The statue depicts Erasmo da Narni, a military leader who was nicknamed Gattamelata. This was one of Donatello's biggest undertakings, with the final piece produced at life size. It is also believed to be the first equestrian sculpture during the early Renaissance.
Artist Donatello used clear elements of symbolism in order to portray this military figure in the right light. Strength and confidence is projected from the way in which he saddles the impressive horse. His sword is also large and threatening. Some artists would deliberately make the horse smaller in order to boost the size of the main figure, but Donatello here chooses a more accurate sizing, giving an air of strength through his facial features and other more subtle touches.
The piece was commissioned by the Republic of Venice as a memorial to their exceptional former General Commander who had led their troops with great honour and dignity. It remains in its original location in the Piazza del Santo in Padua, Italy. The soldier passed away in 1443, with this stunning memorial being completed in 1453. At that point his influence and legacy were still particularly strong and this sculpture helped that to continue for many generations to come within Padua and more widely the Venice Republic.
Many artists captured equestrian scenes such as this during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, both as sculptures and oil paintings. Some of the most famous painters to have addressed this genre within their oeuvre included El Greco, Diego Velazquez and Peter Paul Rubens. British artist, George Stubbs would become perhaps the most famous equestrian artist several centuries later due to the accuracy of his work and the obsessive nature by which he would capture these graceful creatures.
The success of this commission ensured that several more military pieces would appear in later generations. During this period of European history there was continual turmoil and the fate of individual countries or states was constantly challenged. Successful commanders were therefore treated as heroes and memorised similarly. They would tend to depict each figure when at their most powerful and impressive, politically and physically.
In avoiding the usual methods of depicting strength in a portrait figure, Donatello is essentially saying that we as ourselves can be awe inspiring on our own. He felt there was no need to embelish or exagerate in order to promote the character of the individual. Gattamelata would look comfortable in himself, having risen through the ranks of the military, never having been gifted anything such as a monarch might be.