Cinq maîtres de la Renaissance florentine Musée du Louvre Peintures INV 267 - Donatello.jpg
Donatello, in a 16th-century portrait by an unknown artist[1]
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi

c. 1386
Died13 December 1466(1466-12-13) (aged 79–80)
Republic of Florence
Known forSculpture
Notable workSaint George, David, Equestrian Monument of Gattamelata
MovementEarly Renaissance
David at the Bargello, in Florence
David at the Bargello, in Florence

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (c. 1386 – 13 December 1466), better known as Donatello (English: /ˌdɒnəˈtɛl/[2] Italian: [donaˈtɛllo]), was an Italian sculptor of the Renaissance period.[3] Born in Florence, he studied classical sculpture and used his knowledge to develop a Renaissance style of sculpture. He spent time in other cities, where he worked on commissions and taught others; his periods in Rome, Padua, and Siena introduced to other parts of Italy the techniques he had developed in the course of a long and productive career. His David was the first freestanding nude male sculpture since antiquity; like much of his work it was commissioned by the Medici family.

He worked with stone, bronze, wood, clay, stucco, and wax, and used glass in inventive ways. He had several assistants, with four perhaps being a typical number. Although his best-known works are mostly statues in the round, he developed a new, very shallow, type of bas-relief for small works, and a good deal of his output was architectural reliefs for pulpits, altars and tombs, as well as Madonna and Childs for homes.

Broad, overlapping, phases can be seen in his style, beginning with the development of expressiveness and classical monumentality in statues, then developing energy and charm, mostly in smaller works. Later he reacts against the "sweet style" he had helped to develop, with a number of stark, even brutal pieces. The sensuous eroticism of his most famous work, the bronze David, is very rarely seen in other pieces.

Working and personal life

All accounts describe Donatello as amiable and well-liked, but rather poor at the business side of his career.[4] Like Michelangelo in the next century, he tended to accept more commissions than he could handle,[5] and many works were either completed some years late, handed to other sculptors to finish, or never produced. Again like Michelangelo, he enjoyed steady support and patronage from the Medici family.

All sources agree that he carved stone and modelled clay or wax for bronzes very quickly and confidently, and art historians feel able to distinguish his hand from that of others, even within the same work. Italian Renaissance sculptors nearly always used assistants, with the master often giving parts of a piece over to them, but Donatello, who would perhaps not have been good at managing a large workshop like that of Ghiberti,[6] seems to have had at most times a relatively small number of experienced assistants, many of whom became significant masters in their own right. The technical quality of his work can vary, especially in bronze pieces, where casting faults may occur; even the bronze David has a hole under his chin.[citation needed]

16th-century portrait of Florentine culture heros: Giotto, Paolo Ucello, Donatello,  Antonio Manetti, Brunelleschi.[7]
16th-century portrait of Florentine culture heros: Giotto, Paolo Ucello, Donatello, Antonio Manetti, Brunelleschi.[7]

Donatello certainly made drawings, probably especially for reliefs. In the case of his stained glass designs and perhaps other works these were his whole contribution. Vasari claimed to have several in his collection, which he praised highly: "I have both nude and draped figures, various animals which astound anyone who sees them, and other beautiful things..".[8] But very few surviving drawings are now accepted as probably by his own hand, and these are strong and lively sketches with figures, such as the three in its collections that the French government still attributes to Donatello himself.

A story told both by Vasari and the earlier Pomponio Gaurico says that he kept a bucket containing money hanging on a cord from the ceiling of his workshop, from which those around could take if they needed it.[9] A tax return from 1427, near the peak of his career, shows a much lower income than Ghiberti's for the same year,[10] and he seems to have died in modest circumstances, although this may not have been of concern to him;[11] "he was very happy in his old age" according to Vasari.[12]

Early life

Donatello was born in Florence, probably in 1386, based on his own later statement in his catasto tax declaration; he claimed to be 41 years old in July 1427.[13] He was the son of Niccolò di Betto Bardi, who was a "wool-stretcher" (tiratore di lana) and member of the Florentine Arte della Lana, the wool workers guild, which probably provided a good income.[14]

Donatello's actual surname was therefore Bardi, but if he was related to the well known Bardi family of bankers, it seems to have been rather distantly.[15] The banker Bardis were still wealthy and powerful, despite the default of Edward III of England in 1345 having caused the failure of their bank. After Contessina de' Bardi married Cosimo de' Medici around 1415, any connection he had might still have been useful to Donatello. However, Donatello's father did have a connection with the powerful Buonaccorso Pitti, whose diary records a fight in Pisa in 1380 in which Niccolò intervened, giving Pitti's opponent a fatal blow.[16]

Vasari's claim that Donatello was raised and educated in the house of the prominent Martelli family is probably baseless, and given for literary, even political reasons. They were certainly later keen patrons of Donatello, and also commissioned work from Vasari himself.[17]

Early career

Donatello's first appearance in any documentary records is unpromising; in January 1401, at the age of about 15, he was accused in Pistoia, 25 miles from Florence and then controlled by it, of hitting a German with a stick, drawing blood.[18] He was probably there with his father, who had an official job in Pistoia at the time, while Buonaccorso Pitti was the Captain, or governor.[19] While there Donatello appears to have befriended, and perhaps worked with, Filippo Brunelleschi, who was some ten years older (born in 1377), and although not yet a master goldsmith, working on silver figures for an altar in Pistoia Cathedral. What experience Donatello had to assist him, if that was what he was doing, is unclear.[20]

Ghiberti workshop, north doors for the Florence Baptistery, Resurrection of Lazarus
Ghiberti workshop, north doors for the Florence Baptistery, Resurrection of Lazarus

Both Donatello and Brunelleschi returned to Florence in early 1401, in time for Brunelleschi to take part in the famous competition for the Baptistery doors, often seen as the start of Florentine Renaissance sculpture.[21] Seven sculptors were invited to submit trial panels, for which they were paid; Vasari's Life of Brunelleschi wrongly claims that Donatello was one of them, but they were all more experienced figures. The unexpected result declared by the 34 judges was that the entries by two young Florentines, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, were the best. An attempt was made to get the two to share the commission, but amid bitter recriminations that lasted for years, this failed and Ghiberti was given the whole commission.[22]

