(b Florence, c.1386; d Florence, 13 Dec. 1466).
Florentine sculptor. He was the greatest European sculptor of the 15th century and one of a remarkable group of artists—including his friends Alberti, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio—who created the Renaissance style in Florence. His long career was hugely productive, and he was unrivalled in the variety of his output, his emotional range and depth, his formal inventiveness, and his versatility in the handling of materials, which included bronze, stone, wood, terracotta, and stucco. He worked in Padua, Pisa, Rome, and Siena as well as Florence (he also turned down invitations to work in Mantua, Modena, and Naples), and he had an enormous impact on his contemporaries and artists of the following generation—painters as well as sculptors—through his wide repertoire of pose and expression, his use of antique motifs, and his sophisticated handling of perspective in his reliefs; indeed he was unquestionably the most influential Italian artist of his time in any medium. In spite of his fame and success, and the high opinion in which he was held by his eminent patrons, he is said to have lived simply, utterly devoted to his work and preferring criticism to praise, as it inspired him to greater heights.
At the outset of his career Donatello worked as an assistant to Ghiberti (1404–7), but he developed a style that departed radically from his master's Gothic elegance. He was unconcerned with the surface polish or linear grace so typical of Ghiberti, and excelled rather in emotional force. His individuality was first revealed in a series of powerfully realistic but deeply spiritual figures (mainly in marble) that he made for the external decoration of Florence Cathedral, the adjacent campanile, and the church of Orsanmichele. The series began with the imperious St John the Evangelist (1408–15) for the cathedral (now Cathedral Mus.), included the celebrated St George (c.1415–17) for Orsanmichele (now in the Bargello, Florence), and culminated in the uncompromisingly unidealized Habakkuk (completed 1436), usually known by its nickname of Zuccone (‘bald-pate’), for the campanile (now Cathedral Mus.). Vasari conveys the brilliance of Donatello's characterization in his description of the St George: ‘The head exhibits the beauty of youth, its spirit and valour in arms, a proud and terrifying lifelikeness, and a marvellous sense of movement within the stone.’ With this acute psychological insight went a technique of daring originality that shows how concerned Donatello was with the optical effects of his works. He carefully took into consideration the position from which they would be viewed, adjusting the proportions of a figure when it would be seen from below, for example, and carving with almost brutal power and boldness when it was positioned to be seen at a distance. On the other hand, his relief of St George and the Dragon (1417, Bargello), done for the base of his St George statue, is executed with great delicacy in the technique Donatello invented called rilievo schiacciato (relief so low it is like ‘drawing in stone’); originally situated on the north side of Orsanmichele, the relief was seen in a soft, diffused light, so the subtlety of the carving could be appreciated.