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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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In 1415, Donatello completed the marble statue of a seated St. John the Evangelist for the cathedral in Florence. Both works show a decisive move away from the Gothic style and toward a more classical technique.
By this time, Donatello was gaining a reputation for creating imposing, larger-than-life figures using innovative techniques and extraordinary skills. His style incorporated the new science of perspective, which allowed the sculptor to create figures that occupied measurable space. Before this time, European sculptors used a flat background upon which figures were placed. Donatello also drew heavily from reality for inspiration in his sculptures, accurately showing suffering, joy and sorrow in his figures’ faces and body positions.
Around 1425, Donatello entered into a partnership with Italian sculptor and architect Michelozzo, who also studied with Lorenzo Ghiberti. Donatello and Michelozzo traveled to Rome, where they produced several architectural-sculptural tombs, including the tomb of Antipope John XXIII and the tomb of Cardinal Brancacci. These innovations in burial chambers would influence many later Florentine tombs.
Donatello had nurtured a close and lucrative relationship with Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence. In 1430, the eminent art patron commissioned Donatello to do another statue of David, this time in bronze. This is probably Donatello’s most famous work. The sculpture is fully independent from any architectural surroundings that might support it. Standing a little over five feet tall, David represents an allegory of civic virtue triumphing over brutality and irrationality.
In 1443, Donatello was called to the city of Padua by the family of the famous mercenary Erasmo da Narni, who had died earlier that year. In 1450, Donatello completed a bronze statue called Gattamelata, showing Erasmo riding a horse in full battle dress, minus a helmet. This was the first equestrian statue cast in bronze since the Romans. The sculpture created some controversy, as most equestrian statues were reserved for rulers or kings, not mere warriors. This work became the prototype for other equestrian monuments created in Italy and Europe in the following centuries.
By 1455, Donatello had returned to Florence and completed Magdalene Penitent, a statue of a gaunt-looking Mary Magdalene. Commissioned by the convent at Santa Maria di Cestello, the work was probably intended to provide comfort and inspiration to the repentant prostitutes at the convent. Donatello continued his work taking on commissions from wealthy patrons of the arts. His lifelong friendship with the Medici family earned him a retirement allowance to live on the rest of his life. He died of unknown causes on December 13, 1466, in Florence and was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, next to Cosimo de' Medici. An unfinished work was faithfully completed by his student Bertoldo di Giovanni.
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