Any part played by Donatello, presumably assisting Brunelleschi with his trial piece, is unknown. After the final result in late 1402, or early 1403, they seem to have left for Rome together, staying until at least the next year, to study the artistic and architectural remains left by Ancient Rome, then very abundant, though often still buried. They were very early in this effectively archaeological pursuit, which included measuring remains, and hiring labourers to excavate. The main source for this period is the biography of Brunelleschi by Antonio Manetti (1423–1497), who knew both men.[23] Vasari just repeats a shorter version of Manetti's account, according to which both men were able to support themselves by jobs for Roman goldsmiths, which probably represented important training for Donatello. Perhaps they were also able to sell excavated sculptures.[24] Brunelleschi subsequently mostly remained in Rome, becoming a highly important architect, while Donatello returned to Florence to pursue his career in sculpture.

Donatello is recorded as working as an apprentice, and for the last few months on a salary, in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1404-1407,[25] apparently working on the workshop's main project, the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery,[26] and from 1406 on stone carving on the large surround to the cathedral's Porta della Mandorla, a large project that was still some years from completion. He was paid in November 1406 for a figure of a prophet on the door, but the identification of this is not certain; it may be one now in the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, the cathedral museum.[27]

Early statues for Florence

Saint John the Evangelist for the cathedral, 1409–1411, displayed at near original height.
Saint John the Evangelist for the cathedral, 1409–1411, displayed at near original height.


By early 1408 Donatello had acquired sufficient reputation to be given the commission for a life-size prophet for the cathedral, to be paired with another by Nanni di Banco, a brilliant sculptor of Donatello's age, who seems to have been both a rival and friend.[28] In the end they were not placed as intended, probably because they appeared too small from far below, and the Donatello appears to be lost.[29]

From now on he received a series of commissions for full-size statues for prominent public locations. These are now among his most famous works, but after about 1425 he produced few sculptures of this type. His marble David may date from around this time, or slightly later, perhaps 1412.[30] He was commissioned to rework it in 1416, the cathedral surrendering it to the republic, who placed in the seat of government, the Palazzo Vecchio.[31]

In 1409–1411 he executed the colossal seated figure of Saint John the Evangelist, which occupied a niche of the old cathedral façade until 1588, and is now in the cathedral museum. This was placed with the base about 3 metres from the ground, and Donatello adjusts his composition with this in mind; since 2015 it and other cathedral sculptures have been displayed at their original heights.[32]

In 1415 the cathedral authorities decided to revive and complete medieval projects, and add eight lifesize marble figures for the niches of the higher levels of Giotto's Campanile adjoining the cathedral, as well as complete a row on the cathedral facade (in which Donatello was not involved). All the figures for the campanile series were replaced by replicas in 1940, and the originals moved to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. They were placed very high, and so were seen from a distance, at a sharp angle, factors which needed allowing for in the compositions, and made "fine detail virtually useless for visual effect";[33] Since 2015 the museum's new displays show this and other statues for the cathedral at the intended original heights.

Donatello was responsible for six of the eight campanile figures, in two cases working with the younger Nanni di Bartolo (il Rosso). The commissions and starts stretched between 1414 and 1423, and while most were completed by 1421, the last of his statues was not finished until 1435.[34] This was the striking Zuccone ("Baldy", or "Pumpkin Head" probably intended as Habakkuk or Jeremiah), the best known of the series, and reportedly Donatello's favourite.[35]

His other statues for the campanile are known as: the Beardless Prophet and Bearded Prophet (both from 1414-20); the Sacrifice of Isaac (with Nanni di Batolo, 1421); il Populano, a prophet not finally finished until 1435.[36]

The visibility of statues high on the cathedral buildings was to remain a concern for the rest of the century; Michelangelo's David was intended for such a place, but proved too heavy to raise and support. Donatello, with Brunelleschi, proposed a large but lightweight solution, and made a prophet Joshua with a brick core, then a modelled layer of clay or terracotta, all painted white. This was put in place on the cathedral some time after 1415, and remained until the 18th century; it was known as the "White Colossus" or homo magnus et albus ("Large White Man").[37]


Orsanmichele, with Donatello's Saint George left of the corner
Orsanmichele, with Donatello's Saint George left of the corner

Another large-scale sculptural project in the city was the completion of the statues for the niches around the outside of the rectangular Orsanmichele, a building owned by the guilds of Florence, which was in the process of turning itself from a grain market to a church on the ground floor, still with offices above. There were 14 niches around the outside, and each of the main guilds was responsible for one, normally choosing their patron saint. The location had the advantage that the niches were much lower than on the cathedral, with the feet of the statues some three metres above ground level.[38]

St. George, for Orsanmichele, now Bargello

Nevertheless, according to a story in Vasari, Donatello had trouble with his first statue for Orsanmichele, a marble St. Mark (1411–1413) for the linen-weavers guild. Viewing the finished statue at ground level, the weavers did not like it. Donatello got them to put it in its niche and cover it up while he worked to improve it. After two weeks under cover, he showed it in position, without having done any work on it, and they happily accepted it.[39] Like most of the Orsanmichele statues, this has been moved to the museum inside, and replaced by a replica.

