Donatello. David. c1425-1430. Bronze,
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
|Form: This lifesize bronze sculpture stands in a contrapposto
stance. His musculature is that of a young boy, probably around the
age of thirteen or so. The hat he wears (described by Stokstad as
jaunty) is anachronistic and possibly out of place even for a shepherd
boy from Italy in the 15th century. David stands atop the bearded
and helmeted head of Goliath who he has just vanquished.
Iconography and Context: According to Janson, "this is the first life sized free standing sculpture since antiquity." The figures size and pose are almost direct references to the classical tradition of casting idealized athletic figures in bronze with the lost wax process as evinced by the Doryphoros and Riace Bronzes (although they would not have been familiar with the bronzes since they were discovered in the 1970's). In this way, Donatello would have combined the Bible story of David and Goliath with the classical and humanistic concept of kalos. In effect, he was uniting both a theological and neoplatonic/humanistic point of view.
The iconography also points towards a political point of view. The Italian city states were constantly at war with each other. For example, Florence thought of themselves as the "David" to Rome's Goliath. In this case, David is standing atop Goliath's head who sports a helmet. According to Janson's Art History, the "elaborate helmet of Goliath with visor and wings, (is) a unique and implausible feature that can only refer to the dukes of Milan, who had threatened Florence." For Janson, the hat David sports is then a reference to peace.
You may find Donatello's David a little bit ridiculous looking in his sun hat and almost effeminate stance and you are in good company. Irving Stone's the chapter entitled "The Giant" from the book The Agony and the Ecstasy excerpted in Liaisons (page 164) Michelangelo explains why he thinks Donatello's version of David is ridiculous.
Stone quotes the Bible extensively in his passage. Read the whole
thing for yourself here and (I know it's a crazy idea), maybe you might
even want to look it up in Liaisons!
Chapter 17 (David and Goliath)
Donatello, The Feast of Herodabout 1425(60 cm sq)
Baptismal Font, Cathedral, Siena, Italy
| Points of view are very important in Donatello's work.
Stokstad gives a fantastic formal analysis of this work in her book but
the most important formal point I think you should know is that linear
perspective is introduced into relief sculpture. Stokstad even describes
the varying levels of relief as a way of creating depth, which is not unlike
linear perspective. A good example of this is in the Ara
Pacis in Rome. The Bible passage below should provide you with
enough context to understand my contextual analysis which comes after.
The next sets of perspective Donatello expresses is a Catholic and Neoplatonic one as well as one dominated by a male point of view of the world that some historians refer to as the "male gaze."
The passage above describes the immorality of King Herod. Not only is he a king who rejects the teachings of Jesus, he also supports immoral and sexually indiscreet behaviors such as incest and improper marriage. Ultimately, it is Herod's lust for his daughter that leads to his sin of beheading John. This story presents women in a way which might be referred to as a femme fatale. According to Webster's a femme fatale a "disastrous woman." "A seductive woman who lures men into dangerous or compromising situations." and "a woman who attracts men by an aura of charm and mystery."
Similar tales, such as "Judith and Holofernes" and "Suzanna and the
Elders" (both excerpted from the Old Testament in Liaisons pages 197-214)
depict men's lust for women as responsible for powerful men's demise.
The depiction of women in this way is interesting because it is a theme
that becomes a popular one throughout the Renaissance and ties very neatly
into the concept of Platonic love. By the time the 20th century rolls
around depictions of women with heads on trays become so commonplace
that the story of "Judith and Holofernes" and the "Dance of Salome" become
Donatello, St. Mark 1411-13
Orsanmichele and is in the Arte dei Linauiulo e Rigattieri niche
Form: Points of view are very important in Donatello's work. Notice how the image on the left has been photographed from a point of view in which the viewer is looking at the work from a point of view in which they are on the same level with the sculpture. The image on the right is taken from below as the sculpture would have been seen in its original context.
Notice how the image on the left feels imbalanced and the head is a little too large and placed oddly. However, when you look at the image in the way that it was supposed to be viewed it looks correct. This is because Renaissance artists like Donatello compensated for the viewer's point of view or perspective when creating works of art.
In the essay below, Dennis Nolasco also explains how the sculpture expresses a civic perspective and the point of view of the merchants who commissioned it into account.
Art History 103B
April 16, 2001
Quattrocento (15th century) Florence was in a peculiar situation during the first decade of the 1400s. Florence, at that time, was controlled by guilds and the citizens truly valued their prosperity and liberty. It also had the most powerful of the free merchant guilds and controlled quite a bit of trade. As a result, Florence was constantly under siege by its neighbors and some of the attacks were seemingly halted by divine intervention. These dire circumstances led to the creation of artworks such as Donatello's St. Mark. A truly revolutionary statue, this piece single-handedly changed the state of the arts in Italy from Gothic to “fully Renaissance.” (Hartt 100) By analyzing St. Mark further through its form, iconography, and context, one can empathize with Donatello and his fellow Florentines. The St. Mark signifies true Renaissance art and reflects the humanism, spirit and ideals of the Florentine people of the time.
