Donatello - Art in the Classroom January 2015

Early Renaissance Sculpture
For this presentation you will need:
(Available reproductions and supplemental boards are in the vertical art storage rack to the right of the
Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata (1453) (sculpture)
Elements of Art Boards
In the black cabinet you will find a white binder with 8.5 x 11 prints of St. John the Evangelist (14091411), St. George (1417), Chellini Madonna (1450), a small statue of Rodin’s The Thinker, a copy of
the current presentation and some other prints for background: Statue of Marcus Aurelius (for
comparison to Gattamelata), Close up of the head of Gattamelata.
Updated January 2, 2015
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Personal Information Name:
Donatello di Niccolo di Betto Bardi
1386, Florence, Italy
Donatello was a reasonably well-educated member of a recognized middle-class
family in Florence, Italy. He began his training as an apprentice in a sculptor’s
workshop in 1403. His apprenticeship and early artistic training took place within a
circle of stonemasons, sculptors and goldsmiths who were working on great
Florentine monuments. Donatello lived a simple, hard life, totally immersed in
creative activity. By all accounts he was uninterested in money and incapable of
managing it, having to rely in effect on the charity of others later in life.
Never married. Son of a wool comber, Niccolo di Betto Bardi and mother
Madonna Ursa. One sister, Tita.
Many of Donatello’s sculptures portray naked people. Please do not present any
naked sculptures/images to the children. We, the Art in the Classroom committee,
feel it is our job to introduce children to Donatello without introducing the subject
of nudity. While it may not be politically correct to screen art in this way in
general, we feel it appropriate for these young children. If a particular child is
compelled to explore Donatello further – as we hope will be the case – his/her
parents can approach this subject in a manner fitting to the individual maturity
level of their child(ren).
Professional Information
Type of artist:
Sculptor. Created works in stone, clay, bronze and wood. His sculptures were
mainly religious in nature.
Donatello is unquestionably the most important sculptor of the Early Renaissance.
The Renaissance was a golden age for sculpture. It has been described as the “Age
of Exploration” or the “Discovery of Man,” and gave birth to a new appreciation of
all aspects of physical nature. Many artists of this period developed an interest in
classical studies, or the humanities, and began to return to classical ideals and
forms. Donatello was one of the first to travel to Rome to study the ruins of
antiquity in order to incorporate many of their ancient principles into his work.
Like no other artist of his time, Donatello tired to convey the nature of his subject
through pose, gesture and expression. He sought to emphasize important aspects of
their individuality in their bearing and gestures, not just through realistic details
and facial features. Donatello’s figures are not just set in motion by external
forces; rather, they themselves appear to take command of their setting through
inner forces – their emotions and individual personas.
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Artist Background
Donatello is one of the most important Italian sculptors of all time. He’s one of the fathers of the
Florentine Renaissance, and he invented the stiacciato technique. Donatello di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, called Donatello, was born in Florence, Italy, the son of a wool
comber. When he was 17 years old, he assisted the noted sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti in constructing and
decorating the famous bronze doors of the baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence. Later, Donatello was
also an associate of the noted architect Filippo Brunelleschi, with whom he reportedly visited Rome in
order to study the monuments of antiquity. The evidence of Donatello’s Roman studies can be found in
his first great statue, St. John the Evangelist, which shows knowledge of Roman sculpture more
comprehensive than that of any other sculptor. Sculptors before Donatello used a Gothic style – relying
on extreme refinement of poses and a highly formal polish. Donatello and other sculptors of the
Renaissance were far less concerned with refined stylization than with a search for a unity of nature and
style, of reality and beauty, the real and the ideal.
Donatello’s career can be divided into three periods. The first and formative period comprised the years
before 1425, when he sought to characterize his figures as individual personalities rather than as types.
In the marble St. George, Donatello slightly twisted the saint’s body and intensified the face to present
a proud, youthful, self-confident hero, a Renaissance ideal.
The second period (1425-1433) is generally characterized by a reliance on the models and principles of
the sculpture of antiquity – a new appreciation of all aspects of physical nature. From 1430 to 1433
Donatello spent periods in Rome, where he created a number of works, notably reliefs decorating the
sacristy of the Basilica of Saint Peter. It was in Florence, however, that he created the most noted work
of this period, the bronze David, which symbolized the Renaissance ideals of physical grace and beauty.
In his third and culminating period, Donatello broke away from classical influence and in his work
emphasized realism and the portrayal of character and of dramatic action. Notable examples of his
sculptures in this period are Miracles of St. Anthony, Judith and Holofernes, and his wood sculpture
Mary Magdalene.
