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Donatello was one of the most important and influential artists of the fifteenth century. As a master artist, he sculpted some of the most beautiful pieces of the Italian Renaissance. His innovations impacted many artists of his time, and set the standard for centuries of sculptors to follow. Donatello?s style is clearly defined and easily recognized in nearly all of his pieces. An exception is the bronze, David, dated 1425-1430. David strays from the traditional style of Donatello with reference to style, form, and medium. Historians speculate on the reasons for this breakthrough with regards to Donatello?s philosophies and life experiences, questioning his brief return to the classical style, as well as the year of the sculpture?s creation.
As one of the most brilliant and representative figures of the Italian Renaissance, Donatello was able to give form to his intellectual aspirations and achievements. He was gifted in depicting elements of both the antique and the modern sentiment, and able to blend them seamlessly in his work. He had an appreciation of life with robust self-reliance, and respect for the inner workings of the soul. Donatello worked exceptionally with most any medium. He cast sculptures in bronze, clay, and marble with equal genius. His originality in conception, and complete break from tradition offset his work from that of any other artist of his time. His strong sense of independence opened the door for both painters and sculptors in Florence, promoting his vision of freedom from his predecessors? prescribed rules. The embrace of Donatello?s philosophy by artists of the fifteenth century resulted in a permanent change in Italian art. “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” (Cruttwell 3). Donatello rapidly matured as an artist and was able to present humanity, in its crudest form of existence, to the world. Beauty and form seemed to have little interest to Donatello, but rather the character and emotion of the subject (Janson 413). Straying from his earlier classical works, Donatello?s breakthrough David exemplifies his ability to cast bronze into a beautiful, yet clearly non-traditional form.
At a glance, the sculpture has a fairly simple description. The youth figure, David, is proportioned as a boy of fifteen might be. His arms are slightly long for his body, and the muscles not as developed as those of a man. His waist is small, and the form of his ribs is sculpted enough to know that he is lacking muscle definition. His stomach seems to pop out a little bit, perhaps suggesting the “baby fat” that he has yet to work off. He has one hand resting limply on his hip, while his other rests on a sword handle. His hair is shoulder length and slightly untamed, while a hat rests slightly tilted atop his head. His head is tilted slightly downward, and a slight upward bend in his lip looks almost like a building smile. One leg is straight, supporting his weight, while the other is propped on the head of the slain Goliath. The bends of his limbs are very natural, and the attention to detail exemplifies Donatello?s understanding of human anatomy. A closer look at the sculpture, however, reveals the details that set it apart from other works of the master.
Donatello, considered a master of the nude, cared little to produce them in his sculptures. David, an exception to his previous work, would be completely naked if not for his boots and hat. A hint of romantic charm lies in the figure?s hat. A broad brim garlanded with bay leaves, the hat throws David?s face into a deep shadow and seems to suggest the simple life of a shepherd. The whole pose of David is inert, tame and non-threatening, despite the severed head beneath his left 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 seems barely strong enough to lift the sword at his side. His whole body is a little swollen and his toes are bent as if his shoes are putting pressure on them. The sword he holds in his right hand seems to be resting in a very loose grip, rather than being held in place. David stands on a circular garland with one foot on Goliath?s helmeted, severed head. Goliath?s helmet, in part, is a relief of a scene representing Cupid and Psysche drawn in a chariot by the Loves (Janson 87). Some scholars speculate that Donatello?s composition of David influenced Ghiberti?s statuette of Samson, as they both have the same lithe body stance and similar leg positioning (Janson 87). “Donatello?s David is a sculpture whose figure is so natural in its vivacity, and in the softness of the flesh, that is seems to be the artificers as though it must be cast from life (Cruttwell 84).
During the Italian Renaissance, Donatello was considered more of a modern artist, but his David has a very classical style. “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” (Cruttwell 83). David is unlike most of Donatello?s works for this very reason. Donatello, as discussed earlier, struggled to free himself from the rules set forth by his predecessors. David?s return to the classical style causes much speculation about the time of its casting. This completely different approach to sculpture makes it difficult for scholars to chronologically arrange Donatello?s work. Some think it was crafted after Donatello?s stay in Padua, Italy. Others, like Janson and Cruttwell, believe Donatello sculpted David in the early 1430?s. Either way, the extraordinary difference in David?s execution from Donatello?s other works has left many unanswered questions for art historians.
Historians have narrowed David?s year of creation to 1425-1430. The supporting evidence is found in another, lesser known, work of Donatello?s executed during this time period, a small sculpture of the Virgin Mary with angels at her side, found in the Sta. Croce Tabernacle in Florence, Italy. There are many powerful similarities in the ornamental repertory between David and the Virgin Mary sculpture. The first lies in the sharply defined scales or feathers that are all over the pilasters of the piece at Sta. Croce. They are also found on the sword in David?s right hand, and on the neck guard of Goliath?s helmet. Another similarity is the placement of a scroll-and-palmetto ornament on both the angels? sleeves of the Sta. Croce sculpture, and on the upper part of David?s boots. There are also identical tendrils on the background paneling of the tabernacle and on the ornamental compartments of Goliath?s helmet. In addition to the tendrils, the short, vertical flutings found on the open-toe edge of David?s sandal and the neck-guard of Goliath?s helmet are also on the carved base of the Sta. Croce sculpture and on the Virgin?s mantle and sandals. Another similarity linking David to the late 1420?s/early 1430?s is found in the winged wreath found on the Sta. Croce sculpture. It is very similar to the garland on David?s hat and to the wings on Goliath?s helmet (Janson 84). Other than ornamentation, there is also a similarity in classicist style. By allowing for differences in technique and overall style, the same facial structure exists in David and the Virgin Mary, as well as the faces of the mourning angels. All of these similarities place David in 1425-1430, adding to the mystery of Donatello?s brief return to a somewhat classical, and absolutely different, style of sculpture.
Throughout his life, Donatello produced an abundance of beautiful paintings and sculptures, almost all having an impact on the art world. His influence is fairly evident in most pieces of the last five centuries. Donatello was one of the most prolific artists of the Renaissance, who work still amazes modern day historians. His bronze, David, surrounded by controversy with regards to style and origin, has become one of the greatest puzzles of the Italian Renaissance.
Cruttwell, Maud. Donatello. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press,
Gibaldi, Joseph. 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
Janson, H.W. History of Art. New York: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1997
Janson, H.W. The Sculpture of Donatello. Princeton: Princeton
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