Donatello images and biography
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See also: Renaissance Art; Sculpture Garden; Sculptors

Text from Bernard Ceysson and Genevieve Bresc-Bautier, "Sculpture: From the Renaissance to the Present Day"

"Donatello left behind him so much work through the world that it may rightly be asserted that no artist worked so hard as he." He set his hand, adds Vasari, to everything, and an epitaph praises him for having done "alone today all that with a skilful hand numbers had once done for sculpture." And it is true that Donatello was an all-round sculptor; he was equally at home in low relief and figures in the round, in wood as well as marble and bronze. With him, in Florence, the art of sculpture was born anew. His figures ranged from the martial St. George to Mary Magdalene "consumed by fastings and abstinence," the arresting expressiveness of the latter being due in part at least, writes Vasari, "to his thorough knowledge of anatomy."

"With the David in the Bargello and the group of Judith and Holofernes, he created the first free-standing statues of the Renaissance, independent of architecture or decoration. And from his first carvings for Florence Cathedral and San Michele he defined a type of monumental statuary whose concepts remained unquestioned till the appearance of "deconstructed" sculpture at the beginning of the twentieth century. The five statues of Prophets done between 1418 and 1435 fixed these concepts for good. The energy emanating from these grim and powerful figures is obtained by the contrast between the continuous modelling of the head and the visible parts of the body, and the shadow-broken modelling of the heavy drapery, whose firm volumes convey so keen an impression of weight and poise. From the first, Donatello was responsive to physiognomy. He has the knack of expressing emotions aptly and tellingly by a scowl, a puckering of the brows, a stare, a wondering gaze, by the slightest gesture or working of the muscles. Already his contemporaries were struck by the communicative uneasiness of his Jeremiah, by the meditative self-possession of his Habakkuk, and he was one of the most admired and respected artists of his day.

"With his St. George and the Dragon, by enveloping the figures in space, he shaped a new definition of the relief, one that brought atmospheric values into play. The tactile sense of depth and recession was one of the constant features of Donatello's art. Illuminating in this respect is the Pazzi Madonna, which most students regard as an early work, preceding the St. George. Here the technique of flattened relief (schiacciato) is sketched out. True, the perspective is still stiff and unworked out, and the foreshortcuing of the Virgin's left hand is too forthright and bold, but the softened contouring and formal simplicity of this charming and tender group (reminiscent of Giotto's sober and limpid art) announces the austere monumentality of Masaccio's Virgins.

"In the later relief known as the Madonna delle Nuvole (Madonna of the Clouds) Donatello resorts, as in the St. George relief, to more pictorial effects. This image of the Virgin of Humility seated in a halo of clouds, surrounded by cherubs, has a grandiose sobriety duly noted by Michelangelo. The relief is not so much cut and carved as drawn and incised in order to give scope for the sequence of planes within a skilful gradation of shadings and light values.

"The relief of Herod's Feast, at Siena, was executed in 1425-1427; it is one of two panels originally ordered from Jacopo della Quercia for the baptismal fonts of Siena Cathedral. Here the architectural setting acts as one of the principal motifs of the scene. Possibly this setting was designed by Michelozzo. At any event it stands out in the history of art as the first relief to be built up in accordance with the rules of perspective. "Space here is suggested not only by the accurate proportions of the 'hall' but also by its extension on either side of the visual field," writes John White. And he points out that the successive planes of the architecture weave a net which maintains the surface tension, while by its forms it creates the impression that a further sequence of airy spaces extend beyond the foreground. This strict perspective layout and the network of straight lines structuring it, heighten the dramatic effect of the scene. Starting from the Baptist's severed head presented on a salver to the horrified Herod, arises the crescendo of rhythmed gestures conveying the emotional response of the figures, expressed already by contorted or spirited movements, by the restless animation of the drapery. The upsweep of her dress shows us Salome still dancing. The memory of her slender, buoyant figure lingers on in Lippi and Botticelli.


"In Florence the design and decoration of the Cantoria (Singing Gallery) was the work of Donatello. The combination of architecture, sculpture and polychronic mosaics went to create a total and expressive work of art. Here the dance of roguish and jubilant putti runs in a continuous frieze. Their full volumes are rendered by a subtle modelling of broad flat forms; and their figures, with incised hair, sinuous drapery and soft folds of flesh, are enveloped in colour and light by the background polychromy, which heightens the sacred buoyancy of their dance.


"The elevated presentation of the Sacra Conversazione carved in the round has something imposing and arresting about it. The more so because Donatello instilled these figures with an inner tension cunningly heightened by the contrast between the sharp-edged design of the draperies and the smooth, continuous modelling of the faces. The forthright frontality of the Virgin, its hieratic style, with an undertone of menace, evokes those archaic figures inspired by Etruscan art or more nearly the type of the Byzantine Nikopoia, such as Coppo di Marcovaldo's Madonna in Santa Maria Maggiore, Florence, with which Donatello was undoubtedly familiar. But he further introduced some unusual motifs which depart from the conventional iconography: the crenellated crown of cherubs, the sphinxes on the throne substituting for the traditional lions, perhaps in order to suggest the Divine Wisdom whose mysteries are not to be revealed. The strange "idol aspect" of the Virgin (Chastel) has been commented on by many historians, and indeed the figure has been seen as "the evocation of some sanguinary idol of paganism."


"Donatello seems to have been the first to understand the suggestive power of the unfinished, the non finito. He found it a useful device for correcting the optical distortions caused by the spectator's distance from the work; above all, he valued it as a means of conveying in a few sharp strokes an idea that would have been weakened by aiming at a "finish" for its own sake. For "the works inspired by the poetic frenzy are the only true ones, superior to those which are born laboriously."

"This "frenzy of inspiration" appears at the outset in Donatello beginning with the grim statues of prophets for the Campanile. In the last years of his life it assumes a feverish and moving tonality that one need not hesitate to describe as "romantic." At the same time it must be seen in the humanistic setting of his day. The restlessness and commotion of the figures in the last reliefs are carried to a point which, though extreme, is not amenable to all "expressionistic" interpretation in the present sense of the term. If Donatello enriched and extended the emotional range of art, he did so in perfect correspondence with the highest culture of his time-even though, at the end of his life, the contorted forms and convulsed expressiveness of his figures seem to look back to a medieval devoutness foreign to the spirit of the Renaissance. The dereliction, the inner torment, which these figures betray, is resolutely modern, and they have been rightly seen as a premonition of Michelangelo's sombre terribilita.


"The Mary Magdalene carved for the Baptistery embodies, in paroxysmic terms, a mystical expression of faith and penitence remote from Neoplatonist speculations. It urges the beholder on to a religious fervor not far short of St. Francis of Assisi's burning faith. After Donatello there is no equivalent in Italy of this moving visiion of the body's decay and downfall."

Further reading on Donatello:

Donatello Images

1408-15 St. John
1411-13 St. Mark
1412? David (marble)
c. 1416-17 St. George
c. 1417-18 Pazzi Madonna
1423-26 Habbakuk ('Lo Zuccone')
c. 1425 Feast of Herod
1427 The Prophet Jeremiah
1428-c. 1433 Tabernacle of the Annunciation
1433-39 The Cantoria or Singing Gallery
c. 1444-46 David (bronze)
c. 1444-46 David (detail)
1444-53 Equestrian monument of Gattamelata
1449 The Entombment of Christ
c. 1453-55 The Penitent Magdalene
c. 1453-55 The Penitent Magdalene (detail)
after 1460 The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence
c. 1460-70 The Maries at the Sepulchre

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