Donatello (part I)

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, better known as Donatello, was born in Florence around 1386. The son of Niccolò di Betto Bardi (a member of the Florentine Arte della Lana, the wool guild of Florence), Donatello received his early artistic training in a goldsmith’s workshop, and then worked briefly in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti where he was one of his assistants (ca.? 1403). Donatello was a disciplined and workaholic master that worked with stone, bronze, wood, clay, stucco and wax. In the period between 1402–1404, Donatello visited Rome during long and frequent stays to study its ancient ruins accompanied by his friend Filippo Brunelleschi, a close friendship that would last at least 30 years. In 1406 Donatello obtained one of his first commissions to work on the marble sculptures for the Porta della Mandorla of the Florence Cathedral.

Prophet (originally placed above the Porta della Mandorla), marble, by Donatello, 1406-1408, 1.31 m height (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence). From 1406 to 1408 Donatello worked in collaboration with Nanni di Banco in the workshop of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. There, he executed the so-called Profetini for the Porta della Mandorla. These are two small statues of Prophets originally placed above Nanni’s large bas-relief of the Assumption on the tympanum. Modern scholars attribute the Prophet shown above as a work by Donatello, which shows more the influence of Ghiberti’s Gothic style.

Donatello’s artistic beginnings occurred during years of great creative activity in Florence, especially concerning ongoing works on the Cathedral, the Orsanmichele and even the Baptistery, with the commissioning of its bronze doors. It was precisely in the workshops destined for the works of the Cathedral that, towards the end of the 14th century, an influx of classical figurative motifs was introduced into the then traditional Tuscan Gothic art forms. Thus, Donatello opened his eyes for the first time to art when there was this mingle between Gothic styles and the classical modulation of the human figure. The then greatest exponent of this trend was Lorenzo Ghiberti when, in 1402, begun to work on the magnificent doors for the Baptistery. And was precisely for this same Baptistery of Florence that Donatello assisted Lorenzo Ghiberti in the production of the statues of prophets that were to be placed at its north door, and for which he received payment in November 1406 and early 1408. Later, for a niche of the old Florence cathedral facade, he produced the colossal seated figure of Saint John the Evangelist (between 1410–1411, now placed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo). In this magnificent and luminous work, Donatello already departed from the late Gothic style in an effort to give more naturalism to the human figure and to the depiction of human feelings. In the Byzantine tradition, St. John was portrayed as a beardless youth. Donatello, however, departed from this tradition, representing him as a wise old man, almost resembling a philosopher. The ancient Roman style is also evident in the grandiose manner in which the Evangelist was represented: his face, shoulders and chest follow idealized Roman norms, whereas his hands, legs and clothing’s folds are more naturalistic and in tune with developing humanism of the time. The venerable figure of the old man appears sitting in his chair in dignified contemplation, casting his eyes to heaven as though experiencing a vision, while his left hand rests on a large book, in reference to his writings. This statue represents one example of how Donatello applied the principles of perspective to his sculptures. Originally, the visitors to the Cathedral would have to look up at the statue to be able to see it, since it was placed above eye level. To compensate for the distortion that viewers would observe from this angle, Donatello elongated the torso and shortened the legs. In its time, this statue was exceptionally well-received and began a shift in the artistic trends away from Gothic forms and towards naturalism.

St. John the Evangelist, marble, by Donatello, 1410-1411, 2.10 m height (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence). This St. John was to be placed, together with the other Evangelists sculptures by Nanni di Banco, Niccolò di Piero Lamberti and Bernardo Ciuffagni, on the facade of Santa Maria del Fiore in the tabernacle at the side of the central door. Later, in 1587 the St John, along with the other Evangelists, was removed from the facade and placed inside the Cathedral, from where it was finally moved to be kept at the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral. This statue almost seems to anticipate the works of Michelangelo (like his Moses). See for example the saint’s acute and penetrating expression, and the realistic treatment of his open hand on the book.

This particularity of mastering the Gothic art forms together with ​​an enthusiastic familiarity with classical art were a determining factor throughout the artistic career of Donatello. This led him to achieve a high-level of poetic realization in his initial works, for example in the marble statue of David (Museo Nazionale del Bargello) sculpted between 1408 and 1409: the arrangement of David’s clothing is still Gothic, but the proud of the young hero, his broad almost bare chest, the purity of his adolescent face and the  Hellenistic beauty of the severed head of Goliath, were all new artistic features that Donatello’s talent was then bringing to art. Donatello portrayed David as a triumphant hero. For the Florentines of the time, David held a particular political significance as a symbol of unconfined liberal thought.

