Monday, December 1, 2008

Donatello's David

Continuing my trend of Italian-themed posts, a few days ago the Bargello Museum in Firenze showed off their freshly cleaned bronze statue of David by Donatello. About 60 years before there was Michelangelo's David, there was Donatello's David. You can read about how they cleaned the statue using laser technology and see images of the restored sculpture in this news byte from the Associated Press. The image I'm showing you here (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art) is pre-cleaning and doesn't do the sculpture justice. It really is an amazing piece of craftsmanship in conveying the human condition. It consciously invites you to move around it and look at it from all perspectives. The work is one of the great early Renaissance masterpieces that celebrated the classical ideal of mankind. Scholars still aren't sure when it was made, although best estimates are between 1430 and 1450. It may have been a wedding present among the famous de' Medici family members, but no one knows for sure. Certainly by the time the de' Medicis were exiled from Firenze in the 1490s, the bronze statue was confiscated by the Florentine government. The sculpture was displayed outside the Palazzo Vecchio with another work by Donatello, Judith and Holofernes. If there seems like a theme, there was. Both subjects recounted how so-called weaker Biblical figures overcame adversity with God's help and vanquished their enemies. Judith was a Hebrew maiden who seduced General Holofernes, got him drunk, then cut his head off. David was a shepherd boy who used a slingshot to knock out the giant Goliath, then cut his head off (David later became King of Israel). Both statues became symbols for the city-state of Firenze, for despite its small size the city had defeated larger enemies, including the country of France. Donatello's David is a shepherd boy wearing a pastoral hat on a head with long locks of hair. His nudity emphasizes his youthful, weaker body, but he stands triumphantly with one foot on the decapitated head of Goliath. Scholars such as James M. Saslow (Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts) have discussed the homoerotic quality of this figure. Renaissance Firenze was a haven for homosexuals. That's probably a slight exaggeration, but historians like Michael Rocke (Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence) have shown that there is plenty of evidence that male-male relations were common in 15th-century Italy. Saslow has pointed out that in this sexually liberated environment, an effeminate, youthful David would have appealed to the male homosexual audience as an object of desire. He points to how the feather from Goliath's helmet stands erect against David's leg, but then caresses his thigh with its sculpted feathers. If you were to see it in person, you'd see right away how true it is. Donatello's David was a hero: politically and sexually, he represented the spirit of Renaissance Firenze.

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