About 1415 to 1417 he completed the marble Saint George for the Confraternity of the Cuirass-makers or armourers; the important relief on the base is discussed below, and was slightly later.[40] Because of a staircase on the other side of the wall, the niche is shallower than the others, but Donatello turns this to his advantage, pushing the figure forward into space, and with the "anxious look" on the face suggesting alertness or prontezza, "the quality above all others singled out for praise in the successive Renaissance eulogies of the work". Holes and the shape of a hand suggest that the figure was originally fitted with a wreath or helmet on his head, and carried a sword or lance; the client would have been able to supply these pieces in bronze.[41]

The gilt-bronze Saint Louis of Toulouse dates to some years later, 1423-25. It is now in the museum of the Basilica di Santa Croce, having been replaced in 1460 by the bronze Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Verrocchio. It is technically very unusual, as it was built up from a number of sections cast and gilded separately, necessitated by the difficulty of fire-gilding a whole over-life size figure. The collaboration with Michelozzo may have begun with this piece,[42] and 1423 marks the beginning of Donatello's documented work in bronze, with three recorded commissions that year: the Saint Louis, a reliquary bust of Saint Rossore, and the relief for the Siena Baptistery discussed below.[43] Michelozzo had great experience with bronze, and no doubt helped with the technical aspects, and Donatello took to the medium very quickly.[44]


In 1418 the Signoria commissioned a large and imposing figure of Florence's heraldic lion, the Marzocco for the entrance to a new apartment at Santa Maria Novella built for a rare visit by the pope; in the event he did not finish it in time.[45] It was later placed in the Piazza della Signoria, where there is now a replica, with the original in the Bargello Museum.

Before about 1410 he made the painted wooden crucifix now in Santa Croce,[46] which features in a famous story in Vasari. It portrays a very realistic Christ in a moment of agony, eyes, and mouth partially opened, the body contracted in an ungraceful posture. According to the story, Donatello proudly showed it to Brunelleschi, who complained it made Christ look like a peasant,[47] at which Donatello challenged him to do something better; he then produced the Brunelleschi Crucifix. At the time Brunelleschi's more classical figure was probably considered to have won the contest, but modern tastes may dispute this.[48]

Stiacciato relief style

Saint George Freeing the Princess, base of his Saint George for Orsanmichele, Bargello

Donatello became famous for his reliefs, especially his development of a very "low" or shallow relief style, called stiacciato (literally "flattened-out"), where all parts of the relief are low. This contrasted with the developing technique of other sculptors who included very high and low relief in the same composition, with Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise" doors (1424-1451) for the Florence Baptistery a leading example.[49]

The Feast of Herod (1423–1427), baptismal font, Siena Baptistery
The Feast of Herod (1423–1427), baptismal font, Siena Baptistery

Donatello's "first milestone" in the technique is his marble Saint George Freeing the Princess on the base of his Saint George for Orsanmichele. The figures project slightly forward, but "by skilful overlaps are brought back into a tightly-stretched unified skin-plane which is scarcely broken in surface relief to suggest a deep, though not limitless, space".[50] The relief does not provide a "completely coherent system of perspective" (nor did any Italian work for some five or six years after), but the arcaded hall on the right represents a partial scheme of perspective.[51]

His next major development in this direction was in bronze, still a relatively new medium for him. Ghiberti had been involved from 1417 for a project for the font at the Siena Baptistery; it seems to have been his idea to have six bronze, rather than marble, reliefs, and these were allocated to him, Jacopo della Quercia, and a local father and son team. By 1423 Ghiberti had not even started work, and one relief, The Feast of Herod was given to Donatello instead (the overall subject was the life of John the Baptist).[52]

This is placed low, the bottom at about the level of the viewer's knee, and the relief allows for that. The composition has figures in three receding planes defined by the architecture. At left Herod recoils in horror as he is presented with John the Baptist's head on a platter; to the right of centre Salome is still dancing. In a space behind musicians are playing, and beyond them John's head is presented to two figures, one presumably Herodias. It does not represent a full one-point perspective scheme, as there are two vanishing points, perhaps intended to create subliminal impressions of tension and disharmony in the viewer, reflecting the grisly subject.[53]

Pazzi Madonna (1425−1430), marble stiacciato relief, Berlin
Pazzi Madonna (1425−1430), marble stiacciato relief, Berlin

Other stiacciato reliefs include The Assumption of the Virgin in the wall-tomb in Sant'Angelo a Nilo, Naples, (1426-1428, see below), the Madonna of the Clouds and Pazzi Madonna, both c. 1425−1430 and domestic pieces respectively with and without a carved background, The Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter (1428-30), for an unknown location but in the Medici collection by the end of the century, and a small Virgin and Child (perhaps 1426, probably by his workshop).[54]

At all times Donatello and his workshop made more conventional reliefs, at a variety of depths and sizes, and in different materials.[55]

Partnership with Michelozzo

Around 1425 Donatello entered into a formal partnership with Michelozzo, who is mainly remembered as an architect, but was also a sculptor, especially of smaller-scale works in metal. He had trained with the mint making dies for coins, where he still had a salaried position. Michelozzo was the younger by about ten years, and they had probably known each other for years. Michelozzo wanted to extract himself from an arrangement with Ghiberti, and Donatello had too much work, and was poor at organizing a workshop, at which Michelozzo seems to have excelled. Both had very good relations with the Medici family and so their powerful supporters. The partnership was very successful, and was renewed until it had lasted for nine years, when a dispute that was mostly the fault of Donatello ended it.[56]

Dancing spiritelli on the Siena font, 1429
Dancing spiritelli on the Siena font, 1429

The partnership's combination of skills in monumental sculpture and architecture made it well qualified to take on elaborate wall tombs. From 1425 to 1428, they collaborated on the Tomb of Antipope John XXIII in the Florence Baptistery; the executors were Giovanni de' Medici and Medici supporters. Donatello made the recumbent bronze figure of the deceased, and Michelozzo, with assistants, the several figures in stone. The tomb, elegantly integrating a variety of elements into a narrow vertical space, in a classicizing style, made a great impact and "became the model for the Quattrocento wall-tomb whenever an elaborate or particular impressive expression was wanted" with variations found well into the next century.[57]

After his death in 1427, the partnership took on the funerary monument of Cardinal Rainaldo Brancacci, a Medici ally, at the church of Sant'Angelo a Nilo in Naples. The work was done at Pisa on the coast, and the pieces shipped south. A donkey was purchased to help with transport, and in 1426 Donatello had bought a boat to ship marble from Carrara to Pisa. Donatello's personal contribution was probably limited to the Assumption relief discussed above.[58] Finishing in 1429, for the font at the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Siena, apart from the relief of The Feast of Herod (discussed above), he made small bronze statues of Faith and Hope, and three small bronze spiritelli, naked winged putti-like figures, classical in inspiration, and highly influential on later art.[59]

