Did We Miss the Point of One of the World’s Most Famous Sculptures?

Jonathan McAloon
Nov 8, 2018 10:17PM

Donatello, David, 1428–1432. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Donatello, David, 1428–1432. Photo © Arte & Immagini srl/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

Any thought of the biblical King David is bound to conjure Michelangelo’s 17-foot-tall marble masterwork. Although the sculpture, created between 1501 and 1504, has become one of the most famous artworks in the world, the iconic symbol of the Florentine Republic would not have been possible without Donatello’s earlier work on the same theme, which remains one of the most beautiful, enigmatic, and radical sculptures ever made.

Composed sometime between the 1430s and 1450s, Donatello’s bronze David represents a series of firsts in art history. It constitutes the first bronze male nude and the first free-standing statue—unsupported by or unattached to a support—since antiquity. At the time Donatello made the sculpture, the character of David represented how Florence saw itself: a small, mercantile city-state without a duke, and with a history of defending itself against more powerful enemies. But while the David and Goliath story became a popular motif in Florentine art, there is a subversive, queer side to this particular version.

Just a shepherd boy when he fought Goliath, David’s disadvantage is demonstrated here by his prepubescent physique. Naked except for a helmet, sandals, and shin guards, David’s androgynous body is smooth and unmuscular. He shifts his weight onto one foot in naturalistic contrapposto—rather than an idealized, heroic pose—with his hand resting on his provocatively jutting hip as he triumphantly steps his foot on the Philistine conqueror’s head. When viewed from behind, it’s almost impossible to tell what gender or sex the figure is. His hair is long and luxurious, and, judging by the traces of gilding, was originally presented as gold. In one hand, he holds a rock from his sling; in the other, the oversized sword of his enemy.


Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known simply as Donatello, revolutionized art in Florence during the early Renaissance. His pioneering sculptures helped to transform the perception of the medium from a medieval craft into an expression of individual genius. In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari, the father of art history, tells a tale of the artist, Pygmalion-like, begging his lifelike sculptures to speak back to him. Vasari also credits Donatello as the artist most aligned with classical values, who restored the art of sculpture to ancient Greco-Roman standards.

Donatello’s David represents a union of classical and humanist concepts in alignment with Christian iconography. The David and Goliath story here manifests both the humanist belief that the will can triumph over strength, as well as the Christian conviction that faith in God can overcome any obstacle—exemplified by this skinny youth standing victorious over his far stronger foe. David’s beauty also denotes ancient ideals revived in the Renaissance: the value of physical perfection as a virtue and a celebration of sexual relationships between men and beautiful male youths. Donatello modeled the heads of many of his sculptures and statues from Roman busts, and art historians now generally believe that David’s was based on Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s gay lover.

Appraising the sculpture today, one gets the impression that there is a bond beyond violence between the victorious and conquered. The suggestive nature of the sculpture seems to hint that David may have defeated Goliath through seduction. (Indeed, Donatello’s later sculpture of the Israelite heroine Judith with the head of Holofernes is often compared to this David.) One of the wings of Goliath’s helmet seems to be climbing up David’s leg, sensually caressing his inner thigh. While this ornament would have been useful in hiding some support work, Donatello was also playing a formal trick: In its original display on a high pedestal in the courtyard of the Medici’s Palazzo Vecchio, onlookers would have peered up at the sculpture, the feather leading the eye to its behind. Curiously, Goliath’s helmet also shows a relief of cupids pulling a chariot in which another cupid is riding, an illustration of the “Triumph of Love.”

