“No artist has ever produced more than he did”
“The world remained so full of Donatello's works that it may be said with confidence that no artist has ever produced more than he did” – Giorgio Vasari.
Inspired by Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, take a tour of the sculptor’s native city, Florence. Explore the London exhibition, from Saturday 11th February until Sunday 11th June, 2023, and discover where you can still see his works in his Italian hometown.
Donatello: The boy behind the master artist
Better known by his nickname, Donatello, our hero was born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi around 1386 to a wool worker. Florence was his workshop and his canvas.
Having trained as a goldsmith, the young Donatello worked in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s ‘bottega’, in what is now the Tuscan capital, working as a highly paid assistant on the older master’s bronze doors for the Baptistery of St John – just a three-minute stroll north of Hotel Savoy.
Donatello also became friends with architect and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi and the two artists travelled to Rome to study the ruins. The experience greatly influenced Donatello’s work and he embarked on a love affair with antique sculpture which was enjoying renewed interest in Italy.
Iconic sculptures to visit in Florence
Donatello identified strongly with his native city,” explains Peta Motture, lead curator of the V&A exhibition, “and he was at the heart of its cultural and artistic life.” His early sculptural training ground at the Opera del Duomo – the Cathedral workshops – during the first decades of the 1400s saw him sculpt numerous biblical figures in marble to adorn the Cathedral and its bell tower.
Exploring the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo today, see if you can spot another unmissable Donatello piece – his famous Cantoria with its dancing spiritelli, set in an intricate frieze against a reflective mosaic background.
From the Church of Orsanmichele, three minutes’ walk from our Florentine hotel, Donatello’s Saint George marble, commissioned by the armourers’ and sword-makers’ guild, now stands proudly in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, just two streets east of the church.
The David, the first free-standing nude sculpture to be created since Roman times, which once stood in the courtyard of what is now the Medici-Riccardi Palace (now also in the Bargello), was a bold choice. Commissioned by the great patron of the arts and avid Donatello supporter, Cosimo de’ Medici, the bronze sculpture stood out not only due to its sensuality but also because the beheading was seen as a subtle warning to the enemies of the Medici.
From sainted bronzes to his final resting place
Meander through Florence’s winding streets and you’ll soon come to the spectacular white marble façade of Basilica of Santa Croce. Enter the church to see Donatello’s painted wood Crucifix and his stone Cavalcanti Annunciation. In the adjoining museum is Saint Louis of Toulouse, one of Donatello’s first bronze sculptures which set him on his way to becoming a celebrity in his own time.
Leaving the basilica behind, walk for eight minutes to Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace). Within this fortress-like Tuscan gothic palace and seat of power you’ll find Donatello’s bronze, Judith Slaying Holofernes. A Medici commission, it shows Humility triumphing over Pride as the beautiful Jewish widow raises her sword, brutally beheading the general of an Assyrian army.
Track north, 10 minutes by foot, to find Donatello’s Passion Pulpit in the Basilica di San Lorenzo, taking in his unfinished bronze reliefs narrating the Passion of Christ, you’ve arrived at Donatello’s final resting place – he resides in the crypt along with Cosimo de’ Medici next to him, an admirer to the end. While at the church, also note the Resurrection Pulpit, bronze doors and the domed ceiling decorated by Donatello.
The V&A’s Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance
Eight hundred years after his passing, the maestro’s influence is still palpable as evidenced by the V&A’s latest exhibition, Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance. One of the stars of the show is the young Donatello’s marble David from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. The loan of its lively Attis-Amorino adds a good example of his secular work.
Visit the exhibition and you can also see exquisite pieces from Pisa, Prato and Padua. Get up close to Donatello’s Spiritello with a Tambourine from the Siena Baptistery font, on loan from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and admire a bronze relief thought to be that is possibly a trial piece for the doors of Siena cathedral, a perfect example of Donatello’s ability to capture emotions.
Innovative and unafraid to experiment, Donatello’s far-reaching influence lives on in Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo and Raphael. Observing his extraordinary sculptures and sketches, it soon becomes clear that Donatello – the Renaissance man – shaped far more than stone.
Ask our Concierge at Brown’s Hotel about the best ways to visit the Donatello exhibition at the V&A in London. You can also read our globe-trotting guide to best art exhibitions in 2023.