Images of the Virgin and Child, mostly for homes, had long been a staple for Italian painters, and becoming affordable ever lower down the income scale. Now sculptors were producing them as reliefs, in a variety of materials, and with the cheaper terracotta or plaster ones often painted. The attribution of the large numbers of such images is often difficult, especially as the style of Donatello and contemporaries such as Ghiberti continued to be used for them for a long time.[60]

Another type of work for sculptors was coats of arms and other heraldic pieces for the outsides of the palazzi of the great families of the city, of which Donatello made a number. Donatello also restored antique sculptures for the Palazzo Medici.[61]

Section of the Prato pulpit reliefs
Section of the Prato pulpit reliefs

The breakup of the partnership with Michelozzo seems to have been partly precipitated by Donatello's delays in doing his part in the commission for an exterior pulpit for Prato Cathedral; highlights in the year at Prato, close to and controlled by Florence, were when the city's famous relic, the Girdle of Thomas (Sacra Cintola), thought to be the belt the Virgin Mary dropped to Thomas the Apostle as she rose in the air during her Assumption, was displayed to the population from a high pulpit. This took place five times every year, one coinciding with a trade fair that was important for the city's economy. The commission began in 1428, but Donatello did not begin work on his alloted areas for years, despite relentless chasing by the Prato authorities, and finally Cosimo de' Medici.[62]

Donatello's reliefs of dancing children for the pulpit were finally delivered in 1438, and it seems that though designed by Donatello, perhaps using his first idea for the Florence cantoria frieze (see below), they are not believed to have actually carved by him. The Prato authorities were unhappy, and the ten years it had taken to get them finished seems to have strained relations with Michelozzo, and the partnership was not renewed in 1434. The two remained on amicable terms, and were to collaborate later. They are now replaced by replicas, with the rather weathered originals displayed inside the cathedral.[63]

A factor in the delay was probably Donatello's travelling, which increased from about 1430, after a long period of steady work and residence in Florence after his return from Rome in about 1404. In 1430 he worked with Brunelleschi at Lucca on the construction of a defensive dyke and wall, and later in the year visited Pisa, Lucca again and finished the year in Rome, where he spent much of his time until 1433. Some of this travel was to see antiquities, and political difficulties had greatly reduced the flow of commissions in Florence.[64]

Michelozzo was also have been with Donatello in Rome for some of the time, but the few products there of the visits lead art historians to describe the visits as mainly resulting in studying classical works. It is not clear whether anything was actually made there, or executed in Florence and shipped down. There was probably a large papal commission in view, but if so, nothing resulted.[65] The main surviving piece is a tabernacle surround for Saint Peter's in marble relief, 228 cm (89.7 in) high, and now in the museum there. The main figurative sections are a stiacciato panel with the Entombment of Christ, and a total of sixteen child-angels at various points in the classicising architectural framework. This "first clearly defines the Early Renaissance wall-tabernacle type" and was very influential.[66]

There was also the old-fashioned tomb slab for the cleric Giovanni Crivelli in Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which might well not be attributed to Donatello if he had not signed it. It is not clear whether a workshop was opened in Rome, or if these were carved in Florence and shipped down.[67]

It has been speculated that the visits led to meetings between Donatello and Leon Battista Alberti, then in Rome, and perhaps writing his De Statua. There may have been mutual influence, and Donatello seems to have returned from Rome with an interest in a modular system of human proportions. The bronze David uses proportions very close to those Alberti recommends.[68]

Children, putti and spiritelli

Detail of the Cantoria frieze
Detail of the Cantoria frieze

In the 1430s and 1440s Donatello made many sculptures of young children dancing, as well as putti (cherubs) and a variant of these traditionally called spiritelli ("sprites"). Putti were not new in Italian sculpture, but were given a rather unusual prominence by Donatello.[69]

Some early examples are three out of a group of six freestanding bronze spiritelli on the cover for the font of the Siena Baptistery (1429), standing over his earlier relief of the Feast of Herod discussed above. One dances and two play musical instruments. They have been said to be "the first true free-standing figurines of the Renaissance" and were enormously influential, expressing "what was at the heart of the Renaissance—the classical reborn into the Christian".[70]

His most famous work in this genre is his relief frieze for the cantoria or singing gallery of Florence Cathedral. There are two of these galleries rather high on the walls of the nave. Luca della Robbia had been given the commission for the first in 1431, and Donatello for the second in 1433, with his contract promising 20% higher payment if his were more beautiful than della Robbia's.[71]

Amore-Attis, c. 1440-1442
Amore-Attis, c. 1440-1442

The remarkable bronze statue called the Amore-Attis, perhaps from the early 1440s, has one foot in the world of the spiritelli and the other in the sensuous eroticism of the bronze David. The figure has wings and a tail, stands on a snake, and has a variety of classical attributes, too many for a simple identification. He wears leggings that emphasize rather than hide his private parts.[72]

Prato and cantoria

Donatello's return to Florence in 1434 almost coincided with Cosimo's. In May 1434, he signed a contract for the marble pulpit on the facade of Prato cathedral, the last project executed in collaboration with Michelozzo. This work, a passionate, pagan, rhythmically conceived bacchanalian dance of half-nude putti, was the forerunner of the great Cantoria, or singing tribune, at the Duomo in Florence on which Donatello worked intermittently from 1433 to 1440 and was inspired by ancient sarcophagi and Byzantine ivory chests. In 1435, he executed the Annunciation for the Cavalcanti altar in Santa Croce, inspired by 14th-century iconography.

Bronze David

Donatello's bronze David, now in the Bargello museum, is his most famous work, and the first known free-standing nude statue produced since antiquity. Conceived fully in the round, independent of any architectural surroundings, and largely representing an allegory of the civic virtues triumphing over brutality and irrationality, it is arguably the first major work of Italian Renaissance sculpture. It was commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici for the courtyard of his Palazzo Medici, but its date remains the subject of debate. It is most often dated to the 1440s, but dates as late as the 1460s have support from some scholars. It is not to be confused with his stone David, with clothes, of about 1408–09.

