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Donatello’s Bronze David

Thesis: Donatello was one of the most important fifteenth century masters whose bronze David is an enigma that is unlike Donatello’s other works in its different style, and unknown time of origin.

Donatello was a gifted sculptor who lived in the fifteenth century and had a great impact on not only the Italian Renaissance, but also on the future of art in general. He was an innovator in his time and his sphere of influence enveloped all those around him. Donatello was one of the most important fifteenth century masters whose bronze David is an enigma that is unlike Donatello’s other works in its different style, and unknown time of origin. First, Donatello’s talents and credentials will be discussed. Secondly, points about Donatello’s classical style in the sculpting of David and other artists’ thoughts about its classical style will be gone over. Next, the different thoughts on the time of David’s creation will be discussed. Lastly, the main ideas will be summarized and brought to a conclusion.

Donatello has earned his place in history. Donatello was not only one of the most important artists in the fifteenth century, but also one of the “most brilliant and representative figures of the Italian Renaissance for he gave visible form…to the intellectual aspirations and achievements of his epoch (Cruttwell 2). Not only was he a great sculptor, but also a leader of the artistic movement of the time. He was equally gifted in the elements of the antique and of modern sentiment, able to blend them seamlessly in his work. He also had the appreciation of “external life peculiar to the Greek and Roman civilizations, with its robust self-reliance and enjoyment of sensuous emotions, and the comprehension of, and respect for, the inner workings of the soul, inherited from the severe, often morbid, self-analysis of medieval Christianity” (Cruttwell 3). Donatello was able to work with any medium. He cast sculptures in bronze, clay, and marble with the same genius. Donatello was able to do with his sculpture, as the humanists were able to do with their pen.

Donatello was not limited in the way some other artists of the time were. The reasons he is so important to history of Italian art is because of “his originality of conception, his sudden and complete breakage with tradition, and his technical innovations” (Cruttwell 3). Donatello could work on his own. He did not need to work off the premises set by others. His independence and skill were what made him a chief and pioneer of Italian art. Both the Florentine schools of painting and sculpture were dominated by Donatello. The reason Donatello’s influence was so strong was because he “visualized with his own eyes, conceived with absolute independence, and executed with methods equally original and free from prescribed rules” (Cruttwell 2). This independence was something new in the time of Donatello and allowed Donatello to dominate and to leave his mark for years to come. Cruttwell had this to say of Donatello’s lasting effect on the art world: “So completely Donatellesque did Italian art become that it is impossible to conceive what direction it would have taken without his overwhelming influence…and that every great Master of our own day consciously or unconsciously based his art upon that of Donatello” (3). That is because Donatello rapidly matured as an artist and was able to one of the first artists to be able to “represent humanity as it exists with crude veracity, accentuating impartially its merits and defects. For him beauty and form had little interest” (Janson 80). Donatello’s Campanile statues were “expressively” ugly and his ‘St. Mark’ has an “intellectual” harshness to it (Cruttwell 5). As an artist, Donatello’s main interests seemed to lie in character and emotion. The David is destitute of both. Donatello’s bronze David seems to stray away from Donatello’s previous works in both its classical form and style.

Donatello, while said to be a “master of the nude”, cared little to produce sculptures in the nude. However, when he sculpted David, he made David naked save for both extremities. It is at the extremities where Donatello begins to show his submission to classic influence (Pope-Hennessy 150). A hint of “romantic charm” lies in the hat on David’s head. It is a broad-brimmed hat that is garlanded with bay leaves. This hat throws David’s face into deep shadow and seems to suggest the hot sun beating down on him and the simple life of a shepherd. The whole pose of David is inert and tame, not threatening at all, despite the severed head beneath his foot. David himself seems to be “modeled after a boy who developed his stomach more than his muscles” (Grassi 72). Even though David has been captured after the act of slaying Goliath, visually, he hardly seems strong enough to lift the sword. David’s whole body is puffy and his toes are bent as if the shoes are putting pressure on them. And even though he is holding the sword that severed Goliath’s head, his hand is limp and shows no grip. David stands on a circular garland with one foot on Goliath’s helmeted severed head. The helmet itself is interesting in that on it is a scene representing Cupid and Psysche drawn in a chariot by the Loves (Janson 87).

One scholar stated that David “is influence of antiquity in general terms” (Janson 86). Another scholar thinks that the classical style of Donatello’s David influenced Ghiberti’s statuette of Samson. Ghiberti’s Samson has the same lithe body position of David, which is odd since Samson was the Hercules of the Old Testament. The position of Samson’s legs is also similar to that of David’s, and both of the figures right hips are thrust out. Also, both David and Samson’s bodies were done in the same fluid modeling style that added a look of detailed realism to them. Vasario said that Donatello’s David is a sculpture whose “figure is so natural in its vivacity, and in the softness of the flesh, that it seems to the artificers as though it must be cast from life” (Cruttwell 84). At the time, Donatello was a more of a modern artist, but his David is classical when it comes to style. Cruttwell says that “my own impression is that it was executed soon after the Roman visit, since it shows, in spite of certain realisms in the treatment, a strong impression of antique sculpture” (83). David is unlike most of Donatello’s works for that exact reason. If his works are examined, David stands out simply for its classical style, which was not Donatello’s usual style of sculpting. However, while most scholars agree that David was created in a classical style, what most scholars do not agree on is the exact time Donatello cast David.

David has always been hard to put into the chronology of Donatello’s work. Some, like Milanesi (1854) and Kauffmann (1935) think it was done after Donatello’s stay in Padua. Others, like Jensen, Cruttwell, and Grassi, believe Donatello sculpted David in the early 1430’s. That seems to be the most logical time, for there are many similarities between David and S. Croce Tabernacle, another of Donatello’s works that was executed in the early 1430’s.

There are many powerful similarities in the ornamental repertory between David and the S. Croce Tabernacle. One would be the sharply defined scales or feathers that are all over the pilasters of the Tabernacle can be found on the sword in David’s hand and on the neck guard of Goliath’s helmet. Another would be that the scroll-and-palmetto ornament that can be found on the angels’ sleeves in the Tabernacle can also be seen on the upper part of David’s boots. If one was to look at the ornamental compartments of Goliath’s helmet and on the area of David’s boots below the knee, they would find tendrils that are almost identical to those found on the background paneling and brackets of the S. Croce Tabernacle. In addition to the tendrils, the short, vertical flutings that can be found on the open-toed edge of David’s sandal and on the neckguard of Goliath’s helmet can also be found on the carved base of the Tabernacle and on the Virgin’s mantle and sandals. Also, the winged wreath in the Tabernacle is very similar to the garland and wings of David, though the wings are attached to Goliath’s helmet and not to the garland (Janson 84). However, it is not just ornamentation that is similar between David and the Tabernacle.

Both David and the S. Croce Tabernacle share the same classicist style. This is not only true in ornamentation, but also in the form of David and of the Virgin and Angels on the Tabernacle. Janson says that by “making an allowance for differences in technique and style, the same facial structure exists in both David and Mary and the Angels” (Janson 78).

David also bears stylistic similarities to the mourning angels of the Brancacci Tomb, which was done by Michelozzo, who was strongly influenced by Donatello (). If one accepts the evidence presented, then there is little doubt that David “belongs to the same idealistic and lyrical phase that begins with the ‘Ghibertesque’ Siena Virtues and continues with the Siena putti and the S. Croce Tabernacle”(Grassi 73). And if David does belong to this phase of Donatello’s work, then it would best into the very early 1930’s.

Throughout his life, Donatello produced a plethora of work, almost all of it having some significance to the art world. He made an impact on art that has lasted all the way to the twentieth century. There is no doubt that Donatello was one of the most prolific artists of the Renaissance and his bronze David, because of its style and origin controversy, one of his most puzzled over pieces.

Bibliography

Sources

Cruttwell, Maud. Donatello. Freeport: Books For Libraries

Press, 1911.

Donatello. Phaidon Edition. London, Allen, and Unwin, 1941.

Donato, Maria Monica. “Hercules and David in the Early

Declaration of the Palazzo Vecchio: manuscript evidence” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 54 (1991) 83-98.

Gibaldi, Joesph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research

Papers. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1999.

Grassi, Luigi. All the Sculpture of Donatello. New York:

Hawthorn Books, 1964.

Holmes, Sir Charles. “The Italian Exhibition” Burlington

Magazine 56 (February 1930) 55-72.

Janson, H. W. The Sculpture of Donatello. Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1963.

Munman, Robert. Optical Corrections in the Sculpture of

Donatello. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1985.

Pope-Hennessy, John. Donatello Sculptor. New York:

Abbeville Press, 1993.02

Schubring, Paul. “Donatello” Burlington Magazine 13 (May

1908) 107-108

Siren, Osvald. “Two Florentine Sculptures Sold to America”

Burlington Magazine 29 (August 1916) 197-199.

Sperling, Christine M. “Donatello’s Bronze David and the

Demands of Medici Politics” Burlington Magazine 134 (April 1992): 218-224.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Harry N. Abrams,

Inc. 1999.

“Unmasking Four Art-World Giants” Art News 94 (February

1995) 6-9.

Word Count: 1641

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