The son of a wool merchant, Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi is believed to have been born around 1386 in Florence, Italy, and began his career at age 17 as an assistant to a goldsmith.
Better known by his single moniker Donatello (the diminutive of Donato), he is today regarded as one of the founding fathers of the Italian Renaissance.
The Florentine sculptor revolutionized the art of his time, using diverse materials for his work. In his career that spanned between 1403 and 1466, he worked not only with marble and bronze, but also with terracotta and stucco — materials that had scarcely been used since antiquity but later enjoyed renewed popularity during the Renaissance.
In his able hands, they were transformed into some of the finest, most incredible masterpieces that attest not only to Donatello's extraordinary levels of productivity and imagination, but constitute some of the major milestones of Italian Renaissance art.
International collaboration leads to unique Donatello exhibition
Following its opening leg in Florence, the traveling exhibition "Donatello: Inventor of the Renaissance" is now on display at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie museum. It features 90 works, many of them significant pieces from his oeuvre that have never been exhibited together.
The show is the first-ever in Germany that focuses exclusively on Donatello, and is the result of a one-off collaboration between the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, London's Victoria & Albert Museum and Florence's Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and Musei del Bargello.
This collaborative project among the various European and British museums has also enabled the exhibition to show some of the sculptor's major works outside Italy for the first time.
This includes works that are on loan from the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua in northern Italy. It was there in the 1440s that Donatello created a series of unique bronzes that still embellish the basilica's main altar.
The Biblical character of David who slew the giant Goliath was a favored subject of the Renaissance masters.
One notable Donatello masterpiece that has left Italy for the first time is his marble statue of "David" from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, which was his first masterpiece.
Donatello created a second "David" out of bronze later, a work that went down in history as the first free-standing male nude bronze of the Renaissance. The work was also singular for not having been conceived as part of a specific architectural setting. This second David was commissioned by his wealthy patron, Cosimo de' Medici of the powerful House of Medici that ruled Florence during the height of the Renaissance and that had commissioned almost all of the city's breathtaking art and architecture.
Made of bronze and standing at 104 centimeters (41 inches), the "Amor Atys" has been described as perhaps Donatello's "most enigmatic and ponderous work." According to thehistoryofart.org, "this is due mainly to the fact that so little is known about how it came into being." This true-to-form statue of a laughing youth is thought to have been sculpted around 1440.
The exhibition also features sections of the frieze he worked on for the pulpit of the exterior facade of the Prato Cathedral situated in Tuscany, central Italy. Viewers can get up close to the "Cherubs Dancing and Playing on Instruments" that was also a favorite design motif in ancient Rome and that had long fascinated the artist.
From the 1420s onwards, Donatello often incorporated these figures known as "spiritelli" or "little spirits" — even for church commissions despite their frenetic dancing harking to pagan processions of yore.
Another key piece of the exhibition is the "Pazzi Madonna," named for the Pazzi family of Florence who are believed to have commissioned it for their private devotions. Dating to around 1425-1430, it is hailed as one of Donatello's greatest masterpieces and is an emblem of early Renaissance sculpture.
It is unique as both Madonna and Child are portrayed without haloes and in a departure from tradition, neither looks at the viewer but rather gaze intensely at each other — underscoring the humanity of the work.
Donatello worked for more than 60 years on many commissions, both public and private, in his native Florence as well as in other Italian cities like Padua and Naples.
"Donatello: Inventor of the Renaissance" is on show from September 2, 2022 to January 8, 2023 at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie, and will then move on to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier