Donatello's David

Donatello's David

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A Critique
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

Donatello’s, ‘David’ sculpture in cast bronze (a lost wax process). A realistic sculpture of a boy wearing only a shepherds hat with laurels around it and sandals, eyes and head cast slightly downward, the left foot on the giant head of a man (Goliath). In his right hand a large sword is balanced just on the helm of the giants head and in the crook of his left hand a large stone held against his hip in a casual manner. The left feathered wing on the giants helm lies against the inner thigh of David’s right leg the foot on the right leg crushes the right feathered wing into the ground. The colors are subdued, bronze with a polished gold patina (restored in 2004) and the surface is smooth as the skin of a boy would be. There is some fine decorative work on parts of the giants helm and some storytelling on the visor. The whole sits on a braid of plants with a ribbon spiralling around the braid.

The artist is postulating a figure that exemplifies the biblical David. In the story of David he is a shepherd and his skills with a slingshot are exemplary. He is a musician and a poet. In a previous marble sculpture Donatello pictures David as significantly masculine and in a classical pose with the expressionless face of typical medieval sculptures. No emotion was show. In this sculpture Donatello departs radically from his former style and shows David for what he was, a boy. His youth and inexperience shows, there is no strong musculature that would typically be presented in any heroic figure in classical times and subsequently in medieval times. This sculpture is on the cusp of the Renaissance when a return to classicism in sculpture was on the rise. Do the laurel leaves about David’s hat refer to his victory over the giant Goliath or does it typify his role as a poet and musician? The nudity is of a kind of heroic nudity typical in classical sculpture. This sculpture re-introduces the nude to Renaissance society and it took a while to be acceptable. David’s posture is not the posture of a triumphant warrior but somewhat submissive to a greater force, a divine force and the posture in many ways also reflects a kind of arrogance. In the many medieval sculptures of this genre David is portrayed as the King he had yet to become, but not in Donatello’s interpretation. Moreover the face lacks the Greek profile and features.

Donatello’s departure from any contemporary figurative sculpture, was the first life sized, cast in bronze sculpture using lost wax casting since antiquity. A revolutionary work of art. His inspiration came after a visit to Rome and his experience with the Bronzes of Antiquity.

The posture is well known at this time with the weight shifted onto one hip thrusting the hip forward, a defiant look in terms of body language, almost impudent. There is much more that can be said of this successful sculpture, but this is not a treatise on the political framework of the time. While the contrapposta pose is quite classical, the nudity and strong femininity of the sculpture shocked Christians of the time. Donatello worked at creating a beautiful figure in which he succeeded by letting feminine elements prevail on what was wholly a male figure.

This sculpture in particular marks a point in art history where dramatic changes are occurring. This lost wax sculpture in this size is unusual because of it's size and the manner of sculptural representation, it is not typical of Donatello to this point. Historically this is the largest lost wax process sculpture since classical times. A break is being made from the medieval stone carving of the day and even the classical type work that was being carried out. Compare Donatello's David in marble, an earlier attempt to model this event. In spite of the rarity of sculpture that size in Donatello's day the craftsmanship shows no hesitation whatever. It is a thoroughly admirable piece of work by an intensely dedicated sculptor. Artists often love their work and in this case it shows and appears aesthetically in particular.

There is a relaxed posture almost as though this was routine for the young man. In both of Davids hands are the means by which the giant was defeated expressing dominance over his enemies. He is naked, but fully armed. The idea of being naked in battle can be intimidating for an armored enemy, what is waiting for them in this seeming innocuous person. His expression of femininity is so strong that perhaps the nudity is to reassure the enemy that this is a man/boy and not a woman/girl. It is not uncommon in Mediterranean culture for men to wrestle and fight nude, even unto death. The downward look from under the hat or helmet is intimidating though not cruel. The sword is too heavy for him and the crook in the wrist emphasizes the inappropriateness of such a sword for so small a person. The head of the giant beneath his foot belies any hint of weakness otherwise. David treading on the head and wing of Goliath is symbolic of the utter defeat the Philistines suffered at this battle, Goliath's head is pathetic and expressionless.

This is a most pleasing sculpture, the sense I have of this sculpture is love. The secondary sense I have of this sculpture is sexual attraction, it's femininity is strongly attractive. Surface appearance is smooth almost everywhere. Texture is apparent but the textural objects are individually very smooth. The smoothness lends an air of confidence to the image, the sense it is quite right, the sense is as though a divine presence is within it. The color is also strong and gives a sense of impregnability. While the sculptural image is soft in a sexual way, it still invokes a sense of serious consequences if aroused from the meditative state it presents.

The result of these senses was a separateness from my immediate surroundings and a sense of being transported into the sculpture itself.

NB It is noted that I have only seen photographic images of this sculpture, nevertheless I am profoundly affected by the artwork.