Donatello"s David

Donatello"s David

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A Critique - Part Two
by
david j. lisle



Artist:Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, better known as Donatello, was an early Renaissance sculptor from Florence.
Born: 1386, Florence, Italy
Died: December 13, 1466, Florence, Italy
Nationality: Italian
Education: Lorenzo Ghiberti
Parents: Niccolò di Betto Bardi, Orsa Bardi


This second part contains the observations I made about the sculpture that did not fit in with my idea of what a critique is supposed to be. There is only a faintly chronological order to the things I also discovered concerning this sculpture. The things I have collected do reinforce my critique. Enjoy the read.

In the first part, the writing is just about the art, but in fact the stories and connivance and myths of this piece are fascinating. It has to some degree been part of the furniture of numerous rulers, to display or not, but in Florence it always had a home in one museum or another. It is in its intended place perhaps. I would like to make the point that you could immediately go out and find an innumerable number of contradictions to all my writing on Donatello"s David. I just want you realize that like others I can only make up a story from facts I am happy to accept. Looking into History as murky as any since.

Bargello - current home of Donatello"s David

The biblical story of David and Goliath, 1 Samuel 17, is portrayed as a triumph of good over evil. There were many sculptures and portraits of this event over the intervening years. Why was this event and particular portrait so significant to the Florentine?

The work is supposedly made in the mid 1440"s which would have made Donatello fifty years of age, give or take. It was commissioned by the Medici in the 1430"s. The custom of portraying nudes in this era show David as uncircumcised. There seems to have been multiple first locations. The whole event is most sparsely documented, in any case it doesn"t matter. It was from the first a Medici initiative. Although I am sure the other spheres of human interest had roles to play, the church (Oh right! - Medici), Politics, Arts and Sciences. It is important to remember that in this period the Arts and Sciences were not antithetical.

So I am going to speculate on the speculators that have gone before. In a nutshell here it: is.

This sculpture was an image of Florence, the city state was it"s people. In their endless conflicts the Florentine were smaller and less powerful than the French and Milan. In a battle between them, Florence won the day. The conqueror is Florence, they beat Milan. The city state was still engaged in medieval warfare. Because of the widespread advent of Christianity the Papal position was politically enormously powerful, and likewise the Medici.

The piece is defiant, no fist raised in anger. A stance that is not fearful, and in all cases for Florentine citizens a knowledge that they are obeying the will of God. I am sure an intense experience. It is difficult for us to imagine civic will working that way, and Florence stands and thrives yet. There is a part of me that thinks that something of us, a potentially measurable something goes in the object when we make it.

When I wrote about the indefinable something I sensed, that something was love, and then I saw beauty.

But there is more:

The sculpture David was placed on pedestal with following inscription:

PRO PATRIA FORTITER DIMICANTIBUS ETIAM ADVERSUS TERRIBILISSIMOS HOSTES DII PRAESTANT AUXILIUM

"To those who fight bravely for the fatherland the gods lend aid even against the most terrible foes"

And the meaning would have been clear to Christians in martial conflict contemporary to this period, this boy David was an instrument of God and like a Godly thing its beauty is apparent.

The statue has been de-mineralized and de-waxed. It is a subject of dispute concerning its origin as David and has been proposed to be a David-Mercury statue. In looking to see if Mercury was signified in Florence, the answer is not really; a hint of Mithraism, but nothing that would indicate a devotion to Mercury. Individually of course that was a different matter. Additionally the Heraldic Crest of the Florentines was a lion.

The Medici Balls is a fun aside to take:

I wanted to try and drop you into Florence on a day when Donatello was home. Alas, time and space preclude that. The next best thing is a textual picture. In Donatello"s time the Medici were the rule. In many dramatic plays on Medici they are played as good as well as evil. But those assessments are entirely subjective. The Medici had a place in the city state hierarchy, every thing and person had it"s place, unlike today you may not have opened a business and just started operating, there were Guilds and other factors including citizenship that had to play. This gave young Donatello status as the son of a craftsman and placed him on a path of working in the trades. Apprenticeships were not handed out to all comers, everyone had been picked and chosen for their specific task. There would be plenty of activity by people wanting to join the citizenry. Being born in Florence was not a guarantee of citizenship. Artisans in every social, business and governing action were imbued through apprenticeship. There were the pressures of the Church and it"s laws and the Florentine Laws and Statutes which were reviewed every five years. The need for a review was incorporated into the Laws and Statutes, Donatello grew and lived in a quite rigid social structure, sculptors were artisans. The influence of Christianity was very strong and so the sculpture of "David" would have been interpreted as a Christian piece and not as something concerning a Roman God. David in the 1 Samuel 17, story is an instrument of God, and furthermore a symbolic figure of the City of Florence. Additionally in spite of claims of a mercurial figure the figure meshes perfectly with the dominant Florentine symbol of a Lion. Again this symbolism is important because it not only symbolizes Florence but also "David" as Judah is David"s tribe and Judah is "The Lion", and in terms of Christian belief it also figures majorly as an image of Jesus Christ, the "Lion of Judah."