Three anecdotes eroticize Donatello's relations with apprentices. He hired especially beautiful boys, and "stained" them so that no one else would find them pleasing; when one assistant left after a quarrel, they made up by "laughing" at each other, a slang term for sex.[73]

The historian Paul Strathern makes the claim that Donatello made no secret of his homosexuality, and that his behaviour was tolerated by his friends.[74] The main evidence comes from anecdotes by Angelo Poliziano in his "Detti piacevoli", where he writes about Donatello surrounding himself with "handsome assistants" and chasing in search of one that had fled his workshop.[75] This may not be surprising in the context of attitudes prevailing in the 15th- and 16th-century Florentine Republic. However, little detail is known with certainty about his private life, and no mention of his sexuality has been found in the Florentine archives (in terms of denunciations)[76] albeit which during this period are incomplete.[77]

Wooden statues

Top of the Penitent Magdalene, wood, c. 1440−1442, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Top of the Penitent Magdalene, wood, c. 1440−1442, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Wood was still used for crucifixes for its lightness. It was also cheap and convenient for transporting long distances, and was usually painted. When a Florentine confraternity in Venice commissioned a statue of John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, still in the Frari Church there, wood was chosen. It was signed and dated 1438 (before this was revealed in conservation work it had been dated later), and was probably the only work by Donatello in the city. He usually did not sign his work, except for some commissions destined for outside Florence.[78]

The redating of the Saint John had knock-on consequences for a far more celebrated wooden figure, the Penitent Magdalene long in the Florence Baptistery (now Museo dell'Opera del Duomo), where the carving style is comparable. This is "formidably expressive" in a stark style found in Donatello's last years, and had been dated to around 1456,[79] until the date was found on the other figure; it is now dated generally to the late 1430s, or at any rate before Donatello went to Padua.[80]

In 2020 the painted wooden crucifix of the church of Sant'Angelo in Legnaia, a suburb of Florence, was attributed by the diocese to Donatello, and dated to the 1460s. This is in a simpler style.[81][82][83][84]

The Old Sacristy

Ascension of John the Baptist, Sagrestia Vecchia, painted stucco relief
Ascension of John the Baptist, Sagrestia Vecchia, painted stucco relief

The Sagrestia Vecchia, as it is now called,[85] of San Lorenzo, Florence was Donatello's last major project before his years in Padua, and forms the only large space almost wholly decorated by him. Opinions have varied as to the success of his scheme ever since. The various parts combine experimentation in some places and conservatism in others, and the whole has failed to achieve the iconic status of the rather similar Pazzi Chapel of a few years later, which perhaps learnt the lessons of the sacristy; Luca della Robbia was the sculptor there.[86]

The sacristy was newly-built, designed by Brunelleschi,[87] and the first part completed of a major reconstruction of the church by the Medicis. It combined the functions of a Medici funerary chapel, containing the tomb of Giovanni and his wife under the vesting table for the vestments to be laid out; both are still in place.[88] The exact dates of Donatello's involvement are unclear, but it is usually placed after the return from exile of the Medicis in 1434, and Donatello's departure for Pisa in 1443/44, probably at the end of the 1430s.[89]

Donatello's additions were two pairs of bronze doors with relief panels, and elaborate architectural surrounds for them, and two sets of large relief roundels below the main dome. In the pendentives are four scenes from the life of John the Baptist, and at the top of the purely decorative arches in pietra serena are ones of the Four Evangelists, sitting at large desks on which their attributes perch. These are all in painted stucco, the evangelists mostly white on a now rather muddy blue-grey background, with gold highlights for the halos. Three of the scenes from John's life have many small figures and complicated architectural settings and backgrounds, while the fourth, set on Patmos has a landscape background. All use a colour scheme of white for the figures, different shades of a terracotta brown for the settings, and the muddy blue-grey for the sky. There are also two large reliefs of pairs of standing Medici patron saints over the doorways, in the same technique and colours. In different places, the stucco was painted both when wet, in a kind of fresco technique, and when dry.[90]

Pair of martyrs, Sagrestia Vecchia doors
Pair of martyrs, Sagrestia Vecchia doors

The bronze doors were relatively small and had a stack of five panels on each door, each containing a pair of standing figures on a plain background, a conservative design, possibly influenced by Early Christian art, such as the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, or consular diptychs. One pair has the Twelve Apostles with other saints making up the numbers, and the other has martyrs, who in most cases cannot be confidently identified. The execution is again uneven, with much probably done by assistants.[91]

The scheme received criticism, by now rather unusual for Donatello, from very early on. The modelling and execution of some of the reliefs was crude, especially the scenes from John's life, and it is often thought that the various added elements distract from the simplicity and harmony of the architecture. The level of detail in the higher reliefs makes them simply hard for the viewer to read from below. According to Antonio Manetti, Brunelleschi's biographer, Donatello did not consult the architect about the additions to the doorways at all, such was his "pride and arrogance".[92]

Filarete, perhaps echoing a comment by Alberti, wrote that the paired figures on the doors looked like fencers; he referred to the apostle doors, though the remark is more fairly applied to the martyrs, most of whom hold thin palm fronds.[93] We do not know how Donatello felt about his finished scheme, but he never used painted stucco again; nor did anyone much else, as within a few years the Della Robbia workshop had perfected painted and glazed terracotta in large pieces, as in the Pazzi Chapel, which was clearly the better technique.[94] The reception of the scheme has been suggested as a factor in Donatello's readiness to abandon Florence for a long period.[95]

In Padua

Equestrian Monument of Gattamelata, 1450

In 1443, Donatello was called to Padua by the heirs of the famous condottiere Erasmo da Narni (better known as the Gattamelata, or 'Honey-Cat'), who had died that year. Completed in 1450 and placed on the square to the left of the Basilica of St. Anthony, his Equestrian Monument of Gattamelata was the first example of such a monument since ancient times. (Other equestrian statues, from the 14th century, had not been executed in bronze and had been placed over tombs rather than erected independently, in a public place.) This work became the prototype for other equestrian monuments executed in Italy and Europe in the following centuries.

