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
, 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.