“David” by Donatello

Donatello was an Italian sculptor from Florence who lived in the early renaissance period. He is famous for his relief sculpture works. One of such sculptures is “David” a sculpture he created based on the biblical story of David and Goliath. This fifteenth century artistic marvel has some surrounding controversy as to who commissioned it. Donatello’s most popular sculpture was the one made of bronze. This bronze “David” gained popularity first in Italy and then across the world.

The Sculptor

Donatello was born in Florence Italy around the late 1300s. He was born to a father who was a member of the Florentine Wool Combers Guild. When he was young, he received some formal education and then went on to train as a goldsmith. As an adult, he went to Rome to study and engage in excavations with a fellow artist. When he was in Rome, he showed interest in the architecture and sculptures around the city.

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His first paid sculpturing work was in November of 1406 when he was hired to make sculptures of prophets for a church (Horst 19). Soon after, he finished his first solo project that was named “Saint John the Evangelist”. After that, he was hired by several churches to make sculptures. Some of these sculptures include “St George and the Dragon”, “Sacrifice of Isaac”, “Habakkuk”, “Bearded Prophet” among others. It was during this period of prominence that he created “David”.

The Sculpture

This sculpture is based on the story of David and Goliath as it appears in the bible. This story appears in the book of first Samuel and it chronicles the events surrounding David’s triumph over Goliath.

According to the story, Goliath was a Philistine giant who challenged any Israelite soldier to a duel. When all of them were cowed, David who was then just a small boy volunteered and managed to kill Goliath using only a slingshot. This story is very pertinent to the Christian faith. At the time the sculpture was created, the sculptor had already completed a series of paintings that were in line with the Christian faith (Donatello’s David).

This is because the Catholic Church provided a ready market for Donatello’s work and was also part of his religion. The first “David” sculpture was commissioned in the beginning of the 1400s by a cathedral in Florence. It was to be one of twelve sculptures decorating the cathedral. The marble sculptor he made did not fit in with the others and it was shelved.

After some time readjustments were recommended and an inscription requested. The inscription had words to the effect that those who fight bravely for what they believe in are highly rewarded. This sculptor was then made into bronze version. This bronze “David” was among the earliest unsupported standing bronze sculptures. The sculpture depicts a nude David standing holding a sword, a smile on his face and with one foot rested on Goliath’s head (Christopher 32).

The bronze version was commissioned by the Medici family and then placed in the middle of their palace. The Medici family was later exiled from Florence and the sculpture was moved to a new location. There are several assumptions made by the artist in this version of “David”. For example, David was supposed to be completely nude, but in this version, he is wearing boots and a helmet. The actual date the bronze “David” was commissioned is still disputable.

Critical Analysis

The shift of details from the original marble “David” to the later bronze version is a debatable issue. The fact that the bronze statue found its way to Florence, adds to this discussion. The portrayal of David in the bronze statue does not seem to be in reference to the bible. This as indicated by the choice of attire and the general pose assumed by the statue (Schneider).

The Medici family, the buyers of this statue, did not have such strong ties with the church and they chose to place it in the middle of their palace. A closer look at the above scenarios points towards a parallel motivation other than the bible story.

Some have explained this work of art as an expression of sexuality. In this case, to mean that Donatello was homosexual thus the details in his sculpture are an expression of this orientation. The other possible explanation is that he was just expressing the widespread homosexuality in Florence at the time (Randolph 67).

However, at this time, homosexuality was illegal and it was punishable offence. In Florence alone, more than fourteen thousand men had been tried. Still, Donatello could have just been making a representation of renaissance art.

The other issue is the feathers on Goliath’s helmet. They are very similar to those in representations of the Greek god Hermes. Some argue that this sculpture represents Greek mythology. This is also because of David’s likeness to the Greek god Mercury (Adrian 38). It is then thought that Donatello was portraying Mercury’s triumph over Hermes.

Finally, the people of Florence felt such strong ties to the sculpture because they too could identify with the story of David. This is because there were in a protracted fight with the Duke of Milan in which they emerged victorious. This may help explain the sculpture’s popularity in this region.

Works Cited

Randolph, Adrian. Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, And Public Art In Fifteenth-Century Florence, London: Yale University Press, 2002. Print.

Christopher, Fulton. “The Boy Stripped Bare by His Elders: Art and Adolescence in Renaissance Florence”. Art Journal 56 (1997): 31-40. Print.

Donatello’s David 2003. Web. 18 May. 2012.

Horst, Janson. The sculpture of Donatello, London: Princetown, 1957. Print.

Schneider, Laurie. “Donatello’s Bronze David”. The Art Bulletin 55.2 (1973): 213-216. Print.

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