Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, universally known as Donatello, was born in Florence around 1386 and died there in 1466. The powerful expressivity of his art made him the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance. Masterpieces from the first phases of his career include the vigilant marble Saint George, made for the guildhall of Orsanmichele (ca. 1417; Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence); the gilt-bronze Saint Louis of Toulouse at the Church of Santa Croce, Florence (ca. 1422–25); and his bronze relief of The Feast of Herod and statuettes of angels on the baptismal font in the Baptistery of Siena (1425–29). Vasari’s description of the first gives us some idea of the impact on his contemporaries of the young Donatello’s work: “…There is a marvelous suggestion of life bursting out of the stone.” Two of his characteristic formal contributions are encountered in the work for Siena. The relief is organized by a rigorous application of the rules of perspective that makes each figure emerge clearly and logically, even though the scene was modeled at a shallow depth; this is called rilievo schiacciato, or flattened relief. Each of these angels, of which the best known is now in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, is arranged in a graceful spiraling pose, known as the figura serpentinata, so that the eye is encouraged to move around the figure and take in the whole.
To his middle period belongs the marble Cantoria, or “singing gallery,” with its frieze of frenzied infants (1433–39; Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence), and the even more famous bronze David, made for the Medici family (ca. 1440; Bargello, Florence).
From 1443 to 1453, Donatello worked in the northern Italian city of Padua. There he designed a monumental sculpted high altarpiece for the church known as the Santo. Although now dismantled, the overwhelming effect of this sacra conversazione of saints surrounding the Virgin and Child, with narrative scenes set below as on a predella, can readily be imagined. In Padua, he also created a great bronze equestrian statue of the military commander Gattamelata (erected 1453), a revival of an ancient Roman type, and the first such sculpture to come down from the Renaissance.
Donatello spent his old age in Florence, often working for the Medici. The twisting, heroic bronze group Judith Slaying Holofernes (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence) was originally in their palace, and they were also the patrons of the dramatic bronze reliefs that narrate the Passion of Christ on the pulpits in San Lorenzo (unfinished at his death).
Donatello influenced Italian sculptors, notably Michelangelo, well into the sixteenth century. His work outside Italy is exceedingly rare; there is only one relief by him in the United States, a fine marble Madonna in rilievo schiacciato in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The Metropolitan Museum has only works that benefited from his style, the best being a fountain figure of a winged infant from the mid-fifteenth century (1983.356), almost certainly made to surmount a fountain in the Palazzo Medici, Florence. In it can be seen the sinuous forms of the figura serpentinata that originated with Donatello. The model has even been attributed to Donatello himself.
James David Draper
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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