude figure, life-size; having cut off the head of Goliath, David is raising his foot and placing it on him, and he has a sword in his right hand. This figure is so natural in its vivacity and softness that artists find it hardly possible to believe it was not moulded on the living form. It once stood in the courtyard of the house of the Medici [the powerful Florentine banking and political family], but was moved to its new position after Cosimo's exile. [Cosimo de’ Medici, the director of the family’s banking interests, was exiled in 1433 but returned to Florence the following year.] In our own time Duke Cosimo had the statue moved again to make way for a fountain, and it is being kept for another large courtyard which he intends to build at the rear of the palace, where the lions used to stand. In the hall containing the clock of Lorenzo della Volpaia, on the left, there stands a very fine David in marble, straddling the head of the dead Goliath and holding in his hand the sling with which he killed him.…

It is said that a Genoese merchant ordered from Donatello a life-size head of bronze, a beautiful piece of work which was made very light, since it had to be carried a long distance, and that Donatello obtained the commission through Cosimo's recommendation. Now when the head was finished and the merchant wanted to pay for it, he objected that Donatello was asking too much. So the dispute was referred to Cosimo, who had the head carried to the upper court of the palace and placed between the battlements overlooking the street, where it could be better seen. Then, when Cosimo tried to settle the matter, he found what the merchant was offering a long way from what Donatello was asking, and so he remarked that in his opinion the offer was too small. And at this the merchant, who thought it was too much, complained that, since he had finished the work in a month or a little over, Donatello would be making over half a florin a day. Donatello considered himself grossly insulted by this remark, turned on the merchant in a rage, and told him that he was the kind of man who could ruin the fruits of a year's toil in a split second; and with that he suddenly shoved the head down on to the street where it shattered into pieces and added that the merchant had shown he was more used to bargaining for beans than for bronzes. The merchant at once regretted what he had done and promised to pay twice as much if Donatello would do the head again; but neither his promises, nor the entreaties of Cosimo, could persuade Donatello to do so.…

It happened that at that time, hearing of his fame, the Signoria of Venice sent for him to make the memorial for Gattamelata in the city of Padua. He went there very readily and executed the bronze horse which is on the piazza of Sant'Antonio: the horse is shown snorting and quivering, and Donatello has expressed very vividly the great courage and pride of its rider. Indeed, he proved himself such a master in the proportions and excellence of this huge cast that he challenges comparison with any of the ancient craftsmen in expressing movement, in design, skill, diligence, and proportion. The work astounded everyone who saw it then and it continues to astound anyone who sees it today. It induced the Paduans to do their utmost to make him take up citizenship and they used every kind of affectionate restraint to keep him with them. To this end, they commissioned from him some scenes from the life of St Anthony of Padua for the predella [altar rails] of the high altar of the church of the Friars Minor. These are in low relief and they show such discrimination that the best sculptors stand before them almost dumb with astonishment at their beautiful and varied composition, the great abundance of extraordinary figures, and the diminishing perspectives. Also very beautiful are the Marys that he made, lamenting the dead Christ, on the altar-dossal [ornamental hanging]. And in the house of one of the Capodilista counts he made in wood the skeleton of a horse (which can still be seen today, without its head) in which the parts are jointed with such method that anyone who studies the manner in which this work was made can appreciate Donatello's intellectual stature and ingenuity …

Donatello … left Florence for Rome in order to imitate as many as possible of the works of the ancient world. While he was studying there he made a stone tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament, which is now in St Peter's. On his way back to Florence he passed through Siena, where he promised to make a bronze door for the Baptistry of San Giovanni. He made the wooden model and had almost finished the wax moulds and successfully covered them with the outer shell ready for casting, when a close friend of his, a Florentine goldsmith called Bernardetto di Mona Papera, came by on his way from Rome and was so persuasive in one way and another that, for his own purposes or other reasons, he got Donatello to return with him to Florence. So the door was hardly started, let alone finished. All that Donatello left behind in that city, in the Office of Works of the Duomo, was a bronze figure of St John the Baptist, with its right arm missing below the elbow; and this, it is said, was because he had not been fully paid for it.…

But whoever wanted to tell the full story of Donatello's life and works would have to write far more than I intend in narrating the lives of our artists; for apart from his major works, which I have noted in some detail, Donatello set his hand to the smallest things of his art. For instance, he made coats-of-arms to go on the chimney-pieces and fronts of town houses, a very fine example of which can be seen on the house of the Sommai opposite the tower of the Vacca. He also made, for the Martelli family, a wicker-work chest, shaped like a cradle, to serve as an urn; this is below the church of San Lorenzo since no tombs of any kind appear above, although one can see there the epitaph on Cosimo de' Medici's tomb, which, like the others, has its opening beneath.

It is said that after he had finished the model for the tomb of Pope Martin V, Donatello's brother, Simone, sent for him to see it before it was cast. So Donatello left for Rome, and he arrived there at the very time that the Emperor Sigismund went to be crowned by Pope Eugene IV. As a result, Donatello had to busy himself along with his brother in preparing the principal decorations for the festival, for which he won great honour and fame. In the wardrobe of the Lord Duke Guidobaldo of Urbino is a very beautiful marble head by Donatello which, it is thought, was given to the duke's ancestors by Giuliano de' Medici when he was received at that brilliant court.

