Donatello, David

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Sukaina Husain

Sculpted in bronze, Donatello’s David rests his foot on the head of Goliath. Triumph, youthful in its vigour, languorously feels the hairs of its slain foe between its toes; made object through victory in battle, the cantankerous, aged, bearded Goliath now lies under the body of a hairless ephebic youth — youth is not passive, but rakishly thoughtful, caught in repose between action and the culmination of battle. Commissioned in the 1450s, possibly before 1466, Donatello’s David initially stood in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici. Standing atop a ‘beautiful column’ in the heart of the Palazzo’s courtyard, the David was initially surrounded ‘in the four corners by bronze basins’, celebrating the political triumph of the Medicis following the Pitti-Neroni conspiracy of 1466.[1] While historians have been divided over the exact dating of the statue, epigraphic evidence uncovered by scholars has allowed us to loosely date the sculpture between the 1450s and the 1460s, leaving us with plenty of room to see the sculpture as a fitting testament to the victory of Piero de’ Cosimo over Diotisalvi Neroni and his co-conspirators in 1466.

While the ephebic David’s heroic youthfulness is peculiar for a statue that commemorates political triumph, it is nonetheless, befitting of a rule that took pride in its youth. Led by younger patriarchs such as Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici after 1460, Medici rule conceived of itself as perpetually ‘youthful, striving… and in a very real sense, young’.[2] A number of fifteenth-century medallions and paintings depicting statues of male figures on pedestals can help us approximate the placement, and consequently points of view by which the David may have been historically seen and perceived as a monument of triumph in its original site and location. Opening out onto the public through the portals of the Palazzo Medici, the David releases itself into public view across the via Larga and the via d’ Ginori on the west.[3] However, the height of the David would have also established more private viewing points within the palace itself. According to Adrian Randolph, this placement would have made for bifurcated viewing — with the front of the statue facing the public, and its back the more private courtyard of the Medici palace; the historic look of triumph is then ensconced in a spatially bifurcated visual narrative embodying an ideal of masculinity that is made public, but revealed privately to the eye.[4]

Masculinity is reconstituted in the opposition of sight — suspended in time, its figura is activated by the possibility of multiple points of view, articulating a representational logic that subsists on the struggle to make sense of the structural tension between the active and passive gendered ideals of a perfectly conceived masculinity. Facing the public, the front of Donatello’s David is framed as the tamer of the giant, Goliath. Resting on a ‘relaxed and trailing leg’, David bears his weight on the hilt of his sword as opposed to his straightened leg; the jaunty contrapposto alleviates the seriousness of his repose after battle, imbuing David’s bronze flesh with a youthfulness that is capricious in its posed boyishness, but nonetheless refuses to concede itself to its aged foe. The public face of the ideal of masculinity adheres itself to the ideal of the striving, healthful juvenile patriarch, the purity and innocence of whose youth was nonetheless an actively led, ‘direct affirmation of the present, but at the same time a generational guarantee of the future’.[5] The back of the statue on the other hand, is marked by splayed wing of Goliath’s helmet — its finger-like feathers snake its way up the inside of David’s thigh, enlivening the David’s frozen body with what Vasari called vivacità (a lifelike pose) and morbidezza (the soft texture of the flesh), rendering the body passive, subject to the desiring gaze of the beholder.[6]

The totality of narrative afforded by multiple points of vision allows for viewer to construct the David as it existed di sotto in su in terms of a Neoplatonic ideal that speaks both the ideal of the passive beloved, but also frontally, the ideal of the active lover, emblematised in the form of the youthful patriarch.[7] The bodily form of Donatello’s David, on the other hand, materially counterposes the physical qualities of gendered ideals of activity and passivity, creating a confluence of visual schema that consecrates the form of an idealised masculinity on a singular, contiguous visual plane, to be gazed at, apprehended, struggled with and desired.

[1] Adrian Randolph, “Homosocial Desire and Donatello’s Bronze David”, in Randolph, Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics and Public Art in Fifteenth-century Florence (Yale, 2002) 145

[2] Ibid., 182.

[3] Ibid. 146.

[4] Ibid., 192.

[5] Ibid., 180.

[6] Ibid., 153.

[7] Most notably in the work of the poet, Marsilio Ficino. See Katherine Crawford, “Marsilio Ficino, Neoplatonism, and the Problem of Sex”, Renaissance and Reformation-Renaissance et Réforme, XXVIII, 2 (2004), 13.

Bibliography:

Crawford, Katherine, “Marsilio Ficino, Neoplatonism, and the Problem of Sex”, Renaissance and Reformation-Renaissance et Réforme, XXVIII, 2 (2004).

Lochrie, Karma , Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality when Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), Introduction and Chapter One.

Mills, Robert, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015.

Randolph, Adrian, “Homosocial Desire and Donatello’s Bronze David”, in Randolph, Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics and Public Art in Fifteenth-century Florence (Yale, 2002), pp. 138-192.

Rocke, Michael, ‘Gender and Sexual Culture in Renaissance Italy’ in J. C. Brown and R. C. Davis (eds.), Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (Harlow, 1998).

Schultz, James A., “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan., 2006), pp. 14-29.

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