Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Donatello’s Bronze David

I thought it would be interesting to look at how some of history’s greatest artists depicted the Biblical David, who slew Goliath and later became King of Israel.

The story of David and Goliath is powerful in its simplicity.  The Israelites are battling the Philistines to no avail because they have the great giant, Goliath, on their side.  The Philistines challenge the Israelites – if one of them could best Goliath in one-to-one combat, that outcome would decide the battle.

No Israelite is brave enough to take up the challenge other than David, a simple shepherd boy who it too young to be a solider.  Without armor or weapons, the boy uses his slingshot to daze Goliath with a stone before decapitating him with his own sword.

The great Renaissance master Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (known as Donatello) (1386–1466) undertook two statues of David.  The first, in marble, is, to my mind, a negligible work.  But his later David in bronze (seen above) is a remarkable achievement.  This bronze David is the first unsupported, standing work cast in bronze during the Renaissance, and the first freestanding male nude sculpture made since antiquity.  It captures David after defeating Goliath, one foot triumphantly on the giant’s severed head.

The statue appears to have been cast some time in the 1440s, and Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects wrote that it stood in a column designed by Desiderio da Settignano in the middle of the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici.  The inscription reads (translated into English) as: 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.  David was the figurehead of the Florentine state, and the Renaissance was a rich in depictions of him.

The figure’s history is a little spotty – there is no surviving documentation for the commission of the statue, though it is assumed that it was created for the Medici family.  We do know it was in the courtyard of the Medici Palace in 1469, and it bounced around from the Palazzo della Signoria to the Pittia Palace, then the Uffizi and then the Bargello, where it can be found today.

It is perhaps impossible for us with our 21st Century eyes to appreciate how remarkable, how revolutionary Donatello’s bronze actually is.  First off, the centuries long Dark Ages were drawing to a close, and Donatello, certainly a Renaissance figure, went back to the traditions of Classical antiquity and depicted the saint as a heroic nude.  His nudity further indicates the presence of God – a small boy, without armor, is able to defeat the heavily plated Goliath through God’s grace.

And yet … and yet, to our eyes (and perhaps those of the Renaissance) there is something uniquely disturbing about Donatello’s David.  To our eyes, David is more than a little feminine.  The hat (a contemporary Renaissance era hat, oddly enough, garlanded with laurel leaves) and boots seem to highlight the boy’s nudity.  And the Goliath’s sword is so enormous compared to David’s physique that it completely infantilizes him.

Also, look too at David’s delicately curled hair, his hippy voluptuousness, the emphasis Donatello places on the lower stomach – this David is eroticized and feminized at the same time.  More interesting still is David’s left hand resting on his hip and bent left leg, which to our eyes read as ‘come hither,’ rather than stoically triumphant.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Donatello’s bronze David is the expression on the face.  David, an untried boy, has just gone from obscurity to become a hero to his people, vanquishing a giant in the process.  Shouldn’t we see resolution?  Or relief?  Or even heroic self-confidence?   Instead … there is a blank, almost placid beauty.  Many poets of the Romantic era insisted that there could be no great beauty without some strangeness in the proportion, and I could think of no better illustration of that notion than Donatello’s David.

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