Donatello's David: banishing the dark ages with a skinny bronze

March 20, 2010

The first free standing nude since classical times. Donatello's beauteous David

Much has been said about the Italian Renaissance, where scholars and artisans became embroiled in the stylistic idioms of  the classical era - particularly of ancient Greece and Rome. We have seen Raphael's Loggia, an inspired recreation of the decorative excess of Nero's Golden Palace. We know that the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo used to gaze adoringly at Greek and Roman marble statues, sometimes even as they were being pulled out of the ground.

Perhaps the most celebrated of all classical Greek Sculpture, Laocoon and His Sons(c.?42-20-BCE) was pulled out of the ground in Rome in 1506, near the remains of Nero's Golden House. We are told Michelangelo was an interested onlooker at this remarkable moment in art history and archaeology.

This inspiration was expressed in  techniques such as the contrapposto pose, and in Michelangelo's case, it also formed the impetus for him to create a free standing colossal(larger than life sized) statue - something not attempted since ancient times.

The world is enthralled by the grand majesty of  Michelangelo's David.  Impressive as it is, it begs us to ask - why? It was truly an amazing technical achievement  - but it is possible to look at this David and conclude that there is something aesthetically lacking. The boldness of the pose is deliberate. Michelangelo's David was planned and executed as a colossal work, primarily because it was originally intended to be mounted along the buttresses of The Santa Maria Del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. This never eventuated and David ended up standing outside the municipal buildings of Florence, where he was abused by birds, pollution and damaged during public riots.

Nothing about Michelangelo's David is serene

Life-sized versions of Michelangelo's David are simply not as impressive. Rather than attributing this to a deficiency of Michelangelo's talents, it is vital to note that his David was executed with adjustments to proportions that suited viewing from below. The arms are longer, the hands bigger. This has been incompletely interpreted by enthusiastic Art scholars to denote the great strength of the Biblical David. Whilst there is some credence to this argument in the vitality demonstrated by the details of veins on the hands for example - the proportions themselves were practical in relevance to the intended position of the viewer. It can also be surmised that the finer details on the hands were included  upon the decision that the sculpture was to remain grounded.

Blood flow is one of the essential indicators of life, used cleverly here to denote strength and vitality

To better appreciate the wonders of Renaissance sculpture, we must start to look beyond Michelangelo's David. Popular culture has the effect of glossing over some very important steps in describing any given era. Michelangelo had a very important predecessor, whose outstanding work set the scene for the classical revival in Sculpture. It is here we must introduce Donatello, and his sublime bronze David.

The man himself - a sculpture depicting Donatello outside the Uffizi in Florence

Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, better known to us as Donatello was a Florentine sculptor, architect and master goldsmith.   The biography of Donatello himself is sketchy at best. Giorgio Vasari does spend some time on him in his Lives of The Artists, but as he was not a contemporary of Donatello, all that remained for him to recount was an exploration of known works by Donatello, and the odd rare anecdote related by other sources.

Hence, we do not get a description of whether he was a florid character with eccentric habits like Leonardo or Michelangelo - we know Donatello almost entirely through his work. Donatello is related to us foremost as a sculptor, though evidence exists that he was involved, to a  seemingly lesser degree in architecture. 

Donatello's (pre-restoration) David seems adrift in contemplation

In 2008 Donatello's David was given a good clean

Below is a snippet from the BBC Four 2009 documentary Medici - Makers of Modern Art featuring an interview with restorer Dr. Ludovica Nicolai.

Sculptural depictions of David were not uncommon, and not all of them were muscular heroes with an angry glint in their eye

Verocchio's David was rumoured to be modeled on a handsome young pupil of his, Leonardo da Vinci

Andrea Del Verocchio completed his youthful David circa 1475. Also created for the Medici family, it was installed at the Palazzo Vechhio in 1476. Whilst slender and graceful to an extent - it does not have the flowing beauty of Donatello's David. It being a clothed figure also detracts from the very classical appearance of the Donatello bronze.