Detail of Donatello, David, 1428–1432. Photo © Arte & Immagini srl/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

Were early Renaissance audiences similarly seduced by David? It’s not clear exactly how viewers responded to this work. In 1504, Francesco di Lorenzo Filarete, a poet and herald in the Florentine government, advised that Michelangelo’s new David might replace Donatello’s in the the Palazzo Vecchio, and the latter be moved elsewhere. Donatello’s sculpture, he said, was “imperfect”: Its leg looked schiocha—meaning silly or awkward—from behind. In the poetry of the day, schiocha was also a colloquial term for a male lover or object of desire. Filarete implied that viewers might have felt it was inappropriate for the biblical king to be depicted in such a sexualized way, even though the much-discussed love between David and Saul’s son Jonathan serves as one of the closest bonds between two men in the bible. Perhaps this aspect of David’s story influenced Donatello’s depiction; it may have also appealed to the artist directly.

Art historian H.W. Janson first posited that the artist himself was gay (or at least rumored to be) in 1957, and that Donatello’s personal biography drove his homoerotic depiction of David. Janson quoted stories about the artist that had been collected and published anonymously in a gossipy 1548 book about the Florentine circle of Cosimo de’ Medici—the artist’s great patron and friend, and the most likely commissioner of David. According to the anecdotes in the volume, Donatello was notorious for falling for his male models and apprentices, pursuing them around Italy in a rage if they left him. Janson’s allusion to Donatello’s homosexuality, and his suggestion that the artist’s identity might have played a part in this masterpiece, put critical noses out of joint. Yet this reaction was particularly rash, considering that 15th-century Florence was considered a gay mecca.

Florence had such a reputation for being accepting of homosexuality that the French called gay sex the “Florentine Vice,” and in Germany, Florenzer was slang for a sodomite. Still, same-sex relations weren’t exactly legal; records show that a huge proportion of men in the city were accused of or charged with the crime of sodomy (including the eminent Leonardo da Vinci, who was working as an apprentice in Florence when he was accused). Conservative monks railed against this acceptance for more than moral reasons, worrying that the growing trend of homosexual relations between unmarried men would lead to a city-wide population decline. Recent studies have also revealed that politicians of the day attempted to combat the issue by opening up brothels to lure them back into the arms of women. Yet relationships between men remained generally accepted, especially in the city’s artistic circles.

When viewed in this context, it seems plausible that Donatello’s David could both symbolize the resilient city-state and openly celebrate Florence’s queer culture. The academic Michael Rocke has even suggested that David’s floppy hat might have been a coded reference to the “hat game,” a seduction ploy where Florentine men would steal the hats of boys they fancied on the street, refusing to give them back until the object of their desire agreed to gratify them.

Andrea del Verrocchio, David, ca. 1466-69, Museo del Bargello, Florence. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Donatello’s David inspired subsequent sculptors with ambition, and it became fashionable to attempt the subject. Andrea del Verrocchio’s David (1473–75), also commissioned by the Medici family, seems almost a correction to Donatello’s. Verrocchio’s version likewise features a skinny, idealized youth, but a more capable one, wearing slightly more practical armor. Michelangelo’s massive David, by contrast, shows the hero as a man, not a boy, right before the battle. Lean and perfectly muscled, this David looks as if he’s spent his whole life training for this moment. Later still, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s take on the subject, from 1623–24, depicts the hero in action; he twists his nude body, caught in the moment of pulling back his sling to discharge the stone that will fell Goliath. Bernini modeled his David’s fearsome grimace on himself, distorting his own face in a mirror.

All of these Davids depict strong, determined, resolutely chaste figures prepared for the task at hand or contented with their victory. But Donatello’s masterpiece also possesses a unique swagger. None of the later Davids seem to notice or care about how good-looking they are (even if, like Michaelangelo’s, they are clearly designed as ideal beauties). Donatello’s statue, though, has a self-possessed sense of beauty. Just as Vasari recorded Donatello urging his naturalistic sculptures to come to life, the artist created this work with the express purpose of being beautiful, almost willing his David to respond to his own desire, as well as the viewer’s. This ambiguous masterpiece has, in the past, seemed to pose questions whose answers are lost to history. Perhaps it is only now that we can fully appreciate David in all his complexity.

Jonathan McAloon