Donatello's St. Mark is an impressive seven feet nine inches and is carved of marble. It was begun around 1411 and finished in 1413. According to Hartt, the statue is located in the Florentine church Orsanmichele and is in the Arte dei Linauiulo e Rigattieri niche. The figure stands in a contrapposto pose and is robed in wet drapery. He holds a book (probably a Bible) in his left, is barefooted and seems to be standing on a cushion. The statue is in an apse, which is heavily decorated and also made of marble. The apse is in the shape of a Gothic arch and is decorated appropriately. A griffin sits below the statue and in front of a flower motif. The same motif is patterned behind the statue. There are faux columns on top of pedestals to either side of St. Mark, which do not seem to represent any Greek order. The columns actually have three parts, the topmost having a small Gothic arch crowned with small figures. A bust of a man resides within the arch. He has a halo behind his head, has his right hand held forward and holds a book in his left hand. Below and to either side of the center bust are side profiles of two men, which are surrounded by the same motif that decorates the rest of the piece.
Despite all the decorations, St. Mark still stands at the center of attention. To begin with, he has a stern and imposing stare about him. The statue seems to be concentrating on something beyond the viewer's peripheral view. This symbolizes St. Mark's constant vigil of Florence and the land beyond; always wary of what moves Florence's neighbors might be up to. The figure also has a full mustache and beard. An iconographic analysis reveals that beards have been a symbol of wisdom and knowledge since the time of ancient Greece. St. Mark also holds a book and wears a robe. The symbol of the book can be read in a couple different ways. The most obvious interpretation would be a Bible, because St. Mark was the author to one of the Gospels. This implies the saints closeness with heaven and God. Another interpretation could be that of a record book. According to Encarta Online, Mark was the “patron saint of notaries” and also served as a translator for St. Peter. This could be a symbol of learning and record keeping. Most Renaissance artwork of saints usually has them outfitted in robes. It is probably due to the fact that priests and monks dress in a similar fashion--which again represents the figure's affinity to the spiritual world. St. Mark also stands in the classic contrapposto pose. This is a pose in which the body takes on a natural s-curve. The pose was adopted from ancient Greek and Roman statues and exemplifies the neo-platonism and humanism of the Florentine people. Neo-platonism is the rebirth of the higher ideals of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Similarly, humanism is “A new realism based on the study of humanity and nature, an idealism found in the study of Classical forms.” (Tansey 683) The columns can also be thought of in this way, because it is only used for decorative purposes and just serves to remind the Quattrocento Florentines of their mastery over classical forms. Finally, the Gothic arch with the figures serves a purpose similar to the main statue of St. Mark. The major iconographic differences would be the raised hand, halo, and arch; these respectively may suggest peace, enlightenment, and a connection to heaven.
With all that the Quattrocento Florentines had to endure at the time, one may wonder why they chose to create icons of peace and not use their resources to help protect their city-state from harm. Quattrocento Florentines were no Spartans of old; whenever they tried to do battle with their enemies, they would fail miserably in combat. (Hartt 105) Their pride was in their powerful artisan guilds, resilience, and . . . divine intervention. Florence had been desired by a host of conquerors and was several times on the edge of defeat, if not but for miracles of some sort. Natural disaster and disease would often befall upon Florence's enemy before they could seize her gates. The Florentines did not take this lightly and thought that God had intervened on their behalf because of what their city represented--freedom. (Hartt 104) With this mindset, artists began to create truly natural, expressive and humanistic art, and Donatello was at the forefront of this movement. Donatello wanted to create a piece that captured Florence's spirit and resilience. He did this perfectly. The iconographic analysis revealed that the saint seemed to be a vigil of some sort. A contextual analysis further reinforces this. St. Mark seems ready to leap into action and protect the people of Florence from the dangers that lurked abroad. Unsurprisingly, the St. Mark was actually commissioned by the guild of linen drapers. (Tansey 683) As one can see, it is a perfect piece for the reintroduction of wet-drapery (clothing that seemed to follow the natural curves of the body). Moreover, the most likely meaning of the flower motifs would probably have to do with the guild of linen drapers. The linen drapers were, in all likelihood, just as thankful for the supposed divine intervention as the other Florentines, and they thanked God by commissioning the statue.
Gothic statues similar to St. Mark were actually commissioned before the birth of the Renaissance in the 1300s; nevertheless, a few enlightened individuals were already reveling in the classical ideas of neo-platonism that had originated during this time. In any event, Gothic art still survived and influenced many artists. It wasn't until the time of Donatello and his radical St. Mark when true Renaissance art was fully realized in Quattrocento Florence. In part, due to amazing miracles that happened, the Florentine people suddenly embraced their humanity and tried to give expression to this overwhelming sensation. Donatello realized this and became a major player in actualizing this newfound feeling through his St. Mark, and inspired many of his contemporaries (and later artists) to further push in the direction of humanism in art. An embodiment of true neo-platonic ideals--perseverance, spirituality, and freedom--the creation of the St. Mark truly gave birth to the Renaissance for those that lived in Quattrocento Florence.
Hartt, Frederick, and Carole Gold Calo, ed. “Art and Freedom in Quattrocento
“Mark, Saint,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001
Tansey, Richard G., and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the
Ages. 10th ed. Fort