Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, more commonly known as Donatello, was certainly one of the greatest sculptors in the history of art of all time and, perhaps, the most revolutionary. His figure of volcanic and eclectic genius appears on the stage of late Gothic art as a shining star, who influenced all the artists in contact with him with his innovative language, starting from Masaccio. Together with his close friend Brunelleschi, he ignited the flame of Renaissance art. The two friends, Filippo and Donato, meditated this wonderful revolution together when they were very young, going to Rome to study the ruins of the ancients. When they returned to Florence, where humanistic culture and freedom of thought abounded, they started their new idea of beauty. The place where this light was turned on is Piazza del Duomo in Florence. Here Brunelleschi "invented" the perspective looking towards the Baptistery from inside the Cathedral and, above all, built the immense dome, the very symbol of this new culture. Here Donato created a large number of sculptures, from youth to old age, with which he not only began Renaissance sculpture, but also offered a new vision of artistic beauty and humanity itself.
His path began as a collaborator in the construction site of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s North Door of the Baptistery but soon he received works as an independent master on the construction site of the North Door of the Cathedral, known as Almond Door, with an equally courageous but less talented companion: Nanni di Banco. The two small and young prophets from the pinnacles of the door, now preserved in the Museum, are attributed to them. The more plastically powerful of the two, attributed to Donatello, closely resembles the David, which the Opera had commissioned to Donatello in order to adorn one of the external buttress of the Cathedral presbytery, and which is now in the Bargello. In the same Porta della Mandorla, the touching and very human Christ Man of Sorrows in the archivolt (now in the Museum) and the two faces In the lower corners of the marble tympanum refer to the 20-year-old Donatello.
By 1415, Donato, not yet thirty years old, delivered his St. John the Evangelist to the Opera del Duomo for one of the niches beside the Cathedral main portal to complete the group of evangelists, made by Pietro Lamberti, Bernardo Ciuffagni and his friend Nanni di Banco. St. John the Evangelist surpasses the works of the other masters in beauty and intensity. In few centimetres, the sculptor gave life to the figure of an elderly man firmly enthroned and, at the same time, vibrant in the plasticity and expression of the face of a very intense inner spiritual motion. It is no coincidence that a century later Michelangelo looked at this masterpiece for his own Moses.
Donatello, who already affirmed his talent, was entrusted with the execution of sculptures for the niches of Giotto's bell tower, to complete the series of prophets started by Andrea and Nino Pisano. Between 1416 and 1436, he delivered five marble statues, which are milestones in the history of sculpture. His prophets express an unprecedented naturalness of bodies, poses, expressions and garments of figures, which makes them seem alive. In addition, their appearing animated is not a fiction of the surface of the marble; rather, it seems that from the inside of their souls the spirit promenades towards the outside, giving shape to the stone. One is thoughtful, another is frightened, another is melancholy and determined. In the group, two works stand out for their beauty: the Sacrifice of Isaac, with the old Abraham, who twists his head and turns his shocked gaze towards the angel of God (whose presence is clear even though he is not visible) and with the young Isaac kneeling, which is the first life-size nude of modern Western art. The other is the so-called "Pumpkin head", perhaps the prophet Habakkuk, with his skull hollowed out, his eyes wide open and his mouth frightfully ajar in the gesture of prophesying. So "alive" that in his Lives Vasari imagined that Donatello, having completed him, had begged him to speak.
While the now established master was working on these marbles, he formed a partnership with the talented architect and sculptor Michelozzo. Between 1422 and 1431, the two artists received a very important commission, perhaps mediated by Cosimo the elder of Medici, their mutual powerful friend and patron of the arts: so was the Funerary Monument to Cardinal Baldassarre Cossa (or “Coscia”), resigning antipope John XXIII. The monument was placed in the Baptistery, on the wall, between two internal columns and is the first "Renaissance tomb". At the top, the funeral display of the deceased crystallized in gilded bronze and painted marble, lying on a rich canopied bier, in cardinal's robes, in the presence, in the background, of the Madonna and Child. Below is the sarcophagus, marked by an old-fashioned folder with epigraph and funerary geniuses. It is supported by the figures of the three theological virtues, and is in turn raised on a base adorned with beautiful cherubs. A masterpiece in all its parts!
Donatello's genius was eclectic and his art was able to give shape to any kind of material, using any type of technique. In 1433, his design was preferred to that of Ghiberti for the most important stained glass window in the dome's drum, the one to the east with the coronation of the Virgin. Here too Donatello brought innovation to the art of glass, giving perspective depth to the representation of the scene: the frame is an upholstery with Cherubs and Christ with Mary sitting on a throne whose base slopes towards the bottom.
During the years of the completion of the dome, as part of the furnishing of the presbytery area, the Opera commissioned two large marble choirs to Luca della Robbia and Donatello, to be placed respectively on the north-east and south-east walls. After being dismantled in 1688, these two Renaissance masterpieces of sculpture were reassembled in 1891 in the hall of the Museum, which takes its name from them and indeed, the will of the Opera to retain possession was the very reason why the Museum was created. If Luca's choir loft is an orderly succession of panels with reliefs depicting young people singing, dancing and playing, Donatello's pretends to be a loggia behind which two opposing rows of winged cherubs make a frenetic circle. The first is as Apollonian, firm and clear, as it is animated and full of movement: in the dance of the putti, in the strong contrast of full and empty spaces and in the eclectic use of different techniques and styles, from Roman mosaics to marble sarcophagi antique, Romanesque marble inlay, classical bronze.
Close to seventy years, Donato gave the Baptistery a last masterpiece, the wooden statue depicting the penitent Magdalene in life size, the ideal companion of john Baptist, owner of this building. Although at the end of his life, Donatello continued to innovate art by overcoming tradition. Her Magdalene is in poor materials - painted and gilded wood and tow - rather than in the noble white marble of classical art and, although her proportions and anatomical details are perfect, her features are of a stripped and de-humanized woman by fasting and the desert sun. It is beautiful and awful at the same time. She is the ambassador of a new aesthetic canon that goes beyond even the Renaissance by elevating the genius of Donatello into a universal dimension, always current, immortal.