Friday, May 5, 2017



Donatello's bronze sculpture of David is a remarkable work. Leaving aside its importance as the FIRST BRONZE MALE NUDE STATUE in the ROUND SINCE ANTIQUITY, (although how can you leave that aside for long?) it has features that make it one of the most intriguing versions of David ever made. Here is a view of it in its present location, the Bargello Museum in Florence:
Left arm akimbo, left leg bent, left foot standing on the head of Goliath, it is a good example of
contrapposto, the ancient way of showing motion on one side of the body while the other side is at
rest. While the vertical split of movement/stasis was meant to give balance to statues, it also gave
the viewer a visual contrast that made the figure seem alive as David does here. The arm and leg
gestures present a young shepherd who is cocky, sure of his triumph over the larger, older foe. He almost seems to smile remembering his confidence against all odds.

The statue, however, was not created for a museum originally; according to Vasari, it was made for a home, for the Medici family's open courtyard in Via Larga (Via Cavour now) in Florence. In Vasari's account Donatello made it for Cosimo de' Medici before Cosimo was sent into exile in Venice in 1433, and he says that it was placed in Palazzo Vecchio during Cosimo's time away. Vasari's account seems unlikely if the palace courtyard in which it stood was not begun being built until 1444. Since there is no documentation, the most recent scholarly consensus chooses a date for it that is later than what Vasari said, and definitely places it after the building of the courtyard and palace by Michelozzo from 1444 until 1457, when the family settled into it. Since Donatello and Michelozzo were often partners in joint projects (Prato outdoor pulpit, for example), it would make sense that the sculptor would wait until his architect friend had finished the space before installing his statue in the middle of it.
As is visible in this plan of the Medici house (courtyard arcade outlined in yellow, pedestal for Donatello's statue in purple,) any visitor to the Medici Palace could have seen Donatello's David from the street and certainly as soon as they entered the first open air courtyard of the palace.
                       Exterior of the palace and interior of the first courtyard:

 Imagine the impression the statue would have made upon family and non-family members! A free-standing bronze sculpture of a young man standing over the decapitated head of an older man.

  But Goliath's head is not apparent when viewing the statue from afar.

The Latin inscription that originally stood on the pedestal would have mitigated the horror of that death and turned the statue into a symbol of the freedom of a small city-state like Florence. "The victor is whoever defends the fatherland.  God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe.  Behold! A boy overcame a great tyrant.  Conquer, o citizens!” (Victor est quisquis patriam tuetur/Frangit immanis Deus hostis iras/En puer grandem domuit tiramnum. Vincite, cives!")
           Donatello chooses the narrative moment in the story of David after David's triumph over the giant Goliath. In the Bible verses describing this event in the Old Testament, 1 SAMUEL 17 - verses 1-58, many of the verses are spent on the threat Goliath represented to the Israelites because of his size and weighty armor:

And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.
And he had an helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.
And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.
And the staff of his spear was like a weaver's beam; and his spear's head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.
And he stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them, Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? am not I a Philistine, and ye servants to Saul? choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me.
If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us.

Much is made in the Biblical text of Goliath's height and weight in order to make David's conquering
of him even more heroic. David is a slight figure in Donatello's version to compare with the huge

size of Goliath's head at his feet:
Goliath wears the helmet of the armor mentioned in the text, he has a large mustache and beard, and in Donatello's hands, his head is twice the size of David's in the statue though it seems buried under the victor's feet:
David is also 2/3 lifesize to emphasize his youth; he is an adolescent shepherd, too young to join his
three brothers in the battle against the Phillistines. He is asked to take food to the troups and once
there, can't believe anyone would be afraid of Goliath's threat. He is so confident about his ability to
slay the giant that he is brought before the King, Saul.

34 And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock:

35 And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him.

36 Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God.

 Saul then provides him with armor for the fight, but David takes it off saying he had not yet
"proved" it. He either felt it was too large for his size or he felt that he should only receive armor
if he had been valorous in battle. 

