Aug. 29, 2023

Episode 30: Donatello

Episode 30: Donatello

Donatello was perhaps the greatest of Renaissance sculptors, with a life filled with artistry and intrigue.  This is Donatello's story, layered with insights into his character and his rapport with Cosimo de Medici, providing a lens into this transformative era.  In this episode, we explore Donatello's contributions.  His works serve as mirrors reflecting his profound connection with the artistic medium.  His sculptures bridged human anatomy, emotion, and narrative, elevating his art beyond mere representation.  This blend of realism and emotional depth set him apart, influencing later generations of artists who felt indebted to his innovative spirit.  Donatello's artistry is a testament to the intricate interplay of personalities, patronage, and artistic innovation during the Renaissance.

Photos of Donatello's works referenced in this episode:
Donatello (
Map of Florence from Paul Strathern's "The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance."
Map of Florence (

Donatello : an introduction by Charles Avery
Lives Of The Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, And Architects Vol.2 by Giorgio Vasari

A comprehensive survey of Donatello's opus: The sculpture of Donatello by H.W. Janson

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Intro Music: Hayden Symphony #39
Outro Music: Vivaldi Concerto for Mandolin and Strings in D


I Take History With My Coffee Podcast
Episode 30
Title: Donatello

“Donatello excells for his talent and no less for his technique; he is very well known for his bronze and marble figures, for he can make people’s faces come to life, and in this he comes close to the glory of the ancient masters.”
Bartolomeo Facio, Illustrious Men, c. 1456

Welcome back to the I Take History With My Coffee podcast and thank you for continuing our exploration of the Early Modern period.

I need to start this episode with a correction.  In the last episode, I recommended the book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  I incorrectly stated that the author was Paul Greenblatt.  It should be Stephen Greenblatt.  

There is a story about the artist Donatello that has been handed down.  Through the efforts of Cosimo de Medici, Donatello received a commission to produce a life-sized bronze bust for a Genoese merchant.    When the work was complete, the merchant declined to pay for it and insisted that the artist had charged too much for the piece.  The dispute was referred back to Cosimo for him to mediate.  Cosimo ordered the bust carried to the rooftop to be viewed in better light.  The merchant continued to argue that Donatello only spent a month creating the work, but he was charging him more than 15 florins.  Donatello, whose ill-temper was well known, felt insulted, and before anyone realized it, the artist had pushed the bust off the roof.  It shattered into a thousand pieces as it hit the street below.  Donatello commented that the merchant was better at negotiating for beans than for statues.    The merchant immediately regretted his behavior and implored Donatello to produce another one, and he would double the sum already agreed upon.  But despite his pleading and Cosimo’s entreaties, Donatello adamantly refused to create anything for this merchant regardless of his relationship with the Medici.

This story provides insight into Donatello’s character and his relationship to Cosimo de Medici.  Cosimo doesn’t treat his artist like a common hired laborer.  The humanist emphasis on the individuality of human beings altered the relationship between patron and artist.  Cosimo is said to have remarked: “One must treat these people of extraordinary genius as if they were celestial spirits, not as if they are beasts of burden.”  The artist’s personality was an essential part of the artist’s work. In the case of Donatello, this was more true than ever before.  

For many great Renaissance artists, there is little direct documentation regarding their personal lives.  And this is true, especially of Donatello.  We know of him through his work and the observations of others.  One of the primary sources is the work of Giorgio Vasari.  Vasari was a painter and architect during the middle of the 16th century.  He is best known for his compilation of short biographies called “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.”  He has long been a source of information regarding the lives of 15th-century artists like Donatello, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo, though nowadays, he is considered not as reliable.  He is prone to exaggeration and factual errors.

A single podcast episode cannot adequately cover Donatello's entire opus's breadth, scope, and significance.  Therefore, I am not going to attempt to do so.  In this episode, I will discuss what we know about Donatello’s personal life and character.  Then, I have selected three of his major works that I believe encapsulate his contributions to Western Art.  And then there is the challenge of talking about visual art but not being able to see it.  So, I have created a link to photographs of Donatello’s work that we will highlight.  The link will be in the show description.

Donatello’s birth year is uncertain.  In the Catasto of 1427, the artist declares himself to be 41.  The Catasto was a tax survey undertaken by Florence to determine individuals' wealth more accurately.  You can learn more about the Catasto by visiting my blog at  In the surveys of 1431 and 1433, Donatello lists his age as 42 and 47, respectively.  And in 1458, he claims he is 75.  It is surmised that Donatello never remembered how old he was because it was not important to him.  Given the information in other records, he was probably born between 1386 and 1390.  His father was a wool-comber and perhaps played an active part in the Ciompi Revolt of 1378.  Donatello’s given name was Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi.  He consistently uses this name in the Florentine tax records, dropping the Bardi at the end.  The nickname Donatello appeared for the first time in 1411 and sporadically after that until the 1430s.  After 1440, the name Donatello is used exclusively.  

