So sorry folks. I forgot to assasinate Matthew last week! So little time for murder these days. So instead I will murder you all at once, in one fell swoop, by posting a boring essay I wrote comparing and contrasting Donatello's sculpture of David vs Michelangelo's sculpture of David.
A comparison between the David of Donatello and the David of Michelangelo is not simply a comparison between two sculptures, it is also a comparison between two artists’ and two eras’ view of the ideal of male beauty. There is an aesthetic dynamic between the two statues in that Michelangelo's David (1504) is widely viewed as a response to Donatello's (1440) earlier sculpture of David. From this perspective, my paper will explain through a comparison of these two works, that the physical aesthetics of both sculptures can be understood in terms of the cultural context that produced them. I will also compare the two sculptures’ significance and their respective visions of male beauty with reference to the specific talents and experiences of the men who created them.
Donato di Niccolo di Betti Bardi, the man known to history as Donatello, lived in Florence from about 1386 to 1466. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was his famous successor. Both of their lives and careers touched many of the key figures of the Italian Renaissance such as the well known patron family di Medici (Rea, 1). There are many points of comparison between the two artists which directly impact upon an appreciation of their respective interpretations of the Biblical David. Perhaps the two most significant is that they were both homosexual, and both Florentines.
What strikes me most about Donatello's David is his beautiful representation of the human form. In this sculpture made of bronze, David is depicted as a young boy and has an enigmatic smile upon his face. He is posed with one hand on his hip and a foot on Goliath's severed head as if he had just got finished killing the giant. David is standing naked, apart from a hat and boots, and he holds the sword of Goliath.
Modern eyes (such as my own), who are used to seeing many different versions of nudity and male beauty, may not think Donatello's rendering of David is particularly unusual. However, if we view the work in the context of the early Renaissance - in a Europe just emerging from the religious culture of the Middle Ages - Donatello's depiction of David is revolutionary. In the words of one critic:
Gone is any medieval residue of sin or shame as associated with the human form. It stands before the viewer independent of any justification except itself and unabashedly nude. David's soft, pubescent flesh seems all the more exposed and set off by his boots and hat.
(Cole & Gealt, 98)
It is easy to see that Donatello had a wonderful appreciation of the beauty of the male form. He sometimes was the object of criticism for being too enamoured with his apprentices and models. Some critics perceive this to have had a direct impact upon the sculptor's work, arguing that homosexual "love is certainly one of the ingredients of the enigmatic bronze David and its sensual interpretation of male beauty" (Avery, 4).
Donatello definitely portrays his David with a certain level of sensuality in his pose. This sensuality presents differences in the interpretation of Donatello's work. As critics have observed, "the lithe sensual beauty of the statue, and its expression of soft contemplation are all at variance with the Old Testament story of David the shepherd boy and Goliath his gigantic foe" (Avery, 90). This bronze however, wasn't made to be a religious representation of the heroic figure. It was made to represent more than that. It was the first life-size sculpture meant to be seen in the round in Western Europe since antiquity, and was made as a celebration of male beauty, secular culture and civic virtue all rolled into one form.
David was originally placed in the courtyard and garden of the Medici palace in Florence. At that time, Florence publicly celebrated the virtues of republican government and had a particular love of the image of the Biblical David because it was associated with a struggle against tyranny. The fact that the Medici - Florence's unofficial ruling family - placed David on a pedestal in their courtyard is also seen to have political significance. The way that David confidently gazes outwards at the viewer with his sword in hand and Goliaths head at his feet, "might easily have been perceived as warnings to those who would threaten the Medici" (Bennett & Wilkins, 84-5).
There exist many striking similarities and differences between Donatello's work and the David of Michelangelo. Like the earlier sculpture, Michelangelo's David was commissioned with a particular site and purpose in mind. Michelangelo's David was to be placed in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, at the heart of Florentine civic life. It was made to convey the fact that, in Vasari's words: "As David defended his people and governed with justice, so should this city be defended with courage and governed with justice" (Hartt, 106; Coughlan, 93).
