Monday, December 3, 2012


Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi did not create the most famous sculpture in the world, the DAVID by Michelanglo, but if not for him it would never have been created at all.

Born in Florence ‘around’ 1386, Donatello, as he came to be known by family members in his childhood, was born to Nicolo di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Woolcombers Guild. While, to the modern sensibility such a position might sound plebeian, in truth any Guild membership of the age brought with it a certain amount of esteem, if not financial success (much like a multi-award winning, critically acclaimed author of the present era). Some accounts contend that he was educated in the house of the Martelli family, though further research brings a strong cynicism to the contention, as they were closely aligned with the Medici family and Donatello’s father was a devotee to the Albizzi family, fierce rivals of the Medici.

What is incontrovertible is that Donatello’s first training began in a goldsmith’s shop—very much the custom of the age—but he quickly moved to and worked, for a short time, in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti, an artist of multiple mediums including bronze and gold. In the dawning years of the fifteenth century, Ghiberti reigned victorious over Brunelleschi in a competition for the creation of the baptistery gates, but lost his apprentice. Brunelleschi took off for Rome taking with him the teen-aged Donatello, two young men off to the most magnificent city to find adventure. They found much more.

What in modern terminology would be called a case of boys gone wild, or a Renaissance version of The Hangover, these two of such like temperament worked hard and played hard. Many denounced them as treasure seekers for they were often to be found in the ruins infesting Rome and the surrounding area. In their words, they were excavating and studying the soil and the stone to better learn their properties and how to manipulate them. This trip to Rome was a pivotal moment in both lives; Brunelleschi’s to be discussed in a later post, while for Donatello it was an opportunity to entrench himself in the study of the classic style, the forms and the ornamentation that had made them classic and forever lasting. What they absorbed and became would become the backbone that is the spirit of the Renaissance.

Donatello’s return to Florence would coincide with his first paid commission, in the year 1405 when he completed two small statues of nameless prophets for the cathedral. From there his works became uncountable and included all mediums and techniques including sandstone, marble, bronze, and gold in bas reliefs and statues. It is an irony of his life that one of his first great works was of the David in marble and one his last was of the David in bronze. The first showed the promise of the artist to come; the second is considered an enigmatic figure, a young boy clothed only in boots and a pointed hat. The drastic change in composition may be accounted for by the never-married man’s coming to open terms with his own sexuality.

His many compatriots and co-workers acceptable readily his choice of lifestyle, for not only was Donatello an eager collaborator, he was an exuberant and humorous man of a light-hearted manner. If he knew the impact he was making upon the world, not only in his own time, but for all time, he rarely allowed the burden of it to darken his days or thrash his nights. It is hard to say with any great authority whether it is his work or his legacy that has made the greatest impact on art, but he was, in no uncertain terms, one of the founding gathers of the Renaissance. And, as Georgi Vasari said, ‘The world remained so full of Donatello’s works that it may be said with confidence that no artist has ever produced more (by the year of The Lives of Artists publication) than he did.’

Little is recorded about the personal life of Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, but it can be inferred, from the depths of his work and the agreement that the powerful expressivity of his art made him the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance, that he was an intuitive sort who could see the depths of life and learned how to express them with his craft. Donatello died in Florence of unknown causes in 1466, at the age of eighty-years-old. He is buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo beside Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder, one of his first and most ardent patrons.

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