Above and below: David, marble, by Donatello, ca. 1408-1409, 1.91 m height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence).  Although still with a Gothic “air”, this David reflects moral intensity and fierce spiritual pride absent from Gothic forms. This statue was originally placed on the lower frieze of one of the buttresses of the Tribune of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, but it was too small for this site and consequently was moved in 1416 to the Sala dell’Oriuolo in the Palazzo Vecchio (and from there to its actual location in the Bargello). This marble David was sculpted more than a decade before the painters of the time displayed a similar treatment for the human figure.

For the guild church of Orsanmichele Donatello was commissioned with a good number of important works. These included a statue of St. Mark (between 1411–1413) and one of Saint George for the guild of the armorers and sword makers (completed in 1417). This Donatello’s sculpture shows a solid, independent attitude, a spontaneous and conscious gravitation of the figure on the ground (reminiscent of ancient classical examples from Polykleitos’ Doryphoros onward), which represents a solid documentation of this re-interpretation of the realism and dignity of the human figure in ancient art, a solid testament for what will become the conscious and explicit herald of the Italian Renaissance. In this statue, Donatello portrayed the evangelist Saint Mark standing in classic contrapposto, thus reviving its use in freestanding sculpture. He stands atop a pillow, which was typically considered as a symbol of holiness, although here probably places some emphasis on the Saint’s weight to show us the idea that he is a real person because the physical world around him reacts to his body. St. Mark holds a book in his left hand, and stares deeply into the distance. The veins of St. Mark’s left hand are visible as he holds a text upon his hip. This depiction of St. Mark is remarkable for its naturalism, displayed in the way drapery was sculpted intending to reveal the saint’s figure: the folds of his toga convey the “behavior” of fabric over a body while also suggesting its forms underneath. For example note how his left knee (slightly forward) pulls at the garment, and how the fabric is piled up on his hip. Again, as with his statue of St. John Evangelist (see before), Donatello included some distortions to account for the sculpture being seen from below, as in its original location the statute was placed above eye level. Among these distortions are his elongated head, torso, neck and hands, though the neck is hidden by a flowing beard. With both, St. John and St. Mark, we can see that Donatello was interested in the perception of the viewer, and it is precisely this sensitivity to audiences and the ability to manipulate his viewers what sets Donatello’s works much apart from contemporary sculptors. This statue of St. Mark by Donatello is generally recognized as the first Renaissance monument.

Saint Mark, marble, by Donatello, 1411–1413, 2.36 m height (Museum of the Orsanmichele church, Florence). This statue was originally placed in an exterior niche of the church, where is now replaced by a copy. This work was commissioned as a part of a broader campaign to adorn the exterior of Orsanmichele. It was ordered by the Linen Weavers’ Guild (the Arte dei Linaiuoli), reason why Donatello emphasized the garments on the figure. All of the original statues on Orsanmichele have been placed in the building’s museum or in the Bargello Museum. The sculptures in the niches are copies. The result is that viewers can now see Donatello’s Saint Mark but at ground level, totally contrary to the artist’s original intention.

Whether representing isolated figures or in group scenes, Donatello’s will and artistic ability were extraordinary in terms of the poetic interpretation of the subject and the organization around a focal narrative point. This is exemplified in the statue of Saint George we just mentioned (1415-1417), also for the Orsanmichele: “with a wonderful gesture like it would be able to move within the stone” as Vasari wrote. In fact, the stone mass articulates into a structure that is both impressive in its simplicity, monumental in its iconography and astonishingly natural, all together representing the model figure of the warrior citizen and the collective civic dreams of the Florentines, in vogue during the time. The elegant relief of St. George and the Dragon (ca. 1416) on this Saint George statue’s base, executed in schiacciato (a very low bas-relief) is one of the first known examples of one-point perspective* in sculpture. Donatello carved his St. George with a confident posture. He stands tall holding his shield in front of him, his cloak gathering over his chest in a tight knot and falling in folds reminiscent of Gothic types. His whole figure emphasizes both inner concentration and physical strength. His whole figure gives the viewer the impression he is ready to confront enemies coming from different directions. Unlike the statue of St. Mark, St. George doesn’t stand in contrapposto. Instead, both legs are firmly on the ground, though the tip of his left foot partially hangs off the front of the base. This stance has been interpreted as to suggest stability and immobility: St. George is not supposed to be interpreted as moving, but instead, as stable and unmovable, conveying a defensive posture. The reason why Donatello chose to depict such a stance for the figure of St. George probably resides in the political events surrounding Florence during the years leading up to the statue’s creation. Although Florence was a free Republic during this time, it faced threats by other cities who were then more powerful. Donatello’s depiction of St. George seems to reflect the idea of standing tall against an approaching enemy. This spirit of strength is also apparent in St. George’s face, as well as the tension of a soldier who’s alerted to imminent danger: he turns his neck slightly to his left, his mouth is barely opened, and his pupils show a glance which is up and to his left, rather than directly in front of him. This expression implies intense concentration, which is also highlighted by his wrinkled brow. The type of this St. George probably was based upon figures of young Christian warriors taken from Byzantine representations, but it seems that the head was principally inspired by Hellenistic and/or Etruscan models.