In 1457, at age 70, he left for Siena where he hoped to produce a pair of bronze doors for the cathedral.
Unfortunately these never advanced past the planning stage due to his death. However, he did create a
bronze figure of St. John the Baptist for the cathedral before he died in December 1466. Donatello was
laid to rest in San Lorenzo.
Donatello’s work had enormous influence on the creations of his contemporaries as well as generations
of artists to follow. It appears that contemporaries were just as intrigued by his person as by his work,
for a number of amusing anecdotes were in circulation even during his lifetime. These stories provide
us with an uncommonly colorful portrait of an artistic personality, and tell us that Donatello was easily
excitable and quite the practical joker.
The style in which Donatello worked was determined by the nature of the commission that he
undertook. The relief of the St. George and the Dragon is addressed to the public in the street, and the
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Siena Feast of Herod speaks to the visitors of the Baptistery. The less legible reliefs at Padua, on the
other hand, were designed for close inspection by members of the Franciscan community.
Donatello’s prime concern was to address the minds of those who came in contact with his work.
Donatello’s Sculpting Tools
Sculptors use a variety of tools to make their art depending on the material that is being used.
Sculpture made from stone is carved; the waste material is cut away with a mallet and chisels (similar
to a hammer and a screwdriver; the mallet is used like a hammer to hit the chisel, which looks like a
screwdriver. Then the chisel carves out the stone). There are many different types of stone to choose
from. Some, like alabaster, soapstone, and limestone, are soft and relatively easy to cut. Others, such as
granite, hard-grade marble, and diorite, are extremely hard. If a sculpture is to be placed outside, a hard
stone that is weather resistant is chosen.
Wood is easier to carve than stone, although it requires very sharp tools to cut through the woody fibers.
Axes and saws are used to take off the first waste material. Gouges and chisels are used for the carving
and cutting of the outline and details of a figure. Sandpaper is used for smoothing the surface.
No tools are required for sculptures made of clay. Clay is not cut or carved, but modeled.
Clay is the basis for all sculpture cast from bronze. Bronze statues are not carved or cut; they are cast.
Two different casting methods are used. In the first, a sculptor models a figure in wax, then covers it
with a mixture of clay and sand. When this covering has dried, an opening is made at one end and the
whole piece heated until the wax melts away and runs out the hole. Molten, liquid bronze is then
poured in, taking the place of the wax. After hours of cooling, the bronze hardens. The outer clay
covering is broken off and the bronze figure revealed.
The second method produces a sculpture that is hollow and is therefore suitable for large pieces. A core
of plaster or clay is surrounded with a layer of wax; the wax is shaped as the sculpture is to look. The
wax must be of the same thickness that the final bronze is to be. Hollow wax rods are applied to the
surface of the figure. These will act as drainpipes. Now the figure is covered with an outer plaster
overcoat and heated. The wax runs out; bronze is poured in; it hardens and the outer covering is
removed. The drainpipes are broken off and the interior core of plaster is broken up and shaken out.
Donatello carved sculptures using all of these materials and techniques.
Discussing Sculpture
Sculpture is the art of arranging shapes in space. It is three-dimensional art, for all sculpture has length,
width, and depth. It can be made from any substance that will hold a shape, but most are some form of
stone, wood, clay or metal.
Sculpture can be in the “round”, meaning to be looked at from all sides, or in the relief. Relief is
midway between painting and sculpture in the round. It resembles a painting in being a picture on a flat
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surface, but it is also a sculpture because it has three dimensions. A coin is a form of relief sculpture.
Donatello invented the stiacciato technique, or very low-relief sculpture. It was often used during the
15th and 16th centuries.
The sculpture of The Thinker (as an example of in the round) and coins (as an example
of a relief). You could also use yourself as an example.
You can show the 8.5 x 11 copy of Chellini Madonna as an example of a relief by
“If I stand up and strike a pose – am I a sculpture in the round or a relief? What would I
need to do to be a relief?
You can also ask if they can think of any other examples of a relief (i.e. a cameo pin,
Geometric shapes are the basis for all sculptures, as they are for everything else in the world. A
sculptor is very aware of shape and structure. He or she knows everything has a top and a bottom, a
front and a back. The various sides of a figure are called planes.
Sculpture is all around us. Statues and monuments are in front of public buildings, cemeteries and
parks. Sculpture ornaments are on cars, ships, buildings and coins.
A sculpture is not just a copy of a real figure; it is the artists’ concept of people, animals, or shapes of
nature. Sculpture is art when it can help us to see shapes we haven’t seen before, or shows us
something about our world in a new way.