For the Basilica of St. Anthony, Donatello created the bronze crucifix of 1444–1447 and additional statues for the choir, including a Madonna and Child and six saints, constituting a Holy Conversation. This is no longer visible since the renovation by Camillo Boito in 1895. The Madonna and Child Enthroned, between St. Francis and St. Anthony, in bronze (c. 1448), portrays the Christ Child being displayed to the faithful by the Madonna, who wears a crown. The Madonna is neither standing nor sitting on the throne but is portrayed in the act of rising. She is flanked by two saints, Anthony of Padua and Francis of Assisi. Shown at the base of her throne, to each side of the Madonna, are sphinxes, allegorical figures of knowledge. On the throne's back is a relief of the Fall of Man, depicting Adam and Eve.[96] During this period, 1446–1450, Donatello also executed four reliefs with scenes from the life of St Anthony for the high altar.[97] He remained in Padua until 1453, when he returned to Florence.

In Siena

Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the possible trial cast for the Siena Cathedral doors. Victoria and Albert Museum

Between 1457 and 1461 Donatello was active in and for Siena, though he was now aging, and perhaps mostly contributed designs and modelli rather than carving much himself, at least in stone.[98] In 1457 he had received three large commissions for the city, of which only one reached Siena. Firstly there were bronze doors for the cathedral, of which only a possible trial cast of one panel survives (in the Victoria and Albert Museum); the Sienese may have been unable to fund what would have been a very expensive project.[99]

His bronze Judith and Holofernes is an important late work, which ended in a Medici courtyard in Florence, while his bronze John the Baptist was delivered minus a forearm and is now in Siena Cathedral.[100] Another commission was a large relief Madonna and Child (Madonna delle Grazie) with blue glass inlays in the surround, completed in 1459, with much of the work done by another, perhaps the local Urbano da Cortona, who had been pushed aside to allow Donatello to have the commission.[101]

Last years

Detail of Resurrection, San Lorenzo pulpit
Detail of Resurrection, San Lorenzo pulpit

After returning from Siena he remained in Florence until his death in 1466. He was evidently unable to work for a period, of uncertain extent, before his death; Vasari records this, but without any timing.[102] But, with the help of assistants, he embarked on a major project in these years, reliefs that now form two pulpits for San Lorenzo, Florence, the burial place of the Medicis, though it is possible that this was not the function originally intended. They were only assembled in this way in the following century, and the panel sizes vary.[103]

At least the designs of most of these are thought to have by Donatello himself, and the modelling of many parts; the precise attribution of the reliefs remains much discussed. Some appear to have been cast from unfinished modelli, and there is considerable stylistic disparity between panels, and sometimes sections of the same panel. The treatment of the spaces in which the scenes are set is especially varied and experimental, part of "the absolutely uncompromising use of every possible means to express emotion and suffering" that marks these works.[104]

Vasari's Life

One of the few surviving drawings thought to be by Donatello, Fragment of a Massacre of the Innocents, 1446-50, now Rennes
One of the few surviving drawings thought to be by Donatello, Fragment of a Massacre of the Innocents, 1446-50, now Rennes

Giorgio Vasari's life of Donatello in his Lives of the Artists was mostly researched in the 1540s, around a century after the events he recounts, and contains some clear and significant errors of fact. It fully recognises Donatello's stature as an artist, and lists many works. His knowledge of those in Padua and Siena appears shaky, and may rely on the accounts of others.[105] In his life of Raphael he praises the "beautiful fancy" (bel capriccio) of some figures, which Vasari himself later drew on; but he is evidently unaware that Raphael took them from a Donatello church relief in Padua.[106] He also places Donatello's birth in 1403,[107] some seventeen years after better-informed modern scholars, aware of the record of the assault in 1401,[108] and payments for work going back to 1406.[109]

Vasari, a fierce Florentine patriot, saw Donatello as the start of Florentine dominance in Renaissance sculpture, and traced a line of succession between him and his hero Michelangelo, via the somewhat dubious link of Bertoldo di Giovanni (d. 1491), a pupil of Donatello and in theory Michelangelo's mentor when he ran the informal "garden academy" of Lorenzo de' Medici at the end of his life. Vasari stressed the close ties between Donatello and the Medici, which were certainly important in his life, but also mirrored those Michelangelo and Vasari himself enjoyed.[110]


Selected works

Title Form Material Year Original location Current location
Santa Croce Crucifix Crucifix statue Wood, polychromed 1407–1408 Florence, Santa Croce Florence, Santa Croce, Cappella Bardi di Vernio
Prophet Statue Marble 1410, before Florence Cathedral, Porta della Mandorla Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
The "stone David" Statue (originally with sling) Marble 1408–1409 Florence Cathedral, planned for butress, Palazzo Vecchio (1416) Florence, Museo nazionale del Bargello
John Evangelist Statue in niche, sitting Marble 1408–1415 Florence Cathedral, façade Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Joshua Statue (5.5 mts high) Terracotta, whitened 1410, before Florence Cathedral, north tribune disintegrated
Saint Mark Statue in niche Marble 1411–1413 Florence, Orsanmichele Florenz, Orsanmichele museum
St. Louis of Toulouse Statue in niche Gilt-bronze 1411–1415 Florence, Orsanmichele Florence, Santa Croce (since the 1450s)
Prophets Statues in niche (two of four) Marble 1415 and 1418–1420 Giotto's Campanile, Florence Cathedral Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
St. George (with Saint George Freeing the Princess) Statue and niche with predella in relief Marble 1416, circa Florence, Orsanmichele Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello (with niche)
Marzocco Statue Sandstone 1418–1420 Florence, Santa Maria Novella, papal apartment Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Pazzi Madonna Relief, low Marble 1420, circa uncertain Berlin, Bode Museum, Skulpturensammlung
San Rossore Reliquary Bust Bronze, gilded 1422–1427 Florence, Ognissanti Pisa, Museo nazionale di San Matteo
Jeremiah Statue in niche (third of four) Marble 1423, circa Florence, Giotto's Campanile Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Zuccone (Prophet Habakkuk) Statue in niche (last of four) Marble 1423–1425 Florence, Giotto's Campanile Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
The Feast of Herod Relief Bronze 1423–1427 Siena, Baptistry of San Giovanni, Baptismal font Siena, Baptistry
Madonna of the Clouds Relief Marble 1425−1435 Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston[111]
Tomb of Cardinal Rainaldo Brancacci Tomb monument with Statues, reliefs, partly gilded and polychrome Marble 1426–1428 Naples, Sant'Angelo a Nilo Naples, Sant'Angelo a Nilo
Dovizia (on the Colonna dell'Abbondanza) Statue on column Marble (with a working bell) 1431 Florence, Piazza della Repubblica deteriorated and destroyed in a fall in 1721 (replaced with a version by Giovanni Battista Foggini that was replaced by a copy)
David (with head of Goliath) Statue Bronze, partly gilded 1430s–1450s (?) Florence, Casa Vecchia de' Medici Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Pulpit, Cantoria Pulpit with high reliefs Marble, mosaic, bronze 1433–1438 Florence Cathedral Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Pulpit, external Reliefs Marble 1434–1438 Prato, cathedral Prato, Cathedral Museum
Old Sacristy (doors, lunettes, tondi and frieze) Reliefs, low Bronze (doors), polychromed stucco 1434–1443 Florence, San Lorenzo Florence, San Lorenzo
Cavalcanti Annunciation Relief, high, in an aedicula Pietra serena (Macigno) and terracotta, whitened and gilded 1435, circa Florence, Santa Croce Florence, Santa Croce
John the Baptist Statue Wood, painted partially gilded 1438 Venice, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Venice, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Amore-Attis Statue Bronze 1440, circa Florence Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Penitent Magdalene Statue Wood and stucco pigmented and gilded 1440–1442 (?) Florence Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Madonna and Child Relief, low Terracotta, pigmented 1445 (1455) unknown Paris, Louvre
Equestrian Monument of Gattamelata Equestrian statue Bronze 1445–1450 Padua, Piazza Sant'Antonio Padua, Piazza Sant'Antonio
High altar with Madonna and Child, six statues of saints and four episodes of the life of St Anthony Statues (seven) and 21 reliefs Bronze (and one stone relief) 1446, after Padua, Basilica di Sant'Antonio Padua, Basilica di Sant'Antonio (reconstruction)
Judith and Holofernes Statue group Bronze 1457–c. 1461 Florence, Palazzo Medici, garden Florence, Palazzo Vecchio
John the Baptist Statue Bronze 1455-1457 Siena, Cathedral Siena, Cathedral
Virgin and Child with Four Angels or Chellini Madonna Relief, low, tondo Bronze, gilded 1456, before Florence London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Pulpits, one with scenes of the Passion, one with post-Passion scenes Reliefs Bronze 1460, after San Lorenzo, Florence Florence, San Lorenzo

In popular culture

Donatello is portrayed by Ben Starr in the 2016 television series Medici: Masters of Florence.[112]

The fictional crimefighter Donatello, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is named after him. Donatello is portrayed by Rhett McLaughlin in the 2014 Epic Rap Battles of History video Artists versus Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in which he appears working on Gattamelata and is mocked for being less famous than other Renaissance artists. [113]

The minor planet "6056 Donatello" is named after him. At about 13 kilometres across, it is larger than most.[114] The Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) built by the Italian Space Agency, was one of three MPLMs operated by NASA to transfer supplies and equipment to and from the International Space Station. The others were named Leonardo and Raffaello.


