He was born Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, the youngest of three sons to working class family in Italy on November 29, 1797. He was not a child prodigy but received a solid foundation of musical training starting with his uncle and later from a priest, Johann Mayr. He was also a choirboy and in 1806 received a full scholarship to attend Lezioni Caritatevoli School, founded by Mayr. Following his educational training he went to Bologna in 1815 to study with Padre Mattei, a former student of Padre Martini and with a teacher of Gioacchino Rossini. He was given financial support as well as letters of introduction from Mayr to help jumpstart his career.
Gaetano Donizetti's first opera premiered in Naples in 1822. He worked in Naples in the 1820's and 1830's. In 1830, he achieved international fame. Despite his fame he was passed over for the job of director of the Naples Conservatory in 1840 and moved to Paris. In 1842 he was appointed to the Austrian court in Vienna but kept his ties to Paris. His talent and popularity quickly spread throughout Italy making him among the most important composers of bel canto opera in both Italian and French. He was a prolific composer, best known as one of the first composers of romantic music, composing 71 operas, 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 3 oratorios, 28 cantatas, instrumental concertos, sonatas, and other forms of music.
He married Virginia Vasselli. Gaetano Donizetti and his wife lost three children at infancy. After the death of his wife from cholera around 1843, Donizetti developed an illness which was later diagnosed as symptoms of syphilis that deteriorated his physical and mental health. In 1845 he returned to Paris and later to his hometown of Bergamo, after several years of being institutionalized for insanity due to his illness. He died in 1848, and was buried in the cemetery of Valtesse. His body was moved in the late 19th century to Bergamo's Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.