Born in 1386, just three years before Cosimo de'Medici, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi was known as Donatello.
The son of a Florentine wool-carder, by 14 he was learning sculpture. In 1404,
he was apprenticed to Lorenzo Ghiberti, the famous goldsmith, and Donatello learned his bronze expertise from this master craftsman.
It's not known how Donatello and Cosimo de'Medici became friends.
They shared a fascination with the ancient world and lived in close
proximity, so their paths must have crossed.
Soon Donatello was consulted on the quality of the
antiques and texts rescued by Cosimo and his friends. In 1419, Cosimo nominated Donatello to sculpt a tomb for the dead pirate pope,
Baldassare Cossa, which would be placed inside the Baptistry. Cosimo and his father provided the funding and Donatello cast an amazing
bronze likeness of the scandalous pope, bushy eyebrows and all. With Cosimo's help, Donatello was a building a reputation for versatility
and emotional realism.
Donatello was not a popular person, but in his sculptures he managed to capture life itself. Every look and gesture was rich in humanity
and personality. He was known to mutter “speak, damn you, speak!” at his figures as he worked.
He was so passionate about them, he would smash them rather than sell to ignorant clients. He only trusted a few people including Cosimo de'Medici.
Cosimo would defend his friend from slander and insults about Donatello's homosexuality, which was then illegal in Florence.
Cosimo's artists were tolerated because of their talent, and Donatello knew he had the luxury of behaving badly. Before Cosimo,
artists were dismissed as mere journeymen, no better than masons. Now, they were encouraged to exercise their “artistic temperament”.
In 1434, following his triumph over the enemies of the Medici, Cosimo requested a special commission from his friend. A statue of an Old Testament hero,
symbolizing triumph against the odds. Donatello's bronze “David” broke all the rules.
A playful, sensuous, and androgynous hero, “David” was the first life-size nude to be cast in bronze since Classical times.
To create such a homoerotic hero could have been seriously dangerous for Donatello without the support of the Medici.
Cosimo placed the statue in the center of the courtyard of the Medici Palace where it was visible to all. Underneath it, he had inscribed,
“The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe. Behold - a boy overcame a great tyrant! Conquer,
O citizens! Kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtues. Behold the neck of pride, severed by the hand of humility”
In the 1450s Donatello began work on a terrifying statue, the most vivid of his career. The “Penitent Mary Magdalen”, carved
for the baptistry of Florence, is an eloquent vision of fear and decay, perhaps brought on by the realization of Donatello's own mortality.
Within 10 years of its completion, he was dead.
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