Perhaps the most obvious points of comparison with the earlier work are that this is a marble statue, as opposed to a bronze, and - at fourteen feet high - its scale emphasizes heroic qualities to a degree beyond that of Donatello's work (Cole & Gealt, 143). Like Donatello, Michelangelo was a homosexual and aesthetically “preoccupied” with the representation of male beauty. Recent sources note his "strange, violent and mystical passions for beautiful young men", and some critics argue that (like Donatello) these emotions directly influenced his artistic depiction of masculine beauty (Coughlan, 172).
However, it is interesting that Michelangelo, although equally appreciative of male beauty as Donatello, has expressed the elements of this beauty in a completely different way. Instead of the slender and boyish proportions of Donatello's David Michelangelo's is of an older male who has been portrayed as more of a hero. The proportions are not perfect and may suggest a youth who has yet to grow into adult form. Michelangelo's statue also possesses a muscular build that is entirely absent in Donatello's work (Hartt, 113). Michelangelo envisioned his David as being proudly, almost arrogantly, independent and universal (Seymour, 40).
In Michelangelo's sculpture, David is entirely nude with no hints of clothing whatsoever. This fact reduces the impact of the figure's nakedness, unlike the way the hat and boots in Donatello's David seem to actually bring light to the fact that figure has nothing else on. Michelangelo's David mimics the ideal physical beauty of classical Greek sculptors. There is no sign of Goliath anywhere in Michelangelo’s work; there is no sign of a weapon, there is nothing to indicate that there had been a battle in the figure's relaxed pose, or at his feet as in Donatello's bronze. The way that Michelangelo has eliminated any direct external references to the Biblical story may demonstrate how the sculptor envisions his work with respect to that of Donatello's earlier work:
As always, Michelangelo carefully avoided depicting a passing moment, and concentrated on the timeless and the universal. . . the powerful muscles, without an ounce of surplus tissue, denote a boy of the people rather than the soft and pampered child shown by earlier sculptors.
Although the classical influences are obvious, Michelangelo departs from the ancient vision of male beauty in many key respects. Both the proportions of David's body parts (his hands being outsized with comparison to his feet), and his facial features are far from the classical ideal (Hartt, 113-14). It is unclear as to the significance of Michelangelo's deviations from the classical norms in this regard. It is said that Michelangelo gave the statue of the hero human flaws to render him more accessible to viewers (Hartt, 114).
However, in one key area, Michelangelo's David is identical to that of Donatello's: it significance lies not in any Biblical reference but in the ideal of male beauty:
David . . . has only the most tenuous connection with the individual it purports to represent, or indeed with any individual. Instead, it is a portrait of an Ideal for which the Biblical David was simply a convenient symbol. This David was not Hebraic but Greek, not scriptural but Platonic . . . .
As we have seen, both Donatello and Michelangelo, in their respective Davids, celebrated the human form, and male beauty, in a manner that was revolutionary for their times. While one is soft and sensuous, the other is hard-bodied and powerful. Existing both as symbols of Florence, and as embodiments of their artists' particular visions of masculine beauty, these works together have defined the artistic image of male beauty for later centuries.
Avery, Charles. Donatello: An Introduction. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Bennett, Bonnie and David Wilkins. Donatello.
Oxford: Phaidon, 1984.
Cole, Bruce and Adelheid Gealt. Art of the Western World.
New York: Summit, 1989.
Coughlan, Robert. The World of Michelangelo: 1475-1564.
New York: Time-Life, 1966.
Hartt, Frederick. Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture.
New York: Harry Abrams, 1974.
Rea, Hope. Donatello. London: George Bell, 1904.
Seymour, Charles. Michelangelo's David: A Search for Identity.
New York: W.W. Norton, 1967.
DIE, DIE, DIE!