In short, Donatello aimed so high and achieved so much that he may be said to have been one of the first in modern times to shed light, by his practice, judgement, and knowledge, on the art of sculpture and good design. He deserves all the more praise inasmuch as in his time no antiquities had been discovered and unearthed, apart from the columns, sarcophagi, and triumphal arches. And it was largely because of him that Cosimo de' Medici grew ambitious to introduce to Florence the antiquities which are still in the house of the Medici, all of which he restored with his own hand. Donatello was a man of great generosity, graciousness, and courtesy, more considerate towards his friends than towards himself. Nor did he ever set much store by money; what he had, he kept in a basket suspended by a cord from the ceiling, and all his workmen and friends could take what they wanted without asking. He was very happy in his old age, but when he became senile and was no longer able to work he had to be assisted by Cosimo and by other of his friends.

It is said that when Cosimo was about to die he recommended Donatello to the care of his son Piero, who, anxious to carry out dutifully what his father wanted, gave him a farm at Cafaggiuolo which provided an income on which he could live comfortably. This made Donatello very content, since it meant that he was at least saved from the prospect of dying of hunger. All the same he had not held it a year before he returned to Piero and publicly made the farm over to him again, insisting that he did not want to lose peace of mind by having to worry about running a household and being molested by the tenant, a peasant who was always getting in his way and complaining now because the wind had blown away the roof of his dovecot, now because his cattle had been confiscated by the Commune for taxes, or because a storm had destroyed his wine and his fruit. Donatello grew so sick and tired of all this that he said he would rather die of hunger than have to think about so many things. Piero laughed at his simplicity, and then, to free him from his torments, he accepted the farm, as Donatello insisted, and assigned him from his own bank an allowance worth at least as much as the farm had brought him, but paid in cash every week. Donatello was more than satisfied with this arrangement and, as a friend and servant of the Medici family, he lived carefree and happy all the rest of his life, although when he reached the age of eighty he became so palsied that he could no longer work at all, and he had to keep to his bed in a poor little house which he had in the Via del Cocomero, near the nunnery of San Niccolò. He grew worse from day to day and gradually wasted away until he died on 13 December 1466. He was buried in the church of San Lorenzo, near Cosimo's own tomb, as he himself had directed, so that just as he had always been near Cosimo in spirit while alive so his body might be near him after death.

Donatello's death plunged into mourning the citizens and artists of Florence and all who had known him. Honouring him more after his death than they did while he lived, they buried him honourably in San Lorenzo, and all the painters, architects, sculptors, and goldsmiths, the whole city almost, assisted at his funeral. And for a long time afterwards various verses in different languages were continually composed in his praise, as can be adequately seen in the few examples that I give below.

Before I come to these epitaphs, however, it would be wrong not to record the following. When Donatello was ill, shortly before he died, some relations of his came to see him. After the usual greetings and condolences they told him that it was his duty to bequeath them a farm that he owned at Prato; and although it was small and yielded very little they begged him for it very insistently. When he heard this Donatello, who had a great sense of fairness, said:

I am afraid I cannot satisfy you, because it seems only right to me to leave it to the peasant who has always worked it, and who has toiled there, rather than to you, who have not given anything to it but always thought that it would be yours, and now hope to make it so just by this visit. Now go away, and God bless you.

This is certainly the way to treat relations whose love is given only because of what they gain or hope to gain. Anyhow, Donatello called the notary and left the farm to the labourer who had always worked it and who had certainly behaved better towards him in his need than those relations had done.

Donatello left his professional belongings to his pupils. These were Bertoldo, a Florentine sculptor, who imitated his work very closely, as can be seen from a very fine bronze battle-scene of men on horseback that is now in Duke Cosimo's wardrobe; Nanni d'Anton di Banco [Italian sculptor, contemporary of Donatello], who died before him; Rossellino [one of an Italian family of sculptors and architects]; Desiderio [Italian sculptor Desiderio da Settignano]; and Vellano of Padua. But, indeed, it can be said that since Donatello's death anyone wanting to do good work in relief has been his pupil.

His draughtsmanship was strong and he made his designs so skilfully and boldly that they have no equal. This can be seen in my book of drawings, where I have both nude and draped figures drawn by his hand, various animals which astound anyone who sees them, and other beautiful things of the same kind.…

The world remained so full of Donatello's works that it may be said with confidence that no artist has ever produced more than he did. He delighted in everything, and so he tried his hand at everything, without worrying whether what he was doing was worthwhile or not. Nevertheless, this tremendous activity of Donatello's, in every kind of relief, full, half, low, and the lowest, was indispensable to sculpture. For whereas in the good times of the ancient Greeks and Romans sculpture was brought to a state of perfection by many hands, he alone by his many works restored its magnificence and perfection in our own age. Artists should, therefore, trace the greatness of the art back to him rather than to anyone born in modern times. For as well as solving the problems of sculpture by executing so many different kinds of work, he possessed invention, design, skill, judgement, and all the other qualities that one may reasonably expect to find in an inspired genius. Donatello was very determined and quick, and he executed his works with the utmost facility, always accomplishing much more than he promised.

All his work on hand he left to his pupil Bertoldo, chiefly the bronze pulpits in San Lorenzo, which were then for the greater part polished by Bertoldo and brought to their present state.

I must not omit to mention that the very learned and Very Reverend Don Vincenzo Borghini, whom I have mentioned in another connexion, having collected in a big book innumerable designs by outstanding painters and sculptors, ancient as well as modern, has very appositely written in the margin, where there are two pages facing each other with drawings by Donatello and Michelangelo Buonarroti, … two Greek phrases.… In Latin, they read as follows: Aut Donatus Bonarrotum exprimit et refert, aut Bonarrotus Donatum. And when translated, they run: Either the spirit of Donatello moves Buonarroti, or that of Buonarroti first moved Donatello

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