Donatus (d. 876), Irish scholar and ecclesiastic born at the end of the eighth century, was elected bishop of Fiesole, near Florence, in 829. The tenth/ eleventh-century ‘Vita sancti Donati episcopi’ has little biographical detail, and almost nothing is known of Donatus's Irish origins. He is supposed to have gone on pilgrimage to Rome and on his return journey to have stopped at Fiesole, where the bells miraculously rang out on his arrival. His epitaph claims that he remained in service there for forty-seven years, as bishop, teacher, and administrative official under the Carolingian rulers, Lothair I and Louis the Pious.
His long and distinguished career at Fiesole is well recorded and he is possibly the best documented of any Irish peregrinus. He founded a school at Florence under the patronage of Lothair, where he taught grammar and metrics for many years. He is known to have been present in Rome at the crowning of Louis as king of the Lombards by Leo IV in 844 and at his coronation as emperor in 850. He also attended the Lateran council of 861–2, which was held during the papal dispute with John, archbishop of Ravenna. It is recorded that in 840 and again in 866 he led contingents of Louis's troops against the Saracens. As bishop of the then important town of Fiesole and its extensive diocese, he obtained immunity from taxes and royal exactions for the episcopal estates, and was empowered to hold his own court and levy taxes.
In 850 Donatus presented a church at Piacenza dedicated to St Brigit (qv) to the monastery of Bobbio on condition that it established a hospice for Irish pilgrims: ‘that if any peregrinus of my people comes . . . two or three shall be taken care of there’ (Cipolla & Buzzi, i, no. 44). Piacenza subsequently became an established stopping-point on the route from France to Rome, and remained so for centuries. He also built a church dedicated to St Brigit at Santa Brigida, north-east of Fiesole, probably as a retreat from his administrative and episcopal duties.
Donatus is the author of the only hagiographical epic written by an Irishman, the metrical Life of St Brigit, a poem in Latin hexameters, of which 2004 lines survive. The poem is not of great literary quality, but is written in vivid language and echoes various classical, Christian Latin and Carolingian authors. It is of limited significance as a historical source as it mainly draws on earlier Lives of Brigit, probably those of Ultán (qv) of Ardbraccan, Ailerán (qv), and possibly Cogitosus (qv). It has been suggested that the poem was dedicated to the famous Dúngal (qv) of Saint-Denis/Pavia/Bobbio; the addressee is styled ‘great poet’ and ‘most learned holy father’. Whether or not this is the case, it is probable that Donatus had contact with Dúngal. A prose version of the metrical Life also exists, but it is much inferior and is unlikely to have been written by Donatus. The other writings of Donatus include a metrical ‘Credo’, a metrical description of Ireland, and an epitaph dictated by him for his tombstone, all of which feature in the Brigit Life.
Donatus played an important role in establishing the cult of Brigit in Italy, mainly through his church dedications and his writings. He died on 22 October, probably in 876, and was buried in the cathedral at Fiesole. The remains were examined in 1810 and removed in 1817 to a chapel located behind the high altar of the present cathedral and dedicated to him. The tombstone bearing the epitaph (‘Hic ego Donatus . . .’) dictated by him has been lost, but the poem survives in the ‘Vita sancti Donati’; it makes the claim, ‘loyally I served the kings of Italy, Lothar the great and Louis the good’. His feast-day on 22 October is still celebrated in Fiesole, where he is venerated as a saint.