When a museum director labors the point that a featured Renaissance artist is more masterful than all others of his time, alarm bells go off calling such adulation out as hype. How else to react when Arturo Galansino of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence states: “Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, they all looked to Donatello.”

But his is no hype. You can tell that Donatello was a Renaissance superstar by the way his generation reacted when he died. Art historian Giorgio Vasari saw how artists and non-artists alike were “plunged into mourning.”

As Vasari explained in "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects," it was the ability to impart feeling in stone and metal that set Donatello apart.

Seeing is believing

You can see this for yourself in one of the works in the exhibit “Donatello: The Renaissance”: a common image of the Madonna and Child, this one carved out of marble. But as exhibit curator Francesco Caglioti points out, the distinguishing characteristic is the sculptor’s particular skill in portraying the emotions of the subject.

Note that the heads of Mother and Child are not faced out toward the viewer as seen in other artists’ renditions. Instead, they are turned toward each other “sharing a profoundly intimate moment,” as Caglioti put it – a moment known to all mothers. “He understood better than any of his contemporaries that sculpture is an inert art form,” and he sought to animate it.

As if to illustrate the curator’s claim, Vasari reported overhearing Donatello whispering to one of his works: “Speak, damn you, speak.” He made this happen in his 7-foot-tall marble statue of St. Mark, which shows him in deep thought, as though in prayer.

This work had once been set in the outside wall of the Orsanmichele church in Florence where Michelangelo admired it.

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According to art historian Edwin Lucie-Smith, Michelangelo acknowledged Donatello's ability to sculpt figures that express their character.

On seeing the St. Mark statue, the artist famed for his mournful Pieta said that Donatello’s St. Mark statue persuaded him to believe whatever the saint would say.

High praise

Art historian Sister Wendy also extolled Donatello’s skill in conveying feeling in an inert material.

In her book “Meditations,” she cites his statue The Magdalene. As she wrote: “No one can claim a perfect record in love. We all fail. It’s the worst pain of love.” She went on to point out how this sculpture captures that awful dread.

What you see is a figure in old age in a fragile wooden carving abraded to the bone by sadness. To hear Sister Wendy tell it, “This is a vision of what all love knows, repentance for inadequacy.”

Besides being a master sculptor, by all accounts, Donatello was also a nice guy. Vasari called him “a man of great generosity, graciousness, and courtesy, more considerate towards his friends than towards himself.

The historian recounts that the sculptor didn’t set much store by money.

What he had, he kept in a basket suspended by a cord from the ceiling, and all his workmen and friends could take what they wanted without asking.

Given how gifted and gracious this sculptor was, I wish the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics didn’t invoke this sculptor's name for one of its leading characters, not only tagging him Donatello but nicknaming him Donnie!