It’s All About David
Once upon a time, a Genoese merchant commissioned a bronze bust from an artist.
But this was no mere artist.
This was a Renaissance Master, standing tall early in his era. He completed his masterpiece ahead of time, and when the merchant discovered this, he refused to pay. If it was finished so quickly, surely, he was being overcharged! In a fit of rage, the Master smashed the head. Realizing his mistake, the merchant begged him to make another. He promised twice the salary. He even called the Father of the Fatherland for help convincing him. But his pleas fell upon deaf ears.
The Master refused. The merchant went without.
The Master was Donatello di Niccolò di Betto Bardi. A born and bred Florentine, and a pioneer of the Renaissance.
- It was Donatello who invented stiacciato*.
- It was Donatello who created the first life-size equestrian statue since Antiquity.
- It was Donatello who made the first free-standing sculpture since Antiquity (that is, without support from surrounding architectural features).
- It was Donatello who carved the first male nude sculpture since Antiquity.
This is the story of that sculpture – the first free-standing, male nude since those made by the Greeks and Romans.
Commissioning a Biblical Hero
According to tradition, in the midst of battle, the Philistine champion, Goliath, offered to meet the Israelite’s best warrior in single combat. It was a shepherd who took on the challenge. Too young to be a soldier, David was small and untrained. Saul, the King of Israelites, offered him armour and weapons, but what use were they to a boy who didn’t know how to use them? David instead stepped onto the battlefield with his slingshot and, with a single stone, knocked Goliath unconscious, and then severed the Philistine’s head with his own sword.
Throughout the years, Florence has lauded the tale of David. His strength, courage and youth are all attributes with which she identifies. Throughout history Florence has considered herself the perpetual underdog defeating adversity in all guises – defending her civil liberties, remaining independent, and not succumbing to those who sought to dominate her.
It’s unknown when exactly Donatello was commissioned to create his David, but the sculpture was owned by the Medici. The bronze David was first recorded as part of the family collection in 1469, and as Cosimo de’ Medici was a great patron of the artist, most believe it was either bought by or made for him. What we do know is that David stood in the inner courtyard of the Palazzo Medici, an inscription carved into the pillar upon which the sculpture was mounted:
“The Victor is whoever defends the fatherland! God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe. Behold! A boy overcame a great tyrant. Conquer, O citizens!”
Breaking Down David
Throughout the Middle Ages, nudity was only seen in figures of Adam and Eve, and the sinners whose souls were destined for Hell. A naked David, a King in the Old Testament, would typically have been out of step with this ethos. But with the birth of the Renaissance, and the growing focus on honouring Antiquity where gods and heroes and athletes were depicted in their natural glory, the majestic, powerful, and wise David was the perfect subject matter.
David stands only at 5ft – tiny compared to the 17ft giant of Michelangelo’s – and is made from a specially darkened bronze which gives it a distinct smoothness.
Unlike other sculptures of the age, which were designed to stand in niches and therefore only seen from the front, David was meant to be walked around and observed from all angles. And his anatomical precision is meant to be admired. You need only a glance to notice the slightly protuberant stomach, the swivel of his hips. Look closer and you can see his ribs and the creases along the skin of his fingers.
The wreath which adorns David’s hat and upon which he stands may possibly have two meanings. It’s made of laurel, symbolic of San Lorenzo, one of the Medici’s patron saints. Perhaps this connects the sculpture to the family who commissioned the masterpiece. But laurels are also a symbol of victory.
A Question of Identity
David’s androgyny has been continuously questioned and debated by art historians. Some believe he is modelled on Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s lover who was renowned for his beauty. Others believe he is Hermaphroditus, whose form, according to Ovid, was merged with his lover, the naiad, Salmacis. In the platonic ideal of human perfection, this combination was perfect.
But there is something suggestive between David and Goliath. Let’s quickly turn to Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes, which was sculpted a decade or so later. See how Holofernes’ head is turned towards Judith’s body, right between her legs? It illustrates a woman dominating a man in more ways than one.
Could there be a suggestion here, then, that David defeated Goliath through seduction? Look at the enigmatic smile. At the exaggerated feathered wing of Goliath’s helmet which softly caresses David’s inner thigh. Even Goliath’s helmet shows putti pulling a chariot, the triumph of love.
A Gay Icon
This brings us to the biggest debate surrounding Donatello’s David – Does David celebrate Florence’s queer culture? Or has he become a gay icon because Donatello himself was thought to be homosexual?
Think about Francesco Filarete’s argument to swap Donatello’s David out for Michelangelo’s. He described David’s leg as ‘schiocha’ which has two meanings – colloquially means a male lover or the object of desire, but it also means silly and awkward.
This was at a time where David wasn’t in the Medici Palazzo. When the Medici were exiled in 1494, both David and Donatello’s Judith, were moved to the Palazzo della Signoria as a warning not to challenge the power of Florence. So David was not considered controversial.
With girls marrying so much younger than boys, and virginity being so important in the Renaissance era, men were expected to meet their sexual needs in other ways. Same sex relations were therefore tolerated in Florence, with laws against homosexuality seldom enforced. In fact, the German colloquial term for sodomite was ‘Florenzer’.
The Genius of Donatello
Whether you consider David’s slim build as androgyny, a queer icon, or a deliberate reminder that when you place your faith in God, your physical strengths and weaknesses matter little, there’s one thing that isn’t up for debate: Donatello’s genius.
“One must treat these people of extraordinary genius as if they were celestial spirits, not as if they are beasts of burden.”Cosimo de’ Medici
* Stiacciato (or Schiacciato) is a shallow carving, only a few millimetres deep, which uses the effect of light and shadow to create the illusion of depth and movement.