In Donatello's bronze, David is naked, without armor. He wears a hat that looks much like a
shepherd's hat, now encircled with laurel wreath in honor of his victory:

The ribbons of the hat remind us of his life before the battle:

From the back view we can see the stone still in his left hand, and on the ground at the back, if you look carefully you can find the slingshot that he has dropped near his feet after using it to knock out the giant (marked out in yellow in the second photo - the slingshot disappears
behind the other feather from Goliath's helmet.) 

The sword in David's right hand is too large for his body; Donatello knew David used Goliath's own sword to cut off his head after he had knocked him out, so the sword is meant to be Goliath's size.
The feathers that run up the inside of David's leg are part of the decoration on Goliath's helmet but are splayed out in celebration of the smaller warrior's achievement:

At the base of the statue is a laurel wreath of victory, larger even than Goliath's head and interspersed in the laurel leaves are small balls, symbols of the Medici family.

The bronze bas-relief on the giant's helmet is a scene of putti, small children, on a triumphal cart, an evocative premonition of the death of the giant.
              The laurel leaves in the wreath on the base as well as those on David's hat are a code for
the nickname of Cosimo de' Medici's grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was always known
as "Lauro" by the family and "Lauro" means Bayleaf or Laurel in Italian. The encasing of the figure of David in the symbols of the Medici and specifically in the visual codes for "Lauro" is Donatello's way of saying that we are looking at an idealized portrait of Lauro as the ancient hero David.
At what age is Lorenzo given pride of place in the family home, an image of Cosimo's grandchild as
great warrior for Florence? Lorenzo is born in 1449. By 1459 he would have been ten, the age at
which his portrait is painted by Benozzo Gozzoli as the youngest Magi in the private family chapel in the Medici Palace, one story up from the courtyard of the David statue:

By that time the family home is finished and the family is living there. The celebration of the new residence is completed with portraits of the young Lorenzo, age 10-14, in painting and sculpture, one dressed and one undressed. Lorenzo, Lauro, appears almost an adolescent in the Procession of the Magi, but in the David statue, he may be slightly older, 14 or 15. If so, the statue could certainly be dated later than 1459 and before Donatello died in 1466. 
        For the modern viewer a portrait of a favorite oldest grandson on view in the family home is
easy to understand. Since photography is not an option for the Medici family (photography not
being invented until the 19th century), the media at hand are painting and sculpture. For a modern
viewer perhaps the grandson painted as the youngest of the three kings might seem a bit odd, and
a sculpted version of the same grandson as the Biblical hero, David, also strange, but for a Renaissance visitor to the Medici Palace, portraits of living beings dressed up as figures from
ancient stories is only reinforcing what they might have seen on the street in religious pageant parades. We know the Medici participated in the Feast of the Magi processions where family members took the roles of the three kings, (see Rab Hatfield's marvelous book on Botticelli's
Uffizi Adoration (Princeton, 1976) so the presentation of Lorenzo as the youngest king or Magus
is understandable in the family chapel:


The laurel bush behind the head of the painted Lorenzo reminds us again of his nickname, LAURO:
And lest we wonder what his last name is, there are balls everywhere, balls being the symbols of the
Medici for their coat-of-arms.
The original motif may have come from "pills" since the family name means "doctors," but the balls took on the additional meaning of "courage," as is its usage in the modern phrase "to have balls or have courage."  In the painted Gozzoli version of Lorenzo there are balls on the tips of his crown points, balls in the decoration on the crown, balls on his tunic, belt, and
balls on the trappings of the horse and on the halter:

They are not really needed in a chapel where everyone would know who was dressed up as the
youngest king, but they are the kind of thing that would have identified Lorenzo in a parade out
in the city of Florence as a member of the entourage of the Medici. Balls fill the chapel on floor and
ceiling as well,

 but they connect the family space here with the family space of the courtyard where Donatello created ball bas-reliefs in the architrave of the courtyard arches.

Balls, then, will not surprise us showing up in the wreath of Donatello's statue of David, and he adds one to the hilt of David's sword (making it look very phallic) and David's rock can be read as a ball as well.