Featured Artwork
Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata (1453)
(Bronze on marble base)
Height: 134 inches Length: 152 inches Location: Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy Donatello had been working in Florence for many
years before he eventually moved to northern Italy and
to the city of Padua, which was under Venetian control
at the time. He worked for over ten years there, during
which time he gained a following and would go on to have a significant influence on painting and
sculpture in the region.
One of the great works Donatello created while in Padua was the Gattamelata, the name of which
means “honeyed cat”. This funny-sounding name was the nickname of Erasmo da Narni, a condottiere
(military captain) who fought for Venice and is the person depicted riding the horse. Normally,
equestrian statues could legally only depict rulers, which Erasmo was not. It is therefore likely that the
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Venetian Senate had to authorize the creation of this work by making an exception to its rule. The city
of Padua wanted to honor Erasmo after his death, and they did so by placing this equestrian statue of
him in front of the main church in the city. Such a project was unprecedented, indeed scandalous, for
since the days of the Roman Empire bronze equestrian monuments had been the sole prerogative of
rulers. While equestrian statues of this type may not seem notable to us nowadays, in the mid-fifteenth
century, it was significant at the time for its naturalism and the way it rivaled ancient sculpture
The execution of the statue was plagued by delays. Donatello did most of the work between 1447 and
1450, yet the statue was not placed on its pedestal until 1453. The statue is situated on an elliptical
base, and Erasmo is dressed in military gear – he is wearing armor and has his sword by his side. His
body is in natural proportion to his horse (something that is not always true with other equestrian
statues), which indicates that Donatello was trying to achieve a high level of naturalism here. Erasmo is
not shown as a deity, but instead as someone who conveys intelligence, courage, and confident – a
rather triumphant figure who rides on a horse with its hoof on an orb, a symbol of power.
Donatello’s monument, the prototype for all subsequent equestrian statues, surpassed earlier examples
in both size and monumental grandeur. It was set up in the square in front of the Basilica del Santo as a
freestanding monument that could be seen from every direction.
As always, Donatello creates a sense of action that belies the calm equilibrium of his figure. The
sculptor successfully portrays the general as a superior commander. Gattamelatta, became the model of
subsequent equestrian sculpture.
Show: Print of Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata
Do you think the man sitting on the horse is an important person? What about him makes you
feel this way? (He seems important. The way he sits tall and straight on the horse, head upright,
horse at attention)
Does the man seem happy or sad? (happy; very comfortable to be in command of his horse and
ready for action) Brave or scared (brave; face seems very strong)?
Let’s create a story about this man and his horse. Where do you think they are going? What do you
think they are about to do?
Discussing the Art
Show the Elements of Art board.
What lines do you see? (spurs, sword, baton). Are they straight or curved? (straight – making
you feel at attention)
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A shape is a line that encloses itself. Use a pipe cleaner or draw the shapes in a piece of paper to
demonstrate what happens when two ends of a line meet. A shape is created. Name some shapes
(square, circle, ova cube, rectangle, cylinder, semicircle, etc) that are in the paintings.
What shapes do you see in the monument (oval-head; circle-decorations on reigns, cannonball
under horse’s foot; triangle-horse’s ear)
The monument is all one color (bronze). If you could paint the horse and its rider, what colors
would you use? Would you use warm colors (red, yellow, orange) or cool colors (blues,
purples)? What impact does using only one color have? (One color makes the entire sculpture
a single unit. There are not bright colors drawing our attention)
Close your eyes and imaging this sculpture in many colors. Which way do you like it best – as
a single color or many colors? Explain.
• What textures would you expect to feel if you touched the monument? (cool/hard-armor &
baton; sharp/pointy-sword, spurs; soft/furry-horse)
• The dark color of the bronze used to make the statue gives it an overall dark tone. How does
this make you feel?
• The monument was placed high on a pedestal above the people
viewing it. How does this placement make you feel about the man
on the horse (he is an important person, an authority figure – the
man on the horse has command over all the people who look up to
Additional Artwork
St. John the Evangelist (1409-1411)
Height: 210 cm Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence As soon as the St Mark had been finished Donatello hastened to complete
the St John which, together with the other Evangelists by Nanni di Banco,
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Niccolò di Piero Lamberti and Bernardo Ciuffagni, were to be placed on the façade of Santa Maria del
Fiore in the tabernacle at the side of the central door. This statue, which was commissioned by the
Opera del Duomo but executed much later - the payments go from 1413 to 1415 - almost seems to
anticipate the works of Michelangelo. Particularly remarkable are the saint's acute and penetrating
expression, and the realistic treatment of his open hand on the book.
