Donatello’s work was highly influenced by the revival of interest in the sciences, mathematics, and architecture that was taking place in Florence. This included the use of one point perspective to create a new kind of bas-relief for architectural works and a precise anatomical correctness for his figures.
The figure was a central point of mastery for the artist, and he was in fact the first to reintroduce the nude sculpture. With the addition of realistic proportion, emotionality, and expression to his subjects whether they be mythic, historical, or everyday people, he created works that conveyed a genuine reality over the idealized imagery of before.
David Victorious, bronze, partly gilded, by Donatello, about 1435 – 40, or later, Florence, Italy. Museo Nazionale del Bargello.
Photo: Rabe via Wikimedia Commons
This small but exquisite bronze is one of Donatello’s most famous works. It is a five foot, freestanding bronze sculpture of David, from the classic story David and Goliath. He stands in contrapposto, a traditional classical stance of bearing more weight on one leg than the other. Instead of being depicted as a powerful man, he is presented as a young, nude boy wearing an unusual hat wreathed with laurels (a motif of victory), and a pair of elaborately gilded boots. This unconventional arrangement, combined with the figure’s long hair, delicate features, and slim figure make the work a provocative, coquettish and effeminate piece. Another strange factor is that one wing of Goliath’s helmet is considerably longer than the other, and points up the figure’s leg to the groin. The work has been a key touch-point for arguments over Donatello’s sexuality.
These speculations aside, Donatello’s David is important both in technical terms and in terms of the artist’s treatment of his subject matter. It was the first free-standing male nude sculpture produced since antiquity, and controversial for a non-pagan, biblical figure. Beyond the bold reintroduction of the nude in art, art historian Dr. Beth Harriet also pointed out about this Early Renaissance period, “sculpted figures have finally been detached from architecture and are once again independent in the way that they were in ancient Greece and Rome. And because he’s freestanding, he’s more human, more real. He seems able to move in the world, and of course the contrapposto does that too. It’s easy to imagine this figure in the Medici palace garden, surrounded by the ancient Greek and Roman sculpture that they were also collecting.” Indeed, due to its small stature and location, the statue was designed to evoke an intimate experience for visitors of the family.
Donatello was a prolific master of many mediums including stone, bronze, wood, stucco, clay, and wax. He was the first to illustrate the art of sculpture among the modern artists. His versatility and ingenuity would lay a foundation for many future sculptors looking to discover new possibilities in materiality