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Donatello and Early Renaissance Statues

Florence, Italy

The sculptor Donatello gave his subjects unprecedented realism and emotion from Mary Magdalene carved in wood to his bronze David, a free-standing male nude decorating not a church but a rich patron’s courtyard.

Complete Video Script

[17, Duomo (Florence's cathedral), dome by Brunelleschi] The Cathedral and its soaring bell tower were landmark accomplishments in architecture…and they were to be decorated inside and out with wonderful statues. For this, Florence turned to Brunelleschi's good friend and Ghiberti's assistant — the sculptor Donatello. An eccentric, innovative, workaholic master, Donatello lit up his statues with an inner soul, giving his subjects unprecedented realism and emotion.

[18, Cantoria, 1433, Donatello, Museo del Duomo, Florence] This balcony from where the choir sang, captures the exuberance of the Renaissance. Dancing and swirling in a real space, unconstrained by columns, Donatello's happy angels celebrate the freedom and spirit of this new age.

[19, Mary Magdalene, 1455, Donatello] His Mary Magdalene — carved out of wood — is provocative…shockingly realistic. Rather than a saint in glory, Donatello portrays a real person, whose entire being is about the spiritual rather than the physical. Hands folded in prayer and emaciated from fasting, she's repentant. While her neglected physical body seems fragile, she exudes strength in spirit…with a faith that salvation will be hers.

[20] Before the Renaissance, church architecture — because it was the house of God — was the most noble art form. Other arts — like statues, paintings, and stained glass — were especially worthwhile if they ornamented the church.

[21, St. George, c. 1417, Donatello, copy at Orsanmichele Church, Florence] Back then, statues were set deep in alcoves. But, with the Humanist idea of Man standing on his own, the statues literally begin to step out of their protective niches. And Donatello's St. George looks out boldly: ready it seems — both physically and symbolically — to break free from the church as well as the medieval past.

[22, David, c. 1440, Donatello, Bargello Museum, Florence] With his bronze David, Donatello helped revolutionize sculpture. "Renaissance man" now stands on his own. This is one of the first freestanding nudes sculpted in Europe in a thousand years. While the formal subject is still biblical — David slaying the giant — truth be told, it's a classical nude…a celebration of the human body. Driven in part by artists, society was changing. A generation before, this would have been shocking — but with the Renaissance, it's art for art's sake, adorning not a church but a noble family's courtyard.