The symbols surrounding David in Donatello's bronze turn his David into a young Lauro with his
courage "screwed to the sticking place." The emphasis on the family emblems become an emphasis
on David's and young Lauro's courage in the face of great odds and compliment the grandson as well as the grandfather who probably ordered the statue.
(The marble pedestal was added later but also has balls, this time in the form of the egg-and-dart motif of ancient architecture.)
          Skip forward to 1469, the year in which Lorenzo the Magnificent gets married at age 20 to
Clarice Orsini from Rome. A description of the family feast in the courtyard can be found in a
manuscript in the Biblioteca Nazionale (MS II, iv, 324, fol. 108v - my thanks to Cristelle Baskins for this reference in her terrific article in Studies in Iconography, vol. 15,1993.) The 1469 description is the first time Donatello's David is mentioned in a document. I'm sorry I don't have the original Italian, but the translation from Janson's book on The Sculpture of Donatello, p. 77, is as follows: "There were no pantry tables for the silverware, only tall counters covered by tablecloths in the middle of the courtyard around the beautiful column on which stands the bronze David..."
The same embarassment that modern grooms may have when their brides-to-be are shown the early
naked photographs of them as children must have been present for Lorenzo when leading his new
bride into the courtyard where his early portrait as a naked David was set up prominently in the center. But not embarassment for long because the balls, the hat with laurel, the cocky stance akimbo
display the new groom in the best light, that of a young hero. And the bride would have recognized
that the hero stands on a bridal wreath, as Baskins has pointed out. In the Renaissance brides are painted into cassoni scenes wearing wreaths to help the wedding party identify the bride, white dresses not being yet the tradition:     Adimari cassone, Accademia, Florence, c.1450

In this case the bride wears peacock rather than laurel with balls, but the conquering of the bride
seems to be suggested in the David of Donatello:
And since this is the ONLY statue of David from the Renaissance that has a wreath on its base,
it seems more than coincidence that the first mention of the statue is in a wedding party specifically
to celebrate LAURO and his bride. Before we make too much of the conquering of the woman in
marriage theme, though that is certainly present, we must recall that in the original Biblical story,
one of the prizes that Saul offers to the man who can defeat Goliath is the hand of his daughter in
22 And David left his carriage in the hand of the keeper of the carriage, and ran into the army, and came and saluted his brethren......

25 And the men of Israel said, Have ye seen this man that is come up? surely to defy Israel is he come up: and it shall be, that the man who killeth him, the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give him his daughter, and make his father's house free in Israel.

Donatello's statue, then is a celebration of the triumph of young LAURO as DAVID, not just as the killer of Goliath, but as the winner of Saul's daughter in marriage. Since Clarice Orsini came from a Roman family with connections to the papacy, the Medici courage to take on a larger ambition, ally themselves with Rome, is given visual splendour in Donatello's dark bronze statue in the court. The result of the union with the Orsini made by the Lauro David on his wedding day ensured that one of his sons would become Pope Leo X and one of his nephews would become Pope Clement VII. No small feat for the grandson of Cosimo de' Medici, whose friendship with Donatello was so close they
are buried next to each other in the crypt of San Lorenzo in Florence. Neither Cosimo nor Donatello lived to see the wedding (Cosimo dies in 1464, Donatello in 1466,) but Cosimo's political ambitions
may be on display in his wishes for his grandson.The statue was probably conceived before 1466 and put in place before 1469. (John Paoletti thinks the statue might be posthumous and carried out from Donatello's mold, not outside the realm of possibility in the context, for this art historian.)
Although we might misread the artist's intentions in other contexts, Donatello made sure we understood the personal relationship of this David to Donatello's greatest patron.
If the statue is created by Donatello in 1463, a year before his patron died, his grandson, LAURO, would have been 14, just right for the model young man seen here on his way to a bright future.
The smile on David's face, then, can be read not just as the sign of triumph and courage, but
the happy look of a young man on the way to claim his prize.

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