One of the earliest references to Donatello is an incident in 1401.  In Pistoia, he attacked a German youth with a stick and drew blood.  The artist was known to be physically rough and demanding throughout his life.  Patrons, other than Cosimo de Medici, would call him molto intricato, meaning “tricky” or “difficult.”  It seemed Cosimo alone knew how to work with the temperamental artist. Within his career, Donatello showed impatience with guild and church committees and preferred the more direct man-to-man relationships like he had with the Medici.   Here, we see a move from medieval corporate patronage to more individual commissions from private patrons such as Cosimo.  These would provide an opportunity for more self-expression by an artist.

Why the young Donatello was in Pistoia is unknown.  The more senior Filippo Brunelleschi was in the city completing a commission for the church.  It is possible that Donatello was there as a member of Brunelleschi’s workshop.  We know that Donatello was among the assistants for Lorenzo Ghiberti starting in 1404, working on the bronze doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni.  Ghiberti had won the commission in the famed competition of 1402 over Brunelleschi.  I refer to that competition at the end of Episode #23: The Crisis.  Donatello was in Ghiberti’s workshop until at least 1407.  That year, he began earning commissions to produce sculptures for the Board of Works of Florence Cathedral and was paid by the Wool Merchants Guild.  

When he failed to gain the commission for the Baptistery doors, Brunelleschi went to Rome.  Donatello accompanied him on his trip.  The two artists studied Classical Rome's artistic and architectural remains in the city.  Together, they made drawings, took measurements, and hired men to excavate buildings and artwork.  They made a living as goldsmiths, but neither had families to worry about, so neither was concerned about how they lived.  The locals called them the “treasure men,” falsely believing they searched for silver or gold.   Both men would return to Florence.  As we shall see in the next episode, Brunelleschi would become an architect, designing the great dome of the Cathedral in Florence. Donatello remained committed to sculpture.

Money and appearance were of little importance to Donatello.  Concerned with the artist’s outward looks, Cosimo presented Donatello with a new set of fine red clothes and a new cloak.  Donatello wore the outfit for a few days but then reverted to his old worn work clothes.  Cosimo didn’t press the issue ever again.   It was told that Donatello placed earnings from commissions into a basket at his studio.  His assistants were free to help themselves whenever they needed extra funds.  With this implied trust also came implied loyalty.  When an assistant ran away, it was claimed that Donatello pursued him to Ferrara, intending to murder the youth.  He did not go through with the deed, saying, “No, in the name of the devil, for he laughed at me, and I at him.”

Throughout his career, Donatello's sculptures blended a deep appreciation for human anatomy, emotion, and narrative. His ability to convey realistic and heartfelt emotions set him apart from his contemporaries.  Donatello's artistic prowess was unparalleled, as he infused life into various materials such as marble, wood, and even the challenging medium of bronze. An example of his whimsical touch is seen in the spirited sprites, known as spiritelli, frolicking on the exterior pulpit of the cathedral in Prato—a detail that might bring laughter to viewers. His "Virgin and Child (Pazzi Madonna)" from around 1425 captured a profound intimacy, eliciting a pang of emotion, especially in mothers. His work on the high-relief bronze pulpits for the San Lorenzo church in Florence demonstrated his ability to meld sculpture with architectural spaces, a hallmark of Renaissance artistic ideals.

In Donatello's sculpture "St. George and the Dragon," completed in 1417, he demonstrated a unique approach to carving.  This artwork showcased his artistic prowess on the marble lintel at the base of his St. George statue in the  Orsanmichele, collectively owned by the Florentine guilds.  At this time, the Orsanmichele was being transitioned from a grainhouse to a church.  It portrays St. George on horseback, spearing the dragon while the princess looks on.  It is an early example of his novel technique, rilievo schiacciato - “squashed relief.”    Before this, sculptors would chisel or drill down through the marble, rounding the contours of figures until they stood out from the flat background.  Donatello employed a distinctive method wherein he lightly sketched the figures on the marble's surface, sparingly removing material utilizing the corner of a chisel until he reached the background landscape. Notably, on the right side, he crafted an arcade with an almost accurate perspective, creating a sense of depth. Beyond this, a series of diminutive trees atop hills conveyed an increasing sense of distance, with their sizes and clarity diminishing, creating an illusion of ever-greater remoteness from the viewer.

Around 1425, Donatello created a gilt-bronze relief called the "Feast of Herod" for the font in the Baptistery at Siena. Building upon his previous experiments with architectural settings, Donatello employed innovative techniques in this piece, similar to his earlier work on the relief of St. George. The perfectly square relief offers an intimate look inside Herod's palace. The palace is constructed of finely cut masonry, featuring classical-style arches and divisions. Donatello meticulously reconstructed an authentic ancient palace interior, effectively setting the scene for the historical events he portrayed—the happenings of the Roman Empire era. Donatello's architectural inspiration likely stemmed from his collaboration with Brunelleschi during their visit to Rome to study ancient Roman architecture.

