Born to a patrician family, Pietro received his education at the humanist boarding school of Gasparino Barzazzi. Promoted by Biagio Pelacani, he eventually received an arts degree from the University of Padua. He was a Thomist. As a humanist he kept a correspondence with Poggio Bracciolini.
After the death of Franciscus Zabarella, papatu dignissimus iudicatus ("adjudged worthy of the papacy"), in late September 1417 at the Council of Constance, Pietro was one of those attending who, along with Barzazzi and Pierpaolo Vergerio, composed a eulogy for the cardinal. Pietro and Giovanni Berardi, Archbishop of Taranto, were co-presidents of the Council of Basel appointed by Pope Eugene IV. He and Berardi protested the Council after the eighteenth session (26 June 1434) re-affirmed the Haec sancta and the twenty-first session (9 June 1435) abolished the annates. On 11 August 1435 the Council officially reprimanded them, requesting that they lose their objections. Pietro later toured southern Germany in 1437. He attended the Council of Florence in 1438–39 and 1442.
For Pietro Donato, the year 1436 was an auspicious for manuscript-commissioning. First, there is an illuminated Latin Gospel book, now manuscript 180 in the Pierpont Morgan Library, that was created for Donato in Padua in 1436. The chief illuminator was Johannes de Monterchio, while the frontispiece was by Peronet Lamy.
Second, Pietro commissioned an illustrated copy of the Notitia Dignitatum in 1436; it now resides as MS Canon. Misc. 378 in the Bodleian Library. The manuscript of the Notitia which Pietro had copied was one he had found in Speyer, the Codex Spirensis earlier that year attending the council at Basel; its discovery influenced the Roma instaurata of Flavius Blondus. The work of Frontinus on the aquaeducts of Rome and Vitruvius's De architectura were preserved in very poor manuscripts until Giovanni Giocondo edited them in the 1430s, for presentation to Pietro.
As an epigraphist, Pietro compiled ancient inscriptions and collected many ancient artefacts. The Codex Hamilton, MS 254 in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, was such an epigraphic collectanea. It was compiled, at least in part (folios 81–90), by Ciriaco d'Ancona, and based on one of his three visits to Athens (1436, 1437–8, and 1444). With the aid of a scribe and a draughtsman, Ciriaco created a portfolio of sketches of several ancient Greek ruins, most notably the Parthenon, for Pietro.
It has been suggested that Pietro, among other Paduan humanists, like Ciriaco, Francesco Barbaro, Jacopo Zeno, Palla Strozzi, and Leon Battista Alberti, may have influenced the classicism of the work of Donatello—especially his equestrian monument to Gattamelata—during his Paduan years (1444–53), when he had a studio near the Santo.
Pietro had work done on the episcopal palace during his tenure. In 1437 he contracted one Giovanni da Ulma to redecorate the chapel of San Massimo there. In 1444 Pietro commissioned Giovanni da Firenze to make the current font for the baptistry; Giovanni also repaved the interior and redid the tombs. In 1445 he completely rebuilt the bishop's residence in a sumptuous manner.
- Mary Bergstein (2002), "Donatello's "Gattamelata" and Its Humanist Audience," Renaissance Quarterly, 55(3), 857.
- John Monfasani (1993), "Aristotelians, Platonists, and the Missing Ockhamists: Philosophical Liberty in Pre-Reformation Italy," Renaissance Quarterly, 46(2), 267.
- In a 1424 letter to Pietro, Poggio explains that the Epicureans are dissolute, the Stoics severe, and only the Peripatetics should be preferred, quoted in Iiro Kajanto (1989), "A Humanist Credo: Poggio Bracciolinin on the Meaning of Studia, Humanitas, and Virtus," Arctos: Acta Philologica Fennica, (23), 92.
- Thomas E. Morrissey (1984), "The Call for Unity at the Council of Constance: Sermons and Addresses of Cardinal Zabarella, 1415–1417," Church History, 53(3), 307. The eulogy is published under the title Oratio in exequiis Domini Francisci Zabarellae ("Oration on the death of Lord Francis Zabarella").
- Joachim W. Stieber (1978), Pope Eugenius IV, the Council of Basel and the Secular and Ecclesiastical Authorities in the Empire: The Conflict Over Supreme Authority and Power in the Church (BRILL), 36 n51.
- Maestro di Pietro Donato: Gospel Lectionary.
- Bodleian Library: Classical & Medieval Manuscripts. The largest single purchase of manuscripts (over two thousand) by the Bodleian was that of the greater part of the collection of the Venetian former Jesuit Matteo Luigi Canonici (1727–c.1806) in 1817. Canonici's manuscripts included the Notitia originally created for Pietro.
- Gustina Scaglia (1964), "The Origin of an Archaeological Plan of Rome by Alessandro Strozzi," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 27, 142–43, 153.
- Jill Kraye (1996), The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 37.
- Scaglia, 142.
- Vincent J. Burno (1996), The Parthenon: Illustrations, Introductory Essay, History, Archeological Analysis, Criticism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), 114–23, does not claim to know when Ciriaco's portfolio was presented to Pietro. Bergstein, 857, dates it to 1437. For Pietro's collectanea and friendship with Ciriaco, see Theodor Mommsen (1883), "Über die Berliner Excerptenhandschrift des Petrus Donatus," Jahrbuch der königlich preussischen Kunstsammlungen, 4, 78.
- Jocelyn N. Hillgarth (1991), "Who Read Thomas Aquinas?" The Étienne Gilson Lectures on Thomas Aquinas, James P. Reilly, ed. (PIMS), 64 n77. The chief work on Pietro's library is Paolo Sambin (1959), "Ricerche per la storia della cultura nel secolo XV: la biblioteca di Pietro Donato (1380–1447)," Bolletino del Museo Civico di Padova, 48, 53–98.
- Bergstein, 35: "it is possible that informal meetings pertinent the classical elements in Donatello's Paduan work took place [at Donatello's studio near the Santo]."
- Ian Holgate (2003), "Giovanni d'Alemagna, Antonio Vivarini and the Early History of the Ovetari Chapel," Artibus et Historiae, 24(47), 24. In 1937 Erice Rigone, who discovered the contract of 25 February 1437, argued that "Giovanni da Ulma" was the same person as Giovanni d'Alemagna ("John of Germany"), partner of Antonio Vivarini. In 1437, he argued, Giovanni was new to Italy and his birth city of Ulm (Ulma) was still well-known. Indeed, Pietro had returned to Italy that year with a retinue of Germans, whose names are recorded with specific reference to their cities. Pietro may have inquired about a cycle of frescoes executed by Giovanni for the Venetian Giovanni Cornaro: this work is referenced in the contract of 1437.
- Howard Saalman (1987), "Carrara Burials in the Baptistery of Padua," The Art Bulletin, 69(3), 384, and see figures 9 and 10.
- Jacob Burckhardt; James C. Palmes, ed. (1985), The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 130.