This statue represents one of the clearest examples of how perspective is achieved. To offset the
apparent distortion that would result from the statue being seen from below, the Evangelist's body has
been made disproportionately long for his legs and thighs, which project little from the surface of the
In 1587 the St John, along with the other Evangelists, was removed from the façade and placed inside
the Cathedral, whence it was finally moved to its present place in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.
St. George (1417)
Height: 209 cm
Location: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy
Donatello carved his statue of St. George for the guild of armorers and
swordmakers in Florence. Like the statue of St. Mark, the statue of St. George
was destined for the guild’s niche in the building of Orsanmichele. Because
the guild was of average size, it could only afford a statue of marble, rather
than of bronze.
St. George was the patron saint of the armorer’s guild and was known as a
military figure, one who was well-known in the Byzantine East, but who was
also known by the Crusaders who battled Muslim forces in the Holy Land. A
popular tale involving St. George defeating the dragon came to be known
through the collection of stories called the Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) in
the late thirteenth century.
In Donatello’s work, St. George was carved with a confident posture. He
stands tall with his shield in front of him that looks as if could rotate on its
small base which touches the ground. This implies, at the very least, a sense of readiness on the part of
the saint to quickly confront enemies coming from different directions. To enhance the look of the
statue, the guild created special adornments for it, which might have been put on display on special
days of the year, such as the Feast of St. George. These adornments would have included a sword, held
in his right hand, a helmet, and a belt. They would have given the statue a bold appearance of metal on
marble, and the sword would have projected forward, out of the niche, creating a very visible statement
to all walking down the street in front of Orsanmichele.
Unlike the statue of St. Mark, the statue of St. George does not stand in contrapposto. Instead, both legs
are clearly supporting the saint’s weight, although the front of his left foot is not completely planted on
the ground, but instead partially hangs off the front of the base. The purpose of the stance that
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Donatello gave to St. George was to suggest stability and immobility; he is not supposed to be
interpreted as moving, but instead, as stable and unmoveable. This is a defensive posture.
The reason for such a stance has been linked to political events surrounding Florence during the years
leading up to the statue’s creation. Although Florence was a free Republic during this time, it faced
threats by other cities who were more powerful than itself. Donatello’s depiction of St. George seems to
reflect the idea of standing tall against an approaching enemy. It was a spirit that must have been shared
by Florentines of the day on account of contemporary events, and Donatello used it as the source for
the disposition of his statue.
The spirit of standing strong against one’s enemies also seems to be reflected in the face of St.
George. He turns his neck slightly to his left, his mouth is barely opened, and his pupils show a glance
up and to his left, rather than directly in front of him. His expression is one of intense concentration,
reflected in his wrinkled brow. This is a look of courage and resolve; this is a figure who will not back
down. Thus, St. George’s facial expression complements the posture of his body to create a memorable
statement not only about this man in particular, but also about the Florentine spirit in general.
Chellini Madonna (1450)
(Cast bronze)
Size: 28cm diameter
Example of a Relief
Location: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
On 27 August 1456, the Florentine physician Giovanni
Chellini Samminiati recorded in his daybook that in lieu of
payment from a patient he treating for a serious illness he
had received a round dish which was sculpted with
Madonna and Child at her neck with two angels on each
side. Religious figures were the subject of many works of
art of this time period. It was all bronze and the other side
was hollowed out so that melted glass could be cast on it
and it would make the same figures as that on the other side.
The donor was Donatello. Chellini's daybook entry makes the so-called ‘Chellini Madonna’ one of the
most important works by Donatello because very few can be linked to such documentation.
• Have the class describe sculptures they have seen (at the zoo, in New York City, at a museum,
the Statue of Liberty, etc). Discuss the similarities and differences between the sculptures that
the class has seen and those created by Donatello.
Try at Home
Ask the children to get out some playdough tonight and grab a bunch of different “tools” from the
kitchen drawer or toy box. Using different tools, try to get different effects. Think about what tool
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created the effect you like best. If you like the effect ask your parents if you can let the playdough
harden overnight and you’ll have a pretty cool sculpture in the morning!
Paine, Roberta M., Looking at Sculpture, New York, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Inc.
Pope-Hennessy, John, Donatello, New York, Abbeville Press
Poeschke, Joachim, Donatello and His World, Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, New York, Harry
N. Abrams, Inc.
Grassi, Luigi, All the Sculpture of Donatello, New York, Hawthorne Books, Inc.
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