Later sculptors such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini seemed to fuse the power of Michelangelo with grace of Donatello, to create a David whose beauty stems from the flow of movement captured. Like a still image from a film, Bernini's David is caught in the middle of his attack on Goliath - his face less angry but moreso locked in grim determination.

A later work, Bernini's David took Renaissance sculpture to new heights, and back in time! The bold movement indicated in Ancient Greek sculptures such as Laocoon and His Sons made a dramatic resurgence

Comparing the three works, one can attribute some of the differences to the pose and depiction to the fact that they are snapshots of the same story, but at different points in time.

Michelangelo's David is the before image, Bernini's the during and the contented Donatello bronze is the triumphant aftermath. That being said, there is still something different about the skinny bronze. A lithe, very effeminately proportioned figure. The hat(believed to be a representation of traditional Jewish head-dress) is adorned with a victory garland, denoting not only David's victory - but again suggesting a more serene and tender depiction of the famous King.

Very little is known about the creation of Donatello's David, even its date is in dispute - the current popular figure being circa 1440s. In any event, it was significantly before Verocchio, Michelangelo or Bernini by a factor of decades to centuries!

It was created for the great Cosimo de Medici, and was designed to be viewed from all angles or "in the round". The statue originally adorned the Palazzo de Medici, but has since moved to the Bargello Museum in Florence, along with numerous other works by Donatello. Controversially, some scholars are starting to re-examine the classically styled bronzes, and finding an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that some were created from life casts.

Real 3D: Donatello's David was designed to be viewed 'in the round.' Every angle was painstakingly considered to create a balanced 3-Dimensional composition

Others have looked at Donatello's David and suggested that it cannot be a life cast due to some inconsistencies in anatomical proportions, but this is hardly definitive proof. Until further evidence arises that proves this unequivocally, it remains in the realm of speculation.

One thing we can say about the bronze is that is it sublimely beautiful - and deliberately designed to be so. The sensual contrapposto is again employed - and with stunning effect. Coupled with the lithe build of the figure - and the execution of the statue as a nude - it caused great excitement and a bit of consternation among the more conservative. Whatever concerns there may have been, the beauty of Donatello's David was all conquering.

In fact, the evidence that suggests an outcry and the implications of homosexuality came quite later - with the rampant censorship that accompanied the reformation and beyond. The feathers brushing the inner thigh of the right leg are often cited as the chief evidence of homosexual inferences made by Donatello. A more  plausible interpretation reminds us the wing is symbolic of victory, personified by the Goddess Nike (nb. the logo of the famous shoe company is a simplified representation of a wing)

Plumage fom Goliath's helmet sensually drapes the back of  the bronze's inner thigh. The interpretation of this is a matter of some debate

The aesthetic appeal of Donatello's David travelled worldwide. One of the most striking examples of this is a character from Japanese Manga, Hideyuki Kikuchi's Vampire Hunter D. Designed by legendary Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano(most famous for his designs for the Final Fantasy video games). The highly stylised design of the Vampire Hunter is directly reminiscent of Donatello's stunning bronze.

A Resin model of Amano's Stylish Vampire Hunter via homemedia4u.

For those wanting to delve further into the enthralling world of Italian/Renaissance Sculpture, the series of books by John Wyndham Pope-Hennessy is viewed as one of the definitive texts on the subject. Comprising 3 volumes, it comprehensively addresses Italian Sculpture, culminating in the High Renaissance - covered in volume 3 of the series. Thoroughly recommended!

Volumes 1-3 of Pope-Hennessy's epic study of Italian Sculpture, published by Phaidon. A stunning piece of scholarship. Absolutely the final word on the subject, and then some


David Byron said...

Thanks for your overview of factors affecting the quality of interpretation when it comes to this David by Donatello.

For related thoughts, please see my post at which deals with how intended angle of viewing and presumed fictional space affect artistic choices in a couple of statues of David.

Eriyu said...

Okay, so I'm not insane for thinking Vampire Hunter D looks like Donatello's David. XD

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I'm currently teaching a class on the Renaissance and your pictures of Donatello's David captured exactly the features I was looking for. It was great to have such a concise overview of the various interpretations in one place.

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