In 1408, Donatello had left Rome and was back in Florence at the workshops of the cathedral. He completed the life-sized marble sculpture, David; The figure follows a Gothic style; long graceful lines and an expressionless face.

This work reflects the influences of sculpture of the period. Technically, it"s very well executed; it lacks the emotional style. However, its innovative technique would mark Donatello"s later work. Originally, the sculpture was intended for the cathedral. Instead, however, it was set up in the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall) as an inspiring symbol of defiance of authority to Florentines, who were engaged in a struggle with the king of Naples at the time. The subsequent sculpture of David in marble was left incomplete and it is a clear line of intent on Donatellos part that the third image of David was enormously effective.

It is interesting that while some reflect on the possibility of Donatello"s sexuality being flaunted publicly there is little evidence to attest to that. I suppose then that the 14,000 souls who were executed in Florence and during Donatello"s lifetime were just unlucky that they were overtly sexual.

Although the influence of the church had waned somewhat the power of the actual faith held the majority of persons in thrall. Donatello"s skills were his greatest assets and whatever sexuality he had would have been checked at his bedroom door.

Donatello demonstrated a strong power in "David" to allow the feminine to overpower the male. In this way he portrayed the entire civic population of Florence. This does not mean that Donatello, a man of his age, and myself, a man of my age, could not find the image sexually attractive, from whatever preference. I think that this appearance of a sexually charged figure is purposeful, but not a secret being revealed.

Relative to some of their neighboring states, papal states cover Florence Easterly flank and Westerly to the sea. This puts Florence in the middle of frequently warring states. By 1798 Florence became the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The subject of my critique "David" has focused me temporarily on the social hierarchy of Florence. Who were Florentines, who were not, and why were they not? Overall the Florentines were at times under the subjugation of the Duchy of Tuscany. The fact that it is "David" and not "Mercury" is attested by Quatrocenta documentation of the piece where it is never referred to as other than "David."

Militarism also dominated city-state life, conflicts were often and this causes the cities to expand outward and encompass more territory and include other cities in the process.

This sculpture was an image of Florence, the city state was it"s people. In their endless conflicts the Florentine were smaller and less powerful than the French in Milan. In a battle between them, the Florentine won. The conqueror is Florence, they beat Milan. The city state was still engaged in medieval warfare. Because of the widespread advent of Christianity the Papal position was politically enormously powerful, and likewise the Medici.

Later the tables were turned.

The piece is defiant, no fist raised in anger. A stance that is not fearful, and in all cases for Florentine citizens a knowledge that they are obeying the will of God. I am sure intense humans. It is difficult for us to imagine civic will working that way, and Florence stands and thrives yet.

The statue of "Judith and Holofernes" had pride of place under Cosimo Medici. Once again the theme of freedom from oppression is very strong. And again the weaker sex prevails in the ongoing conflict between the Tribes of Israel and their enemies.

Donatello was supported by his family. Donatello is educated in the house of the Martelli family,. receiving his early artistic training in a goldsmith"s workshop and eventually accepted into a Stonemasons Guild apprenticeship under Lorenzo Ghiberti. When Ghiberti left to go elsewhere, Donatello and Adam Sandlin went to Rome to dig in the remains of Roman architecture. While in Rome Donatello studied the bronzes of Antiquity. Another notable was Brunelleschi who studied the Architecture of Rome. Their influence subsequently was to all of the renaissance.

Under the influence of the rapidly rising ideas of Humanism, the ambitions of the Medici and ongoing warfare as well as the waning of the Church in power and influence the changes in Florentine society were quite enormous. "May you live in interesting times" placed as a curse on the population would have found resonance there. Work for a sculptor in particular would have been limited by the social conventions in place, advancement came through purchases by individuals of rights which others did not automatically have. Guild membership and apprenticeship were the methods of propelling artisans to the top of their craft. Donatello had numerous studio workers, men and women who spent their time doing much of the heavy work required of sculptors. A knowledge of Architecture was essential as many sculptures of the period still required some method of supporting the piece which was often set in a wall in a recess and actually bound permanently to the building.

Artisans were not called artists, this is a relatively new appellation and entirely modern, and perhaps misplaced. Sculptors were Artisans and did not call themselves professional as is the custom today. It is even feasible to suppose that "professional artists" are a misnomer and the world would be better off with Artisans that make art rather than Artists who feel they are the art.

In my opinion Donatello exemplifies the Renaissance completely. Celibacy is a crucial component of creative activity to some artisans, such was the case with Donatello, his work and output is Donatello.

david j. lisle January 24, 2017