Above and below: St. George, marble, by Donatello, 1415-1417, 2.14 m height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). As one of 14 sculptures commissioned by the guilds of Florence to decorate the external niches of the Orsanmichele church (see also Donatello’s statue of St. Mark, above), the statue of St. George was commissioned by the guild of the armorers and sword makers (the Arte dei Corazzai e Spadai). During the several St. George’s feast days throughout the year, the guild placed intricate metal adornments including a sword, helmet, and belt on the statue creating a spectacular contrast of metal against marble. St. George was the patron saint of the armorer’s guild.

Above and below: St. George and the Dragon, marble, by Donatello, ca. 1416, 39 x 120 cm (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). A popular tale involving St. George defeating the dragon came to be known through the collection of stories called the Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) in the late 13th century. For the base of the niche in which the statue of St. George (see above pictures) was placed, Donatello carved a bas-relief representing George’s combat with the dragon for the freeing of the Princess of Cappadocia. For this relief, Donatello used the technique known as rilievo schiacciato, or flattened relief. This was the first example in which Donatello applied techniques characteristic of medal-making, painting and drawing, to relief in marble. This highly skilled technique allowed Donatello to place his figures in movement against a landscape, in which he placed careful attention to linear perspective thus creating an illusion of space.

Between 1418-1420, the Republic of Florence commissioned other sculpture to Donatello. This time, the theme was to represent a traditional insignia of the city of Florence and was to be placed in the apartment of Pope Martin V at Santa Maria Novella, resting atop a column at the foot of the stairs that led to the sale del papa (“Papal apartments”) in the convent.  The Marzocco (or heraldic lion, symbol of Florence) was sculpted in pietra serena. After the staircase where the statue was placed was demolished ca. 1515, the Marzocco of Donatello was located in the Piazza della Signoria in 1812, where now stands a replica, the original sculpture being moved to the Bargello Museum in Florence. Amongst the many renditions of the Marzocco existing throughout the city of Florence, Donatello’s is undoubtedly the most famous. Donatello’s Marzocco shows a sitting lion cradling the Florentine coat-of-arms with the red lily, both being the symbols of the city of Florence. The figure of the lion is extremely realistic, with a proud and wise look. Its upper torso is extended to highlight its lush mane and its posture tries to humanize the creature.

Marzocco, pietra serena sandstone, by Donatello, ca. 1418-1420, 1.36 m height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). The lion, seen as the embodiment of the proud Florentine character, holds the city’s lily coat of arms. Donatello outdid all earlier depictions of Florence’s heraldic insignia in the liveliness of its expression.

Donatello was influenced by Brunelleschi’s new architectural concepts: the theme of the stupendous tabernacle of Saint Louis of Toulouse (1421-1425), also for the Orsanmichele and now in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce, included a classical frame (also sculpted by Donatello) which remains in situ (the statue of Saint Louis was replaced in 1460 by the Doubt of Saint Thomas by Verrocchio). Donatello (together with Masaccio, his friend) were the first to give their figurations the principles of perspective established by Brunelleschi: Donatello even predated this with his bas-relief from the tabernacle of Saint George (1417) which we mentioned before. St. Louis of Toulouse is Donatello’s earliest surviving bronze sculpture and its casting was carried out in eight separate pieces making it technically very demanding. Donatello portrayed St. Louis as a young man in flowing ecclesiastical robes and mitre. One noticeable feature of the statue is the conspicuous disparity between the saint’s body and the over-large proportions of his clothing. St. Louis appears holding a pastoral staff and raises his fingers of his free hand as if wishing to quietly interject with his thoughts. Saint Louis has boyish features with a feel of naive expression which are contrasted with the glory of the attributes related to his priesthood. Here, Donatello again borrowed styles based on Greek and Roman art with great emphasis on human emotions and nature.

Above and below: St. Louis of Toulouse, gilded bronze, by Donatello, 1421-1425, 2.26 m height (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce, Florence). The statue was commissioned by the Parte Guelfa (Guelphs) for its empty tabernacle on Orsanmichele. They wanted a historical figure whose life could be seen as an example of obedience to the Pope: Louis had given up his crown for the religious life, an ideal also favored by the Guelphs. Donatello also designed its original niche in Orsanmichele, but in 1459 the niche was sold to the Tribunale della Mercanzia and used for their commission “The Doubt of St. Thomas” by Verrocchio. The statue then was taken to Santa Croce (which St Louis had visited) and was placed on a central niche in the facade. The statue is now in the museum of the Basilica.


Marzocco: The heraldic lion that is a symbol of the city of Florence (Italy). The term Marzocco, probably roots from the Latin word Marte or Mars, the Roman god of war.

One-point perspective: A drawing has one-point perspective when it contains only one vanishing point on the horizon line.