Within the composition, cross walls serve a dual purpose: they create a sense of receding physical space and divide the sequential earlier parts of the story leading up to the foreground's denouement. This foreground captures the chilling moment of St. John's beheading in a distant dungeon, juxtaposed with the presentation of his head on a charger. Alongside this, a gallery of musicians who played for Salome's dance adds an intriguing layer. The calculated perspective within the relief immerses viewers inside the banqueting hall, enabling them to experience the dramatic events firsthand. Remarkably, this illusion is achieved within a mere three-inch depth.

Incorporating architectural elements into Donatello's works allowed him to introduce linear perspective, which directs attention to key focal points and figures within the scene. Donatello drew inspiration from his friend Brunelleschi, who had explored a linear perspective system involving diagonal lines converging at a central vanishing point, creating an illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface.  Donatello's approach to this technique differed slightly; he orchestrated the focal point to form an open space, creating a "V" shape. This design encouraged the viewer's eye to traverse the panel, encompassing both distinct groupings rather than focusing solely on one element. The introduction of linear perspective into his art marked a departure from traditional flat compositions, imbuing his works with spatial depth and realism.  This innovative use of linear perspective in Donatello's sculptures would become a defining feature of Renaissance art, shaping both painting and sculpture. 

Most people are familiar with and recognize Michelangelo’s statue of David.  Yet it has been said that there would not be a Michelangelo David without Donatello first.  Michelangelo, as well as other artists of the day, felt indebted to Donatello.  Donatello’s bronze statue of David is renowned as a pivotal work. Notably, it marks the Renaissance's first instance of a freestanding bronze sculpture and the revival of the freestanding nude male figure since ancient times. The statue depicts David with an enigmatic smile shown in a triumphant stance with his foot resting on the severed head of Goliath. The youthful David is presented in full nudity, save for a laurel-crowned helmet and boots, wielding Goliath's sword.

The details of the statue's creation are shrouded in mystery as no account records of it being commissioned exist.  It's widely believed to have been commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici, though the exact timeframe is a subject of intense debate among scholars. Proposed dates for its production vary, spanning from the 1420s to the 1460s. The prevailing consensus leans towards the 1440s, aligning with the period when the new Medici Palace, designed by Michelozzo, was being developed. 

Donatello's bronze statue of David is audacious. The alluring nudity of the youthful David is further accentuated by his ornate calf-length leather boots, a rustic floppy hat, and cascading curly hair. In the sculpture, his casually positioned open-toed boot rests upon Goliath’s severed, helmeted head, and the exaggerated feathered wing of Goliath's helmet softly caresses David's inner thigh. The bronze's selectively darkened areas enhance the smooth flesh's softness, creating a sensual appeal. Despite its flagrant undertones, the statue's extraordinary beauty transcends mere desire, emerging as an aesthetic masterpiece.    

Beyond its sensual allure, this statue holds significant artistic implications. Being the first freestanding bronze sculpture in over a millennium, the figure signifies the revival of lost knowledge. Casting the statue alone was a remarkable technical feat, considering previous sculptures were often designed as architectural embellishments rather than complete objects. Donatello's David showcases impeccable anatomical precision, reflecting a keen understanding of human physiology. The sculpture's attention to detail, like the slight roundness of rib bones, the nuanced contours of the stomach, and the poised positioning of the hips, demonstrates the fusion of art and science.

Although steeped in artistic and scientific depth, Donatello's David still retains an air of mystery. Questions arise about whether the work's sensual form was unexpected or controversial. The absence of controversy during its original installation has puzzled historians, as the evidence shows the Medici family seemed to embrace it despite its inappropriateness.  The statue's enigmatic essence might be rooted in that inappropriateness, transcending any specific sexuality to embody a hermaphroditic quality. Classical mythology's figure of the hermaphrodite, a fusion of Hermes and Aphrodite, held a significant role in alchemy and hermeticism—esoteric fields that experienced a Renaissance resurgence. Donatello's David could encapsulate hidden meanings, possibly symbolizing a synthesis of knowledge or perfected beauty, where male and female attributes harmonize. 

The statue now resides in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence.

 While Donatello's later years were marked by shifting allegiances and an increased interest in more experimental and sometimes even eccentric projects, his legacy remains a cornerstone of Italian Renaissance art. His influence on subsequent generations of artists cannot be overstated, as his innovative techniques and interpretations of classical forms set the stage for the transformation of Western art.

According to Vasari, in Donatello’s later years, Cosimo, on his deathbed, directed his son Piero to donate a farm in Cafaggiolo to the aging artist.  Donatello at first welcomed this chance to live comfortably in his advanced years.  But within the year, he transferred the farm back to Piero.  He could not stand the household obligations and the constant harping of the peasant who worked the farm. Donatello declared he would rather die hungry than suffer through such torment.  Piero laughed, and in exchange, he assigned the artist an allowance to be paid in cash.  Donatello was content and lived happily until his death at age 83.

When Donatello died in 1466, he was afforded a place close to Cosimo de Medici’s tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo.  A high honor indeed for a man of humble origins.

In the next episode, we will examine Filippo Brunelleschi and his impact on Renaissance architecture.

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