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Do you have your own unique style, a combination of all your influences?
So did Donatello.
If the Renaissance represented the rediscovery and revival of ancient Roman and Greek traditions, then Donatello must be counted as one of its first heroes.
A Florentine native, Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi was born in 1386, the son of a craftsman. He trained as a goldsmith and apprenticed with Lorenzo Ghiberti, famous for the celebrated and awe-inspiring doors of Florence Baptistery situated directly across from the city's Duomo and later dubbed “The Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo.
Donatello was also a contemporary of Filippo Brunelleschi, who would later cap the then-roofless Duomo with its iconic dome. It is said that the two traveled to Rome together in 1407 to help excavate Roman ruins. In digging up these ancient artifacts, they also dug up forgotten artistic truths about linear perspective and rendering three-dimensionality in art, thus sparking the Renaissance period that brought the Middle Ages to a close, forever.
Returning to Florence from this most formative journey, Donatello created his first interpretation of David, the giant slayer. Carved in marble, the statue can now be found at the Bargello Museum. It is one of 22 treasure hunts included in Time Traveler Tours’ interactive app of Renaissance Florence, Buried Alive: The Secret Michelangelo Took to His Grave as it played a major role in the development of Michelangelo’s artistic life and career.
Donatello’s marble David was originally commissioned to top the Duomo Buttresses. But when it was deemed too small to be seen at such a height, Florence’s governing body requested that it be installed in the seat of government: the Palazzo della Signoria. That’s when David was adopted as a political symbol of the small Republic surrounded by empires and kingdoms and other armed foes.
In the following years, Donatello worked tirelessly, bringing ever more emotional resonance to his work than that portrayed by his early marble David. His sculptures broke the mold, depicting dramatic life-like figures that betrayed the artist's thorough understanding of such scientific concepts as perspective and three-dimensional space. Donatello also applied this understanding to architecture, working with another famous Italian sculptor and architect of the Palazzo Medici, Michelozzo.
In 1430, Cosimo de' Medici, the “father of Florence,” commissioned Donatello to make another David, this time for his new family home on the via Cavour. This David was fashioned from bronze. Created 30 years after its marble sibling, it stands over five feet tall, naked except for tall boots. So young and slender, it is hard to believe this David could have killed a fully armed giant. Yet he wields Goliath’s massive sword without effort as he casually props his left foot on the giant’s severed head.
Donatello honors the beauty of the human body in this sculpture in a way his earlier, more rigid, marble David does not. This one stands alone, without support. The body turns, the weight on one leg, poised as if he could walk away but at the same time, relaxed.
Also on exhibit today at the Bargello, Donatello's bronze David is now commonly regarded as Donatello's greatest masterpiece. Indeed, Cosimo’s famous grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent, used to tease his young charge, Michelangelo, wondering if he might ever become as skilled a sculptor as Donatello. It is the subject of another historical treasure hunt included in Buried Alive.
Donatello died on December 13, 1466, of unknown causes, and is buried next to his friend, Cosimo, in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. He left behind a brilliant artistic legacy and a unique style that would inspire many other artists of the Italian Renaissance, most notably the central figure in our app, Michelangelo, who would carry on Donatello’s tradition of rendering David in tribute to the courage and virtue of the Florentine Republic.
Donatello saw the world differently and communicated his unique vision through his art. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.