The Magnificence of Donatello's Statue of David
Photo Credit: Rufus46
I traveled to Florence last year and was profoundly moved by the city's magnificent architecture and Renaissance art. I was especially taken with Donatello's bronze statue of David, which he completed sometime in the 1430s. It was quite different than how I had seen David pictured in art from the middle ages. When I returned to college, I researched Donatello's life and art to gain greater insight into his "David" and it led me to understand the impact of the Renaissance on Europe's history and values.
Prior to the Renaissance, Europe lived through the Middle Ages, an era of strict religious rule and restrictions on free thought. Dissent against religious authority or questioning the supremacy of Catholic doctrine were met with harsh punishment. However, with the Renaissance came a period of discovery, a revival of classical scholarship and philosophy, an exploration of nature and science, and humanism. This was a time of rebelling against the old ways of thinking to usher in social change across Europe, and an integral part of that effort was art. Donatello, through his bronze David, not only captured the attitudes and values of the Renaissance, but hinted at the "Enlightenment" to come.
Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance late in the 14th century as intellectuals began to embrace the ideas of classical Greek and Roman scholars and rejected the stifling rule of the Catholic Church. Some of the most significant figures at the beginning of the movement were the Medicis. Cosimo de’ Medici came to power in 1434 in Florence, and he used his influence to support the arts and humanities. He commissioned the sculptor Donatello to produce a bronze statue of the biblical David standing over the head of the slain Goliath.
The first notable aspect of the sculpture is that it is a freestanding bronze sculpture; such a sculpture had not been created in over a thousand years. Furthermore, the sculpture exhibits a nude man which was completely uncharacteristic of artwork during the Middle Ages. Nudity was only used in specific contexts such as depictions of Adam and Eve; however, in the classical world, nudity was often used to depict heroic figures, gods, or athletes. Not only does Donatello depict the heroic nudity of David, he does so in an anatomically precise way. Paul Starthern, in his book, The Medici, notes the physiologically accurate aspects of the sculpture: “The adolescent pudginess softening the line of his rib bones, the slightly protuberant stomach, the swivel of the hips and the lined skin on the forefinger clutching the sword” [Strathern, Paul. The Medici. New York: Pegasus Books Ltd., 2016, at 111]. Proper understanding of anatomy and physiology were pursuits of the Renaissance, especially of Leonardo Da Vinci.
The homoerotic nature of David reflects the humanistic values that diffused across Europe during the Renaissance. The humanism of the Renaissance rejected the ideas of the Church that certain groups of people were inferior simply because of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. People instead focused on scientific inquiry and appreciation of the arts. Donatello, a homosexual himself, created the piece attempting to capture a homoerotic beauty that would not have been appreciated during the Middle Ages. The calf length leather boots and David’s long curly hair emphasize the sensual nudity of the sculpture. Donatello also chose to portray a youthful David with a soft face and small frame with few masculine features giving David an innocent beauty. Works such as Donatello’s David defied the tenants of the Dark Ages by reaching back to the golden age of Western thought and creativity, and lit the path to Europe’s enlightenment in the arts and sciences.
By: Wyatt Lam