AP Art History: Donatello

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Donatello. David. c1425-1430. Bronze,
height 5'2"
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!
1 Samuel
Chapter 17 (David and Goliath)
The Philistines rallied their forces for battle at Socoh in Judah and camped between Socoh and Azekah at Ephes-dammim.
Saul and the Israelites also gathered and camped in the Vale of the Terebinth, drawing up their battle line to meet the Philistines.
The Philistines were stationed on one hill and the Israelites on an opposite hill, with a valley between them.
A champion named Goliath of Gath came out from the Philistine camp; he was six and a half feet tall.
He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a bronze corselet of scale armor weighing five thousand shekels,
1and bronze greaves, and had a bronze scimitar slung from a baldric.
2 The shaft of his javelin was like a weaver's heddle-bar, and its iron head weighed six hundred shekels. His shield-bearer went before him.
He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel: "Why come out in battle formation? I am a Philistine, and you are Saul's servants. Choose one of your men, and have him come down to me.
If he beats me in combat and kills me, we will be your vassals; but if I beat him and kill him, you shall be our vassals and serve us."
The Philistine continued: "I defy the ranks of Israel today. Give me a man and let us fight together."
Saul and all the men of Israel, when they heard this challenge of the Philistine, were dismayed and terror-stricken.
3 (David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. He had eight sons, and in the days of Saul was old and well on in years.
The three oldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to war; these three sons who had gone off to war were named, the first-born Eliab, the second son Abinadab, and the third Shammah.
David was the youngest. While the three oldest had joined Saul,
David would go and come from Saul to tend his father's sheep at Bethlehem.
(Meanwhile the Philistine came forward and took his stand morning and evening for forty days.
(Now Jesse said to his son David: "Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves for your brothers, and bring them quickly to your brothers in the camp.
Also take these ten cheeses for the field officer. Greet your brothers and bring home some token from them.
Saul, and they, and all Israel are fighting against the Philistines in the Vale of the Terebinth."
Early the next morning, having left the flock with a shepherd, David set out on his errand, as Jesse had commanded him. He reached the barricade of the camp just as the army, on their way to the battleground, were shouting their battle cry.
The Israelites and the Philistines drew up opposite each other in battle array.
David entrusted what he had brought to the keeper of the baggage and hastened to the battle line, where he greeted his brothers.
While he was talking with them, the Philistine champion, by name Goliath of Gath, came up from the ranks of the Philistines and spoke as before, and David listened.
When the Israelites saw the man, they all retreated before him, very much afraid.
The Israelites had been saying: "Do you see this man coming up? He comes up to insult Israel. If anyone should kill him, the king would give him great wealth, and his daughter as well, and would grant exemption to his father's family in Israel."
David now said to the men standing by: "What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and frees Israel of the disgrace? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine in any case, that he should insult the armies of the living God?"
They repeated the same words to him and said, "That is how the man who kills him will be rewarded."
When Eliab, his oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he grew angry with David and said: "Why did you come down? With whom have you left those sheep in the desert meanwhile? I know your arrogance and your evil intent. You came down to enjoy the battle!"
David replied, "What have I done now?--I was only talking."
Yet he turned from him to another and asked the same question; and everyone gave him the same answer as before.
The words that David had spoken were overheard and reported to Saul, who sent for him.)
Then David spoke to Saul: "Let your majesty not lose courage. I am at your service to go and fight this Philistine."
But Saul answered David, "You cannot go up against this Philistine and fight with him, for you are only a youth, while he has been a warrior from his youth."
Then David told Saul: "Your servant used to tend his father's sheep, and whenever a lion or bear came to carry off a sheep from the flock,
I would go after it and attack it and rescue the prey from its mouth. If it attacked me, I would seize it by the jaw, strike it, and kill it.
Your servant has killed both a lion and a bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will be as one of them, because he has insulted the armies of the living God."
David continued: "The LORD, who delivered me from the claws of the lion and the bear, will also keep me safe from the clutches of this Philistine." Saul answered David, "Go! the LORD will be with you."
Then Saul clothed David in his own tunic, putting a bronze helmet on his head and arming him with a coat of mail.
David also girded himself with Saul's sword over the tunic. He walked with difficulty, however, since he had never tried armor before. He said to Saul, "I cannot go in these, because I have never tried them before." So he took them off.
Then, staff in hand, David selected five smooth stones from the wadi and put them in the pocket of his shepherd's bag. With his sling also ready to hand, he approached the Philistine.
With his shield-bearer marching before him, the Philistine also advanced closer and closer to David.
When he had sized David up, and seen that he was youthful, and ruddy, and handsome in appearance, he held him in contempt.
The Philistine said to David, "Am I a dog that you come against me with a staff?" Then the Philistine cursed David by his gods
and said to him, "Come here to me, and I will leave your flesh for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field."
David answered him: "You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel that you have insulted.
Today the LORD shall deliver you into my hand; I will strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will leave your corpse and the corpses of the Philistine army for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field; thus the whole land shall learn that Israel has a God.
All this multitude, too, shall learn that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves. For the battle is the LORD'S, and he shall deliver you into our hands."
The Philistine then moved to meet David at close quarters, while David ran quickly toward the battle line in the direction of the Philistine.
David put his hand into the bag and took out a stone, hurled it with the sling, and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone embedded itself in his brow, and he fell prostrate on the ground.
(Thus David overcame the Philistine with sling and stone; he struck the Philistine mortally, and did it without a sword.)
Then David ran and stood over him; with the Philistine's own sword (which he drew from its sheath) he dispatched him and cut off his head.When they saw that their hero was dead, the Philistines took to flight.
Then the men of Israel and Judah, with loud shouts, went in pursuit of the Philistines to the approaches of Gath and to the gates of Ekron, and Philistines fell wounded along the road from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron.
On their return from the pursuit of the Philistines, the Israelites looted their camp.
4 David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he kept Goliath's armor in his own tent.
(When Saul saw David go out to meet the Philistine, he asked his general Abner, "Abner, whose son is that youth?" Abner replied, "As truly as your majesty is alive, I have no idea."
And the king said, "Find out whose son the lad is."
So when David returned from slaying the Philistine, Abner took him and presented him to Saul. David was still holding the Philistine's head.
Saul then asked him, "Whose son are you, young man?" David replied, "I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem."


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.
Chapter 6
Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."
Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.
She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday, gave a banquet for his courtiers, his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.
Herodias's own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl, "Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you."
He even swore (many things) to her, "I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom."
She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the Baptist."
The girl hurried back to the king's presence and made her request, "I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist."
The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head. He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl. The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Context and Iconography:  Overall, the image uses linear perspective to unify the image but still uses some of the old traditional tools of the continuous narrative that we see in Nicola Pisano's Nativity and Masaccio's work.  In the background, through the arches, servants carry the head on a tray.
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 afemme 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 indistinguishable.

Donatello, St. Mark 1411-13
Orsanmichele and is in the Arte dei Linauiulo e Rigattieri niche
Florence, Italy

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.


 Dennis Nolasco
 Art History 103B
 April 16, 2001
The Vigilance of St. