Donatello and his Sculptures
Donatello's humanization of his subjects was groundbreaking. His fascination with many styles of ancient art and his ability to blend classical and medieval styles with his own new techniques led to hundreds of unique pieces in marble, wood, bronze, clay, stucco and wax.
Donatello's career began when he was paid as an assistant to Lorenzo Ghiberti. His early work Saint John the Evangelist helped transition sculpture from Gothic Mannerism into more naturalistic and emotional depictions of humanity. The figure of St. John is an achievement that shows advancement from the already accomplished forms he achieved in earlier works of St. George and St. Mark.
These early pieces share common similarities in their ability to show off the human form underneath cloaked undergarments. The faces of the saints show extraordinary human emotion never before seen in classical sculpture. Their eyes often seem to reveal trepidation and uncertainty. The majority of Donatello's work was commissioned and depicted religious iconography, but by some accounts Donatello may have considered himself agnostic. Perhaps he found he could use his subjects as an outlet for his own feelings of trepidation and confusion in a society that placed so much value in religious commitment.
Donatello is credited with inventing a form of relief in marble panels called "stiacciato," translated in English as "flattened out." Relief itself is a technique in sculpture in which the subjects remain attached to a solid background. Reliefs were highly prized decorative elements of cathedral walls and various other locations. Donatello's earliest relief that survives in present day is a depiction of the Baptism of Christ. It survives in the Cathedral at Arezzo and is evidence to Donatello's willingness to create an image of the world that felt natural while portraying religious iconography.
In his relief St. George and the Dragon Donatello goes one step further and employs a sense of linear perspective borrowed from Filippo Brunelleschi. The background is in delicate contrast to the fiery subject matter. Donatello expertly employed stiacciato while creating an image that was absolutely not classical in appearance.
Donatello's insistence in creating strikingly realistic physicality in his subjects and their surroundings is also on display in the guilt bronze relief of the Presentation of the Baptist's Head to Herod, also sometimes referred to as the Feast of Herod. In this piece he created a background of brick that shows splendid architectural detail. The stonework and architectural elements surround the subjects, who themselves show distinct Roman influence in their appearance.
It is speculated that many of Donatello's pieces were commissioned by the powerful Medici family. Perhaps the most famous of these pieces is the spectacular David and the Head of Goliath. This bronze statue is a large-scale free-standing nude, the first of its kind created in Renaissance Art. It portrays a proud David holding a mighty sword and standing triumphantly with a foot over slain Goliath's head.
Donatello created the bronze David based on imagery revealed in the first book of Samuel. His nakedness represents the lack of physical protection he had defending himself against Goliath. His prideful demeanor seems to be drawn from the commonly held fifteenth century belief that divine assistance could enable men with extraordinary power. The statue was first installed in the center courtyard of the Medici palace but later moved to first the Palazzo Vechio and then the Barghello.
In his later years Donatello was enticed to the town of Padua. It was a Venetian city with a different dialect and would have been a major change for the artist who had spent in life in Florence. Donatello appears to have been drawn to Padua for the opportunity of creating an equestrian masterpiece to stand outside the Santo.
The piece known as Gattamelata is a bronze likeness of Erasmo da Narni that sits upon a marble base. Da Narni was a hereditary ruler who was known to always emerge the victor in battle. It appears the work was commissioned by the Venetians to honor Da Narni several years after his death which drew some controversy from Rome for his preferential treatment among heroes. Even so, throughout Italy nobles like Alfonso I of Naples were greatly appreciative of Donatello's statue and desired to be honored in the same fashion.
After completing the Gattamelata Donatello suffered from an illness and completed only a few works in his last years in Padua and in the few years after he returned to Florence before his death. His illness was severe and Donatello appears to have emerged very aware of his own mortality.
He worked with white poplar wood to carve the statue of St. Mary Magdalen that presently resides at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. This figure of Mary Magdalen is strikingly different from others that bare her name and shows Donatello's utter disregard for western legends that claim Mary was fed by angels. Instead of showing her as perpetually youthful and beautiful as was the normal depiction, Donatello's Mary is withered and penitent. She appears to be a representation of the psychological frailty Donatello perceived in himself.
Around the same time at the end of his life Donatello completed the bronze statue of Judith and Holofernes. This piece offers the onlooker several views of action in the free-standing depiction of what would have been considered the distasteful death-blow upon dying Holofernes. The piece again offers a glimpse into the actual emotional state of the subject (Judith), portraying a grim ambivalence to the duty of beheading Holofernes.
Donatello's legacy as the most accomplished sculptor of the early Renaissance is well deserved. With his work he ushered in an era where artists could feel free to interpret the emotion inherent in their subject matter without being tied to outdated legends. His contribution to sculpture has created ripples that continue to be felt in every artistic medium.