Donatello was one of the most famous sculptors from the Renaissance. His career spanned five decades and produced some of the most iconic works of the period.
He was born in approximately 1386 and worked predominantly in Florence, Italy.
Donatello is primarily known for his freestanding statues and his architectural relief work. His career began under the mentorship of Lorenzo Ghiberti. His earliest known commission was to complete the enormous marble statue of St. John the Evangelist for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral between 1409-1411. From the very beginning his work exuded a tremendous naturalism that led the shift away from Gothic Mannerism.
Between 1411-1413 Donatello worked on a likeness of St. Mark for a niche on the Orsanmichele cathedral wall. It joined religious iconography created by Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and other accomplished sculptors. He later added a statue of St. George to the Orsanmichele collection.
These figures were proportionally adjusted to appear incredibly lifelike to the viewer even when placed high above the eye level. Donatello was adept at extending leg lengths or torso sizes to create a distinctly humanizing effect. The saints were classically styled in their busts and facial expressions, yet the draping and realism in their hands was an unprecedented advancement for Donatello.
Donatello's skill level working with freestanding statues continued to advance while he also experimented with new techniques in marble relief work. He is credited with inventing a form of relief called "schiacciato" which translates to mean "flattened out." This extremely precise technique allowed for more dimension to be carved into marble panels that often decorated cathedral interiors.
St. George and the Dragon may be one of Donatello's most famous relief works. His technique allowed for a greater sense of linear perspective and was a significant departure from classical relief work. The delicately etched background is a distinct contrast to the powerful subject matter.
By the 1430s Donatello had long been considered a master sculptor. He had created a great deal of relief work, and five statues for Florence's Duomo cathedral. Among these Lo Zuccone may be the most popular and was reported to have been the sculptor's favorite work. The bald figure of the prophet Habakkuk stands in draped prayer robes. His eyes appear to be sorrowful and questioning. Vasari recorded that Donatello would stare into the statue's eyes pleading with him to speak.
His work David and the Head of Goliath could be considered a turning point in his career. It represented a shift to towards extreme naturalism and was a clear indication of Donatello's neoplatonic viewpoint. The work depicts a nude David standing with one foot atop the head of Goliath. His physically delicate nature implies that he had divine assistance slaying the giant.
In the 1440s Donatello traveled to Padua. His journey was primarily the result of a commission to create a grand equestrian tribute to Erasmo da Narni. The large bronze statue still sits in a public square in Padua and is the most well-known piece he created during the period. He also executed a bronze Crucifix and several other statues for the Basilica of St. Anthony.
After his return to Florence in the 1450s Donatello completed some of his most striking work commenting on the sorrow of the human condition. His physical frailty was increasing, and he used work like Penitent Mary to express his own perception of mortality.
Donatello died in 1466 and was interred at the Basilica of San Lorenzo. His legacy remains in innumerable pieces housed in museums and cathedrals throughout Italy.