Donatello Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi was among the first artists to present sacred themes with an earthy realism — that is, to present Christ and the saints as fully human — without sacrificing the theological meaning of the more stylized Gothic sculpture that preceded him. In 1550 Giorgio Vasari recorded Donatello's reaction to a crucifix by Brunelleschi. After standing in awe for a moment, Donatello remarked, “to you it is given to do Christs and to me peasants.” In fact, however, he did both at once.
Donatello, the son of a successful wood carver, served his apprenticeship under Lorenzo Ghiberti. His recorded coolness in later years toward Ghiberti could be attributed to the marked difference between the two artists' personalities. Ghiberti was scholarly and refined, while Donatello was, by all accounts, ignorant and coarse. By 1408 Donatello was receiving his own commissions and in the same year journeyed to Rome with Brunelleschi for the sake of research. Donatello established a thriving workshop in Florence, serving commissions there from 1428 to 1443. He had several assistants, but only one true partner — Michelozzo — who was also a student of Ghiberti. Donatello and Michelozzo probably maintained their relationship even when Donatello moved to Padua in 1444. After completion of the equestrian statue Gattamelata, Donatello returned to Florence in 1454 to reestablish links with his longtime patrons, Piero and Cosimo de' Medici, who provided him with rent-free housing. Donatello died on December 13, 1466. The citizens of Florence honored him with a large processional and interred his remains in the Medici crypt of the church of San Lorenzo.
Donatello's acquaintance with Brunelleschi and his journey to Rome in 1408 have been cited as reasons for the sculptor's classical technique, the consequence of which was greater realism. Beyond this, however, was Donatello's faithful eye, unwilling to compromise what he observed from life unless for the sake of some greater good. His art is, therefore, unusually realistic. Yet he built his compositions wisely and was not afraid to depart from reality for the sake of artistic sense. His St. George has a visage modeled from life, but realism does not compromise, but rather enhances, the intended expression of simultaneous bravery and concern. The saint's posture flows out of classical models (with the right arm and left leg creating parallel lines) but it is not stiff beyond the necessity of the martial subject. His David, the first freestanding bronze nude in almost 1,200 years, presents his nudity like a badge of honor. The Lord alone can protect the youth's supple skin from the armed giant. David's sensually rendered flesh is an archetype of vulnerability, as the bearded Goliath is an archetype for secular strength.
Donatello, then, drew Christian art away from the borders of a gnosticism that might ignore the physical reality of general revelation, yet he still harnessed the potency of medieval symbol.
SEE ALSO: Anthony of Padua, Saint; Christ in Art
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