Thursday, May 9, 2013

Donatello (1386-1466)

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known to us more simply as Donatello, was born around 1386 in Florence.

As a teenager he went to Rome in 1402 with his older friend Filippo Brunelleschi (born 1377) to study its ancient sculptures and buildings. Following their surprisingly fruitful studies, his sculptures and Filippo’s buildings significantly influenced the arts of their age.

One of Donatello’s first major sculptures was of St. George (1417). He carved a much more realistic statue than had been customary during the preceding medieval period. From the way he looks and stands, Donatello’s St. George tells us he is well aware of the risk he takes in fighting a dragon but he is determined to meet the challenge to save his one true love from death.

In the mid-1420s Donatello carved statues of the prophets Habakkuk and Jeremiah. These he carved with a fierce realism reflecting the pain these men experienced as witnesses to unpopular truth. Their faces, though based on ancient statues studied in Rome, nonetheless possess a highly personal character.

Perhaps around 1440 Donatello created a bronze statue of David. This became his most famous sculpture. It was the first free-standing statue of a naked human since ancient times.

The statue itself is deeply ambiguous: it succeeds masterfully as an object of beauty but fails miserably as a portrayal of the biblical David. That David had just killed a giant warrior by the hand of God. Donatello’s David is far too feminine and flirtatious to be that David. Donatello’s David is wearing a wreathed and ribboned hat which is far too large, with a teasing look on his face, loosely braided hair lying lightly on his shoulders, enlarged breasts, the back of his left hand resting against his hip, his hips shifted to the right, a feather from the dead man’s helmet lightly touching his inner thigh, his toes wrapping themselves in the dead man’s beard.

In 1443 the family of a recently dead mercenary commissioned Donatello to create a bronze memorial of him. He moved to Padua and in 1450 finished the statue. Donatello portrayed him as a commanding figure mounted on a proud horse. This was another first since ancient times: a statue in bronze standing independently in a public place. It set the standard for all subsequent equestrian statues.

Donatello died December 13, 1466 and was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.