Donatello was a Genius.

Donatello was a Genius.
22 September 2016 0 Comment

How does one measure genius? Perhaps it’s enough simply to say, Donatello.

He was born in Florence sometime in 1386 and christened with the rather long name Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi. We know him as Donatello, the son of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild. This gave the young Donatello status as the son of a craftsman and placed him on a path of working in the trades. As a young man he thrived on hard work and the continual discoveries he unearthed in the vibrant and exacting worlds of the Florentine guilds.  Donatello was educated at the home of the Martellis, a wealthy and influential Florentine family of bankers and art patrons closely tied to the Medici family. It was here that Donatello probably first received artistic training from a local goldsmith. He learned metallurgy and the fabrication of metals and other substances. In 1403, he apprenticed with the Florentine metalsmith and sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. A few years later, Ghiberti was commissioned to create the bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral, beating out rival artist Filippo Brunelleschi. While Donatello assisted Ghiberti in creating the cathedral doors a friendship that lasted a lifetime was evolving between two great minds; Donatello and Brunelleschi.

The two men traveled to Rome to study classical art. Details of the trip are not well known, but it is believed that the two artists gained valuable knowledge excavating the ruins of classical Rome. The experience gave Donatello a deep understanding of ornamentation and classic forms, important knowledge that would eventually change the face of 15th-century Italian art. His association with Brunelleschi likely influenced him in the Gothic style that can be seen in much of Donatello’s early work. Early pieces reflect the prevailing Gothic influences in the young man’s work and certainly gave no indication of what was to come.

His hands could barely keep up with his rapidly maturing ideas about art; and from this fermentation of talent, a great eye and a profound intellectual curiosity, Donatello soon began to develop a style all his own, with figures much more dramatic and emotional. Between 1411 and 1413, he sculpted the marble figure St. Mark, placed in an exterior niche of the Orsanmichele Church, which also served as the chapel of Florence’s powerful craft and trade guilds. It’s a fine statue that reveals his preference for the contrapposto pose that imbued the piece with greater realism. A couple of years later Donatello changed the course of sculpture in Europe when he completed his St. George around 1416.

Vasari could barely contain himself when he wrote, “For the Armourers’ Guild Donatello made a very spirited figure of St George in armour, expressing in the head of this saint the beauty of youth, courage and valour in arms, and a terrible ardour. Life itself seems to be stirring vigorously within the stone”.

I first saw the original St. George by Donatello many years ago in the Bargello Museum in Florence where it is displayed; protected from the harsh climate of the city. It is a wondrous piece to behold. And the more I studied the work the more I realized that another was studying the same statue with a mind that readily absorbed Donatello’s genius and who some eighty seven years later had created his masterpiece, David. Michelangelo clearly was influenced not just by the stance of St. George, turning from the waist to the left as does David, but one can also see how Donatello’s intense sculpting of the determined expression on the face of St. George inspired the same sort of expression on the David. Michelangelo was leaning from a genius and the one man that could be called his master.

Donatello had arrived and was quickly gaining a reputation for creating imposing, larger-than-life figures using innovative techniques and extraordinary skills. His style incorporated the new science of perspective, which allowed the sculptor to create figures that occupied measurable space. Before this time, European sculptors used a flat background upon which figures were placed. Donatello also drew heavily from reality for inspiration in his sculptures, accurately showing suffering, joy and sorrow in his figures’ faces and body positions. His work in three dimensions was opening the door to realism in art and what would became known as the Renaissance.

After much travel and approaching his own mortality, Donatello returned to Florence in 1455, where he completed an inspired masterpiece in wood. His Magdalene Penitent; a confronting statue even today for those lucky enough to see her in person of a gaunt-looking Mary Magdalene. Commissioned by the convent at Santa Maria di Cestello, the work was probably intended to provide comfort and inspiration to the repentant prostitutes at the convent. For Donatello perhaps it was his parting gift to the world he strode as an artistic giant. His time was coming to end but even in old age he continued his work taking on commissions from wealthy patrons of the arts. His lifelong friendship with the Medici family earned him a retirement allowance to live on the rest of his life.

He died of unknown causes on December 13, 1466, in Florence and was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, next to Cosimo de’ Medici. His friends grieved and the rich and powerful sung his praises; his legacy transformed art and sculpture in particularly. Around 1490 Bertoldo di Giovanni, a former student of Donatello’s discovered and brought into his sculptural school that was housed and funded by the great Lorenzo de’ Medici, the 15 year old Michelangelo. Donatello would have approved of that selection.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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