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Donatello, David

Donatello's David, a groundbreaking early Renaissance sculpture, showcases a return to ancient Greek and Roman appreciation for the human body. This bronze masterpiece, featuring a nude David in contrapposto pose, symbolizes Florence's triumph over Milan and the Medici family's connection to the city's greatness. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're in the Bargello in Florence, in an enormous vaulted room. This is a building that was used for judicial purposes. Now it's a museum. And it holds Donatello's David, one of the most important sculptures of the early Renaissance SPEAKER 2: Important because it was the first free-standing nude sculpture since classical antiquity. Quite an achievement. SPEAKER 1: So for 1,000 years, the Christian West had looked to the soul as the place to focus. The body was seen as a path to corruption, and so it was not to be celebrated. What we're seeing here is a return to Ancient Greece and Rome's love of the body, its respect for the body, which is so evident. SPEAKER 2: It really is. Donatello's looked back in ancient Greek and Roman sculpture also for the position that David is standing in, the position of contrapposto which is a very relaxed pose, where the weight is placed on one leg, the other leg is bent. And the figure has-- because of contrapposto-- has a sense of movement. In the Renaissance, this figure looked remarkably alive, given the way that medieval sculpture had looked for so long. SPEAKER 1: It's detached from any kind of figural group or any kind of architecture. And so there really is a sense of autonomy, as if this figure could move forward of its own accord. The figure is referencing the classical in another way, as well in its very material nature. This is bronze, largely copper with a little bit of tin added to it to give it strength. And it's actually hollow, it's created through a technique which is known as lost-wax casting, which the ancient Romans and the ancient Greeks before them had employed. And which had been used throughout the medieval period, but not at this scale. And it was just in the early Renaissance that artists are beginning to re-explore how to create bronze sculptures that are this large. SPEAKER 2: David is very young, and it's hard not to see a kind of sensuality in the way that David puts his hand on his hip and looks down. And the fact that he's wearing boots and a hat and is otherwise nude, there's a kind of eroticism here. SPEAKER 1: And that's especially evident if you look at the fact that David is standing on the now severed head of Goliath. In fact, in his right hand he's holding Goliath's own sword which David has used. But because he's standing on that head that pushes his leg up, one of the wings of the helmet is just riding up the inner thigh, perhaps a little too high, In fact. So there really is a kind of overt sexuality here. And it's so interesting because it's at odds with the civic symbolism of this sculpture. This was a sculpture that was really important to the city of Florence. And yet, it has this very intimate quality to it. SPEAKER 2: It was the seen in the 1460s in the Medici garden. Although we're not exactly sure who commissioned it, it's likely that it was a Medici. SPEAKER 1: So the Medici palace had a large entrance way, and there was a kind of axes that allowed you see directly into the garden. And this would have been visible in the center of it. SPEAKER 2: That's right. It's really important for us to remember that to the Florentine people, this wasn't just King David from the Bible. There were all sorts of associations. First of all, David in the biblical story defeats his enemy-- even though he's the underdog-- he defeats his enemy with God's help. The Florentine people felt very much identified with David because like David, they had defeated their enemy or they-- this is how they saw it-- they had defeated their enemy, the Duke of Milan in this early 15th century, with the help of God. In fact, they felt blessed and chosen by God, and the heirs of the ancient Roman Republic. And so the subject of David represented Florence, the Florentine Republic. SPEAKER 1: So Goliath, in a sense, takes on the role of the Duke of Milan. Milan was significantly stronger than Florence, which was a mercantile culture, as opposed to a military power. And Florence was, of course, a republic whereas Milan was an autocracy. That is, it had a single ruler. SPEAKER 2: And so David became a symbol of the Florentine Republic. Anyone looking at this sculpture in the Medici garden in the 15th century would have understood David as a reference to the liberties and the freedoms that were so cherished by the Florentine people, and had been threatened by the Duke of Milan. SPEAKER 1: On the other hand, you could say that the Medici we usurping this civic symbolism for themselves in some ways. And in fact, when the Medici were run out of town, this sculpture was actually taken to the signoria, that is to the town hall, and made a public sculpture. And so there is really the sense of the investment of this culture in this story. SPEAKER 2: Right. And so by having it in the Medici garden, appropriating this symbol of the city and all that was great about the city, Medici were appropriating that for themselves. SPEAKER 1: So here in this sculpture is this embodiment of the promise of a long rule. David will grow up to be king, to have been enormously wise. And in a sense, it was a perfect kind of story for the Medici to put forward as a representation, not only the city, but specifically of their own rule within the city. SPEAKER 2: Right. So they're sort of identifying themselves as the city of Florence. Identifying themselves with youthfulness, with King David, and with all that's great about the Florentine Republic. SPEAKER 1: And although this is a sculpture that's about war, the symbols are clearly about David and peace, and the Medici and peace. David wears a soft hat as opposed to the helmet of war that Goliath wears. David has severed Goliath's head with Goliath's own battle-hardened sword. If you look at that sword closely, you can see that there are notches out of it. It's been in many, many battles. David needs to borrow it in order to sever that head. But in David's other hand, in his left hand, he holds a rock. Presumably the rock that he used in the slingshot to actually fell the giant in the first place. But I think it's interesting that Donatello here, a sculptor, is actually portraying that rock as, in a sense, the opposing weapon to the sword. That is a material that Donatello, as a sculptor, often carves. He works in marble as often as he does in bronze, perhaps more often. And so are these, in a sense, the two weapons of the two cities? Either the violence of Milan versus the culture of Florence? SPEAKER 2: The iconography, all of the meanings, David and what that meant to the city of Florence. That eroticism, or even the homo-eroticism, art historians are not really sure about all of those meanings for the 15th century Florentine people. And some art historians have even suggested that the identification of this figure as David is not even completely secure. That it could also have been read as Mercury. And so we see it in a complicated way, and it's quite likely that the people of Florence, in the 15th century, saw it in a complicated way and had multiple readings of it. SPEAKER 1: It's an important reminder that art history itself is a process of trying to restore meaning and understand meaning through the lens of time. And-- SPEAKER 2: It is, after all, 600 years old. SPEAKER 1: That's right. But nevertheless, it is one of the great sculptures that really embodies so many of the ideals and so many of the concerns of the 15th century.