09 Nov 2011

Essay Topic: Donatello The Art Bringer: Biography

Artistic freedom embodied the flare and personality of Donatello. Born in Florence, Italy in 1386 and living until December of 1466, Donatello mastered the interpretive expression of an artist as a sculptor in the mediums of bronze and marble (“Donatello (1386-1466)”). This is no easy task and he is revered today as one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance.  Donato di Niccoli Bardi, referred to as Donatello by those who knew him, was born the son of a wool carder.  Wool carding is part of the process preparing wool to be spun into thread. Born into a working class family, Donatello lived a meager life, as one can gather from the historical data that exists about him. He remained unmarried until his death.

Donatello was very busy as an artist.  He apprenticed under Ghiberti and learned to goldsmith.  The techniques that he learned as a goldsmith enabled him to become an even finer sculptor and artist.  All of Italy sought after Donatello for his creations which seems to almost be alive to the viewer.  He used a special form of shallow relief to create special curves and lines in his carvings.  The beauty and emotion can be seen in his sculptures that still stand today.

Living as an artist during the Renaissance, Donatello had many friends in the church and inside the profession of art. Fillippo, an architect and artist, was a dear friend who early on influenced Donatello to focus on figures other than that of Christ. Fillippo commented on a wooden crucifix that Donatello had fashioned, saying that Christ looked like a peasant. Donatello did not fancy the remark, but at the same time, trusted his fellow artist’s honesty.  Filippo was a fine sculptor and artist in his own right while maintaining his occupation in architecture.  This exchange about the crucifix that Donatello had with his friend Filippo created a turning point where he focused his work on biblical people, just not on Christ himself.

Donatello had a way of making his works appear to be alive. Often, they would only take shape and reveal their finest characteristics once placed on display. His captivating talent earned him favor with very famous and influential families in Italy. Mentor to Michelangelo, nobility like the Medici and Martelli families were only a few of those who relished in collecting his works (Donatello, Almanac). Those who resided in the city of Padua urged Donatello to take residence there. They were particularly moved and impressed with his detail and accuracy as he gracefully created the center stature that resides in the Saint Antonio Piazza inside of Padua. The statue that Donatello created that was equestrian in nature and embodied the dignity and bravery of Erasmo da Narni, general of the Venetian army, also endearingly known as Gattamelata.

Teaching was also something that Donatello shared as a legacy having learned his craft through experience as an apprentice in his youth. He passed on his understanding and love for classic works like the Roman portrait in sculpture and the heroic nude. One of his students, Nanni d’Antonio di Banco came from a rich family yet, remained humble in his apprenticeship under Donatello (” Donatello – Biography and Gallery of Art.”). Banco crafted a marvelous sculpture in marble of  Saint Phillip in Florence — a sculpture that would make any teacher proud.  The influence of Donatello spread far beyond his home in Florence to Rome, Padua, and Pisa. Today his influence immortalizes his art and has an impact worldwide.

The Renaissance, literally meaning ‘rebirth’, was a time where the true embracing of the Roman and Greek classics came alive.  Donatello embodied this essence throughout his career and beyond through his art that remains today.  The Medici family honored Donatello and made sure that his means were established as he lived out his final years.  As Donatello got older, he became too weak to continue creating masterpieces of sculpture. His commissions and dedication throughout his life did not go without appreciation.  Some artists meet a grim fate in life when they are no longer able to perform. Donatello was loved even after that.  Donatello had created a sculpture for the Medici’s son Piero at his wedding. Piero himself made sure that Donatello would receive a pension in his old age.  This pension allowed Donatello to live out his days in pleasantry.  Piero even saw to it that Donatello was buried in the Medici family grave site (“Donatello.”).

Donatello The Art Bringer:  Gattamelata

The years of apprenticeship under Ghiberti proved to be time well spent for Donatello.  He soon became sought after to create many commissioned works.  In the city of Padua, on the peninsula of Italy, resides a bronze statue created by this master of the Renaissance. Bronze was one of the mediums that Donatello preferred to work with for many of his sculptures.  Scholars have speculated that Donatello’s design for his Gattamelata was influenced by the Parthenon in Greece (Bergstein). It is rumored that he was shown pictures of riders and horses from the reliefs and art dating back to the antiquated times of Greece. Perhaps, this did influence the powerful design of the rider and the flowing beauty of the mount he sits upon.
In 1453, after the death of the subject of the Gattamelata, Donatello was commissioned to create this first equestrian bronze of the Renaissance.  A sculpture of this size can be created by a method called ‘lost wax’.  This process a mold is created of a sculpture (usually made of wood). Then molten bronze is poured into the mold and cooled to form the final product. Donatello was extremely proficient carving in wood. With wood he created the template for his masterpieces.  When his works were made in marble, they of course were carved by hand from start to finish. To carve from stone is quite a tedious process and definitely not a process for someone who has not mastered their craft. Donatello was certainly a master as he created the center piece for the Piazza Del Santo in Padua.

The sculpture is life size. This is one feature that makes Donatello’s Gattamelata his own. Whether inspiration for this work was obtained from the Parthenon or not, it was not larger than life as many sculptures and carvings from antiquity were.  Donatello certainly had a way of bringing his work to life.  A term was coined for his gift called shallow relief (Middle Ages). In Italian it is called ‘schiacciato’. Donatello invented this style of capturing spatial depth with his creations. He did not need to make a work of art larger than life to mesmerize onlookers with the grace, beauty and emotion of anything he made.

Erasmo da Narni was the ruler of Padua until his death in 1443. The Gattamelata is a tribute to him as a great ruler and warrior. The breath taking bronze piece sits on top of a stone pedestal that has smaller reliefs on each side. The interpretation of the angels, gates and coat of arms is a signification of the afterlife. There is also a lot of symbolism in Donatello’s work. The horse almost appears to be parading from a victorious battle or celebration. A round globe sits at the front hoof of the horse symbolizing the impact of Erasmo da Narni not only in Padua, but in the entire world.

The name of Donatello’s creation Gattamelata means literally ‘speckled cat’ (Bergstein).  The sculpture took nearly six years to complete.  Donatello had a studio in the city of Padua while he was not only working on this commission, but several others as well.  It was there that Donatello stayed hard at work making many of the artistic splendors of Padua. The studio that Donatello utilized to create the famous Gattamelata can still be seen today.  The family, friends, and townspeople of Padua were so moved by Donatello’s work on the tribute to Erasmo di Narni that they compelled Donatello to consider making Padua his new home.  Donatello stayed in the area of Padua for nearly a decade. However, as he grew older he longed to return to his true home. Donatello had many faithful admirers including the Medici family. Donatello, with the help and patronage of the Medici’s, returned to Tuscany and lived out his days. The Gattamelata is a true testament to the Renaissance. It has been inspiration to countless artists since Donatello and certainly continues to inspire artists now.

Donatello The Art Bringer:  David

The impressive bronze of David created by Donatello is unique and unmatched.  His realistic style and captivating curves bring you to biblical times in such a way that is seems as though you were there witnessing the triumph of David over Goliath. Bronze adds depth to an art work that sometimes marble and other mediums cannot capture equally.  The medium that Donatello chose for this depiction of the biblical hero symbolizes the strength and timelessness in the meaning of the story. A biblical nude done with such grace that many artisans aimed to accomplish similar notoriety as Donatello. Many other sculptures of David have been compared to Donatello’s David.
This creation was done earlier in Donatello’s career than the Gattamelata. Two decades earlier in fact and it seems to also breath the youth in the life of its creator.  This can be noted when portraits of Donatello are compared to the face of David in the bronze statue. David seems to stand almost ‘matter of fact-like’ atop the decapitated head of his victim. He is portrayed with his hand on one hip and his valorous sword in the other.  How more captivating is that he wears a hat that is almost in the fashion of musketeer.  In contrast to the famous marble David sculpture by Michelangelo which was created for public display in a religious setting, Donatello’s David is smaller, more intimate and was displayed in the private gardens of the Medici family (‘’Donatello – Smarthistory’’).
Some perhaps even prefer the style of Donatello’s David due to the warmth of the medium and the quaint way Donatello revealed youth and vulnerable strength in the sculpture.  Donatello was the first artist and sculpture to create a free-standing nude during the Renaissance.  This brought notoriety to Donatello for that fact alone.  Donatello created his David for the city of Florence. Like David, Florence also defeated their foe (ruler of Milan). So again, Donatello illustrates symbolism through his creation. Ironically, the biblical David was said to have worn an actual bronze helmet when he went up against Goliath. How fitting that Donatello created yet another symbolic parallel to the biblical account.
Donatello was undoubtedly channeling his Renaissance reverie to the classics of Rome and Greece. The details of David’s body and human size proportions are evidence to this fact.  Not only did the Renaissance ‘give birth’ to the art of Donatello or rather Donatello did assist in ‘giving birth’ to the Renaissance in his expression of art and humanism. Humanism rose against the staunch traditions of past scholars and brought human emotion and the ‘humanities’ back to main stream learning. Donatello was from Florence, one of the main centers and hubs of Renaissance art and humanistic trains of thought.
The style in which Donatello sculpted his David is known as ‘contrapposto’ (Donatello’s David). The term is Italian and refers to how a figure in art stands with weight bearing on one foot more than the other. Contrapposto creates a further sense of realism with Donatello’s talent in shallow relief.  The hat makes the sculpture stand out even more, as it perpetuates the acceptance of sodomy from that time. Florence was known for its acceptance of such practices all over Europe (Donatello’s David).  Donatello created an unparalleled masterpiece in his David. No one knows exactly when the art piece was crafted for the Medici family, though it was sometime between the 1430’s and the 1460’s.  The smile in the face of the sculpture not only tells of victory and human emotion, but also seems to smile knowing that it stands above all others in its depiction of David from the times of the Renaissance and even today.

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