  1. ^ Unknown master. "CINQ MAÎTRES DE LA RENAISSANCE FLORENTINE" [Five masters of the Florentine renaissance]. Le Louvre. (The former attribution to Paolo Uccello is no longer accepted.)
  2. ^ Wells, John (3 April 2008). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.). Pearson Longman. ISBN 978-1-4058-8118-0.
  3. ^ Though an Italian nation state had yet to be established, the Latin equivalent of the term Italian (italus) had been in use for natives of the region since antiquity. For example in Pliny the Elder, Letters 9.23.
  4. ^ Seymour, 50; Coonin, 78
  5. ^ Coonin, 79, 120
  6. ^ Coonin, 26-27
  7. ^ Coonin, 11-12
  8. ^ Vasari, 107
  9. ^ Coonin, 9; Vasari, 106
  10. ^ Coonin, 78-79
  11. ^ Coonin, 10
  12. ^ Vasari, 106
  13. ^ Coonin, 18
  14. ^ Coonin, 17-18
  15. ^ Coonin, 18
  16. ^ Walker, 11
  17. ^ Rubins, 348-352; Vasari, 97, "..brought up from early childhood in the house of Ruberto Martelli", though in this edition the date of birth is corrected (see below); Coonin, 106-107
  18. ^ Coonin, 18; Walker, 6, 9
  19. ^ Walker, 9
  20. ^ Coonin, 18-19; Walker, 4, says Brunelleschi became a master in 1398
  21. ^ Seymour, 36: "The story of the competition for the great doors of bronze is perhaps the most familiar in all Early Renaissance art history"; Coonin, 20: "In most art historical narratives the year 1401 introduces the formal beginnings of a revolution in art, the spark of the so-called Renaissance".
  22. ^ Seymour, 36-40 (lists all 7); Avery, 33-37; Coonin, 20-24; Vasari, 77-78; Hartt, 158-161; Holt, 173-177 gives Manetti's account
  23. ^ Holt, 178-179 prints Manetti's account
  24. ^ Coonin, 24-26; Walker, 26, 30, 34
  25. ^ Seymour, 50
  26. ^ Coonin, 26
  27. ^ Seymour, 51, for the Porta della Mandorla project: 31-35, 51-52 and index; Coonin, 29
  28. ^ Seymour, 49-50; Coonin, 28-33
  29. ^ Seymour, 52; Coonin, 29-30
  30. ^ Seymour, 67. The cathedral records payment in 1412, but this may be for a different figure, now lost or altered.
  31. ^ Coonin, 60-61; Hartt, 164-165
  32. ^ Seymour, 56-57
  33. ^ Seymour, 69–70, 69 quoted.
  34. ^ Seymour, 68
  35. ^ Vasari, 101; Coonin, 120-123
  36. ^ Seymour, 68
  37. ^ Coonin, 34-35; Seymour, 67-68
  38. ^ Seymour, 58-64, 71-73, and index; Coonin, 41-47
  39. ^ Vasari, 100; Seymour, 59-60
  40. ^ Seymour, 64; Coonan,51-52
  41. ^ Seymour, 63
  42. ^ Seymour, 72-73
  43. ^ Seymour, 80
  44. ^ Coonin, 84-85
  45. ^ Coonin, 61-64
  46. ^ Coonin, 37-38. If it is indeed by him, which has been doubted
  47. ^ Putting "un contadino in croce", a peasant on the cross
  48. ^ Vasari, 97-98; Coonin, 38-41
  49. ^ Seymour, 65-66, 79
  50. ^ Seymour, 66
  51. ^ Seymour, 66
  52. ^ Seymour, 77-78; Coonin, 85-86
  53. ^ Seymour, 80-81; Coonin, 86-88
  54. ^ Coonin, 98-104
  55. ^ Coonin, 103-104
  56. ^ Coonin, 80-83, 97; Seymour, 72, 75-76
  57. ^ Coonin, 81-85; Seymour, 75-77, 76 quoted
  58. ^ Coonan, 97-100
  59. ^ Coonin, 88-93
  60. ^ Coonin, 103-104
  61. ^ Hesson, Robert (28 July 2019). "Collections and restoration of antiquities – Ancient Monuments". Northern Architecture. Retrieved 21 September 2020.
  62. ^ Coonin, 104-105, 109, 112; Seymour, 98
  63. ^ Coonin, 104, 112; Seymour, 98
  64. ^ Coonin, 105-106
  65. ^ Seymour, 89-90; Coonin, 109
  66. ^ Avery, 74, 103-104; Seymour, 90 (quoted); Coonin, 109
  67. ^ Coonin, 109
  68. ^ Seymour, 90; Coonin, 130-133
  69. ^ Coonin, 92-93
  70. ^ Coonin, 92-95, 93 quoted
  71. ^ Coonan, 112-119
  72. ^ Coonan, 149-151; Jones, 13
  73. ^ Summers, Claude (2004). The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts. Cleis press. p. 97. ISBN 1-57344-191-0.
  74. ^ Paul Strathern, The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, London, 2003
  75. ^ Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence[page needed]
  76. ^ Joachim Poeschke, Donatello and His World. Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, Volume 1, Harry N Abrams, New York 1993, p. ?
  77. ^ Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, Harvard Press, 2003, p. 264.
  78. ^ Coonin, 151-152
  79. ^ Seymour, 144 (quoted)
  80. ^ As proposed in Strom, Deborah Phyl, "A new chronology for Donatello's wooden sculpture", Pantheon München, 1980, Vol 38, Num 3, pp 239-248; Coonin, 154-155 (and his note 60)
  81. ^ Mugnaini, Olga (6 March 2020). "'Quel crocifisso ligneo è di Donatello', la sensazionale scoperta a Firenze". La Nazione (in Italian). Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  82. ^ "Studioso scopre Crocifisso inedito di Donatello". Adnkronos. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  83. ^ Salzano, Marco Pipolo & Guido. "E". – QA turismo cultura & arte. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  84. ^ "Crocifisso di Donatello nella chiesa di Legnaia, la storia". Isolotto Legnaia Firenze (in Italian). 6 March 2020. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  85. ^ Another was added in the early 15th century on the opposite side of the church
  86. ^ Coonin, 157-166; Avery, 80-81
  87. ^ Coonin, 159. Begun in 1428, with the roof in place by 1428
  88. ^ Coonin, 159. The tomb was conceivably designed or partly done by Donatello, as proposed by F. Caglioti in Donatello e i Medici, Florence, 2000.
  89. ^ Avery, 80; Coonin, 160, 166-167; Seymour, 114
  90. ^ Coonin, 159-166; Avery, 80-81; Seymour, 114-115
  91. ^ Seymour, 114-115; Coonin, 165-166
  92. ^ Coonin, 161; Seymour, 115
  93. ^ Coonin, 161, 165-166; Seymour, 115
  94. ^ Coonin, 161-162
  95. ^ Coonin, 164-168
  96. ^ Janson, H. W. (1957). The Sculpture of Donatello: Plates (Incorporating the notes and photographs of the late Jenö Lányi.). Vol. I. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. xxiv. OCLC 248363543. The crucifix is shown on plates 242, 243; the Virgin and Child is shown on plates 290–293; Adam and Eve are shown on 295a and b
  97. ^ Janson, H. W. (Horst Woldemar); Lányi, Jenö (1963). "High Altar, S. Antonio, Padua". The Sculpture of Donatello: Critical Catalogue. Vol. II. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp. 162–187.
  98. ^ Seymour, 147-148
  99. ^ Coonin, 230; Lamentation over the Dead Christ, V&A
  100. ^ Seymour, 144-145
  101. ^ Coonin, 266-268
  102. ^ Coonin, 239
  103. ^ Seymour, 145-146; Coonin, 232-237; Olson, 90
  104. ^ Seymour, 145-146, 146 quoted; Coonin, 232-237; Hartt, 287-288; Olson, 90
  105. ^ Rubins, 321-322, 340-341
  106. ^ Rubins, 322
  107. ^ Rubins, 330, in the 2nd edition. This may be a simple typo, as in the life of Brunelleschi he has Donatello (wrongly) entering the 1401-2 competition for the baptistery doors.
  108. ^ Coonin, 17
  109. ^ Coonin, 29
  110. ^ Rubins, 352-354; Vasari, 235-236
  111. ^ Museum page
  112. ^ "Medici: Masters of Florence". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 24 December 2016.
  113. ^ ERB. "Artists vs TMNT. Epic Rap Battles of History". YouTube. Retrieved 13 February 2022.
  114. ^ Minor planet center


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Donatello". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 406–408.

Further reading