Lorenzo Ghiberti was born in Florence Italy in 1381 as Lorenzo di Bartolo. His father was Bartoluccio Ghiberti, a trained artist and goldsmith who taught his son the gold trade early on in life. Like Brunelleschi he was trained as a goldsmith in Florence by Bartoluccio de Michele. Ghiberti was an adept artist, writer, architect, and humanist theologist whose unique sculptural style influenced the works of the High Renaissance. Despite his considerable artistic skill no mention was made of his work as a goldsmith, even though several small objects have been attributed to him. In 1400 the bubonic plague and the accompanying civil discord struck Florence and Ghiberti was forced to relocate to Romagna. For a year he assisted another artist in the completion of wall frescoes of the castle of Carlo Malatesta.
In 1401 he returned to Florence and participated in a competition against Brunelleschi, Donatello, and five other distinguished artists of the day to design the north Baptistery doors of the Florence Cathedral. Ghiberti cast each part of the scene individual to insure their perfection. His sample panels depicting the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham were suburb. They not only showed lyrical grace, understanding of proper perspective in relief, good proportions, and quality design but, they were expertly produced and polished to the extent that Donatello and Brunelleschi had to concede to their superiority. When appreciating the extend of work involved in making these doors one must consider that each door was comprised of 10 to 28 individual scenes from the New Testament, each one having three levels of relief, multiple figures, diverse scenery, and excruciating detail.
Perhaps it was Lorenzo’s gentle nature and acceptance of criticism that allowed him to make such beautiful works. He often asked passers-by what they thought of his work and how he could improve upon it. Donatello assisted Lorenzo’s creation of the 34000 pound metal doors. They took nearly 20 years to complete. The third set of doors are said to be his greatest works as they display less gothic influence and more of humanist style which places less emphasis on the scenery in a composition and more emphasis on the figures and emotions being displayed in the composition. The Ghiberti doors were so admired that Michelangelo was said to have called them “The Gates of Paradise.” Additionally, because of his work on the Florence Cathedral doors, Lorenzo was commissioned to make a bronze sculpture commemorating St. John the Baptist.
Among his other commissions Ghiberti still worked making jewelry and medallions for wealthy and powerful people including Giovanni, Pope Martin, and Pope Eugenius. He also worked on stain and painted glass windows for various cathedrals. He also studied humanist theologies and wrote many short works explaining how the human form should be depicted in art. Lorenzo Ghiberti only had one son, Bonaccorso, who produced art after his father’s design. Bonaccorso died quite young and his potential was never realized. Lorenzo himself died in 1444, leaving behind him a legacy of quality workmanship married with impeccable design techniques.
Donatello was born in 1385 in Florence, Italy. His father Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi was a member of the prominent Bardi family but, Donatello was not raised silver spoon in hand. It is believed that he began his training around 1400. In 1402 he participated in the competition for the doors, which he conceded to Ghiberti. Between 1404 and 1407 he became a member of Ghiberti’s workshop to work on the completion of the remaining doors. His first known major work is a marble sculpture of David which displays Northern European influence. Ghiberti’s influence can be seen in this David’s soft, curved lines, and flowing composition. Great attention has been paid to the folds in the drapery and the curls in David’s hair. Later on Donatello would place more emphasis on posturing and conveying emotions than on accurate rendering of garmets. In 1416 Donatello’s David was placed in the town hall, but later it was overtaken by Michelangelo’s sculpture of David. Donatello’s later sculpture St. John the Evangelist displays this same attention to draping, curving lines, and fine details in apparel. Donatello created several marble sculptures and marble reliefs. He developed a new technique for his relief sculptures called schiacciato (“flattened out”) in which he carved delicate shallow lines to create background imagery. This created a feeling of depth in the work that had not been seen before in relief sculptures and allowed the viewer to better discern atmospheric perceptions depicted in the work.
In the mean time Donatello explored bronze sculpture. His first work St Louis of Toulouse shows the marks of his gradual change to a more naturalistic approach. This sculpture was highly ornate, and due to the amount of detailing in the draping required a deviation from standard bronze techniques. To combat these problems Donatello developed a unique technique for casting bronze sculptures: first sculpting the figure in clay, then draping clay soaked cloth around the sculpture, allowing the clay to dry, and then making a mold from the results. It was in this manner that Donatello achieved the flowing grace of draping cloth, smooth lines, and polished surface, in his bronze works. Later artists would employ this same technique. During this time in his career Donatello partnered with a sculptor named Michelozzo. Together the two produced a sculpture dedicated to pope John XXIII; the relief of the Assumption of the Virgin on the Brancacci tomb in Sant’Angelo a Nilo, Naples; and the reliefs of the outdoor pulpit of Prato Cathedral. As his style diverged from that of Brunelleschi their friendship fell in disrepair and was never fully reconciled. In 1496 Donatello was commissioned to do his most well known work: the bronze David. David was pure sculpture. It was not designed to be a compliment to an architectural setting and holds the distinction of being the first large, independent, nude sculpture of the Renaissance.
In David we see the best of Donatello. The full rounded figure in its controlled pose looks as if it is modeling for the viewer. Special attention should be paid to the curve of the wrist of the sword hand, and the muscular fullness of the chest and stomach.
Donatello is responsible for yet another trend in art. The equestrian sculpture. Prior to Donatello’s creation of the equestrian sculpture Gattamelata in 1443, equestrian statues were the sole prerogative of the ruling class. Despite the resounding scandal that accompanied the creation of the horse and rider sculpture Donatello’s work was well received and even before its official unveiling he had offers to make other versions of the sculpture. The modern equestrian sculpture as we know it today was popularized and is entirely indebted to Donatello.
The majority of Donatello’s commissions came from outside Florence. He steadily produced works for various buyers and was never at a lack for affluent patrons. He was no more finish a project that another commission would come rolling in. Perhaps this is why little is known of Donatello’s personal life. Maybe, he worked so intensely that he did not have time for one. His later works in wood show the degree of emotional strain that was being placed upon him. Sculptures such as the wooden St. John the Baptist appear weak, thin, and frail against their predecessors. They exhibit the characteristics of the impending mannerist movement with their exaggerated long limbs and intense facial expressions. These sculptures were not well received in Florence due to a renewed interest in marble sculptures and a further development in marble carving techniques. These works display the gravity of Donatello’s convictions about art and are the most important indicator of who Donatello really was.
The last two years of Donatello’s life were spent designing pulpits for San Lorenzo in the style which was most approved by viewers of the day. He became ill and died before their completion in 1466, having not fully realized the extent of his artistic potential. However, Donatello’s sculptures would serve as the model which all artists of the High Renaissance would work from. His techniques and visions would be refined to the point of excellence.
Written By: Jamie Sue Austin