James Kettlewell

Rethinking Classic Themes in Art History

Donatello’s David as Love Triumphant

Donatello’s famous bronze David, 1430-1440, in the Bargello Gallery in Florence, is an astonishing work of art.1 It would be a radical work in any age, this naked young boy in a sinuous pose, dressed only in a fancy hat and boots. It may be the first free-standing bronze since classical times, but whoever saw anything like it?

It is totally different in effect from the other famous Davids in the history of art, including Donatello’s own earlier David and Goliath, 1409, exhibited in the same room in the Bargello in Florence. Donatello’s first David is how Davids in art are supposed to look. But what kind of David is this? He is too young, too soft, too unmuscular, an utterly unheroic Florentine kid.2

Obviously this image would have been too strange and provocative for any public setting. You could never see it in a Catholic church. Clearly Donatello executed the sculpture for a private patron, most certainly his greatest patron, Cosimo de’Medici. The explanation of the sculpture, given here, fits closely with Cosimo’s intellectual interests.

In Donatello’s bronze David, the bible story was transformed by the artist into a thinly veiled allegory of David as Eros, with the theme, popular at the time, of love triumphing over Time, and probably, simultaneously, over Death.3 This kid looks a lot more like Aphrodite’s eternally adolescent son Eros, than he does like David. The glistening, naked body, framed by hat and boots, would have struck any observer as erotic, and he stands in a distinctly erotic pose, quite appropriate for an Eros, though not for a David.

On his face is a subtle smile, which could be interpreted as sensual, considering the context. As Janson points out, it was generally known in Florence at the time that Donatello had more than an artist’s interest in the young boys who served as his models. Reinforcing the interpretation of this figure as Eros, a person of the time would recognize the hat and boots as components of a hunting costume, and would be reminded of Eros/Cupid’s role as hunter, firing his arrows to compel people to fall in love. And is this really the head of Goliath that David stands so triumphantly above? Alas, in reproductions it can be difficult to see, though, in the original, on a high pedestal, the head of Goliath is at eye level.

Anyone at the time who was familiar with how this subject had been treated in art, and particularly with Donatello’s earlier David and Goliath, would immediately be aware that the head David stands on in triumph is not that of a militant giant at all, but the normal-sized head of an old man. Nor does this supposed Goliath have David’s stone embedded in his forehead, which you almost always see in this subject. In fact, the forehead of Goliath is completely covered by his helmet, and there is no sign of any wound. David still holds the stone in his hand as if the confrontation with Goliath had yet to occur.

Here he is Eros representing how Love, an ultimately divine emotion, triumphs over Time and Death. A closer look at the relief sculpture on the helmet of Goliath would underscore this meaning. It shows a cluster of cupids pulling a triumphal chariot in which is seated a rather blurred figure, presumably Eros, signifying the triumph of love. Strange, also, are the conspicuous wings extending from Goliath’s helmet, one of the wings extending far up David’s leg. In art, Time is always portrayed as an old man with wings. All of these subtle and strange departures from the traditional subject were the artist’s way of signaling the observer to look for another meaning.

The divine triumphant was the standard Christian meaning given to the story of David and Goliath. Here David’s triumph is associated with the triumph of divine love.

Donatello’s David first appears in a document of 1469, in a context often associated with the triumph of love. It is described by a witness at the marriage of Lorenzo de’ Medici to Clarice Orsini, as placed on a column in the center of the courtyard of the Medici Palace in Florence.

If this David/Eros were commissioned by Cosimo de’Medici, the subject may suggest a somewhat later date than is normally given, sometime after 1438. It was in 1438 that Cosimo attended lectures on the philosophy of Plato, given by the visiting Greek scholar Georgio Gemisthos Pletho. From this time on, Cosimo was fascinated by Plato’s philosophy, and I think particularly by his Symposium.

In the Symposium, Socrates and his assembled friends competed to see who could give the best talk about the God Eros. The upshot of Socrates’s presentation was that love on earth ultimately leads to the love of “the eternal,” i.e., God. In other words, Socrates’s Eros triumphs over time and death. But another interesting association which might add a layer of meaning to the work, is that the earthly love discussed in the Symposium is always between an older man and a younger boy. We remember Donatello’s own predilections. Cosimo was once instrumental in helping Donatello get back one of his young assistants, who had left the artist after a lover’s quarrel.

While I think that my interpretation of Donatello’s David is what could be called the most salient of possibilities, many other interpretations have been made. These do not necessarily contradict each other, but are part of the richness of this multi-layered work However, any interpretation must take into account the image’s extraordinary anomalies: the unheroic body with its dramatized nudity, the nudity exaggerated by the curious costume: the striking sensuality of the pose: and perhaps most important, the diminished, unwounded head of Goliath, his improbable winged helmet, and its relief sculpture of triumphant cupids.

[1.] Reproductions often fail to show certain critical details, which I describe in my text.

[2.] Janson, H. W. The Sculpture of Donatello, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 86. Janson points out that the proportions are based on an ancient Greek bronze, the Spinario, an image of a young adolescent seated, extracting a thorn from his foot, which would have been familiar to any classically informed person in Florence at the time. Donatello would have seen it during his extended visit to Rome between 1404 to 1407. Janson also makes note of the sensual appearance of the image.

[3.] When the sculpture was made, every educated Florentine would have been familiar with Petrarch’s “Triumph of Love,” one of six poems in his Triumphs written in the 1340s.