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Italian sculptor Donatello was the greatest Florentine sculptor before Michelangelo (1475–1564) and was the most influential individual artist of the 15th century in Italy.
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Born in Florence, Italy, around 1386, sculptor Donatello apprenticed early with well-known sculptors and quickly learned the Gothic style. Before he was 20, he was receiving commissions for his work. Over his career he developed a style of lifelike, highly emotional sculptures and a reputation second only to Michelangelo's.
Donatello, the early Italian Renaissance sculptor, was born Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi in Florence, Italy, sometime in 1386. His friends and family gave him the nickname “Donatello.” He was the son of Niccolo di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild. This gave young Donatello status as the son of a craftsman and placed him on a path of working in the trades. Donatello was educated at the home of the Martellis, a wealthy and influential Florentine family of bankers and art patrons closely tied to the Medici family. It was here that Donatello probably first received artistic training from a local goldsmith. He learned metallurgy and the fabrication of metals and other substances. In 1403, he apprenticed with Florence metalsmith and sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. A few years later, Ghiberti was commissioned to create the bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral, beating out rival artist Filippo Brunelleschi. Donatello assisted Ghiberti in creating the cathedral doors.
There are accounts by some historians that Donatello and Brunelleschi struck up a friendship around 1407 and traveled to Rome to study classical art. Details of the trip are not well known, but it is believed that the two artists gained valuable knowledge excavating the ruins of classical Rome. The experience gave Donatello a deep understanding of ornamentation and classic forms, important knowledge that would eventually change the face of 15th-century Italian art. His association with Brunelleschi likely influenced him in the Gothic style that can be seen in much of Donatello’s early work.
By 1408, Donatello was back in Florence at the workshops of the cathedral. That year, he completed the life-sized marble sculpture David. The figure follows a Gothic style, popular at the time, with long graceful lines and an expressionless face. The work reflects the influences of sculptors of the time. Technically, it's very well executed, but it lacks the emotional style and innovative technique that would mark Donatello’s later work. Originally, the sculpture was intended for placement in the cathedral. Instead, however, it was set up in the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall) as an inspiring symbol of defiance of authority to Florentines, who were engaged in a struggle with the king of Naples at the time.
Rapidly maturing in his art, Donatello soon began to develop a style all his own, with figures much more dramatic and emotional. Between 1411 and 1413, he sculpted the marble figure St. Mark, placed in an exterior niche of the Orsanmichele Church, which also served as the chapel of Florence’s powerful craft and trade guilds.
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