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Artist Donatello: Biography, Paintings & Sculptures

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

More than any other artist, Donatello helped inspire the Renaissance in sculpture. Learn more about how he drew knowledge from the ancients to apply techniques that had never been seen before.

Life of Donatello

Donatello was born in Florence, Italy, around 1386, the son of a wealthy wool merchant. Capitalizing on his father's connections, he spent time working as a goldsmith before moving on to study under Filippo Brunelleschi, the designer of the Duemo on the Cathedral in Florence, and one of the earliest Renaissance masters. With Brunelleschi, Donatello spent time exploring the ruins left in Italy by the Romans, finding inspiration left more than 1400 years before his birth.

By a young age, Donatello had already demonstrated great ability with both metal and stone, and was in demand throughout Italy. His work ranged from Naples to Pisa, along the entire length of the Italian peninsula. However, it's his efforts in Padua, Siena, and Florence that have had the most enduring effect.

Despite the amount of work left by Donatello, surprisingly little is beyond controversy about his personal life. Scholars have long insinuated that the artist may have been gay, based off writings of his associates as well as the nature of some of his work. However, while Renaissance Florence was relatively open-minded about such things (especially with regards to one of its favorite sons), it's not shocking that the type of documents assembled to normally keep track of such information are, in Donatello's case, missing. In any case, the artist lived for almost eighty years before dying in 1466.

Reliefs

With his background as a goldsmith's assistant, it's not really surprising that Donatello found a lot of his earliest success in reliefs, or removing material from a flat surface to create a design. In doing so, the artist made significant innovations, including some that had not been seen even in the Classical period.

By far the most famous of Donatello's reliefs is his portrayal of The Feast of Herod, finished around 1425. Showing the scene in which Herod is presented with the head of St. John (which Herod's daughter Salome had requested at the urging of her wicked mother), Donatello captures something that few artists had ever tried to harness: human emotion. Herod is disgusted, other partygoers distance themselves, and one can even see the second-guessing on Salome's face, questioning if this request was the best possible use of a favor. Moreover, Donatello gives amazing depth to the relief, showing other rooms and hallways through windows.

Sculptures

Donatello achieved real fame for his work as a sculptor, and proved to be expert in a variety of mediums. While he is most famous for his work in bronze, he was equally comfortable in other materials, but always approached works in the round. 'In the round' means that one is able to view the piece from any angle.

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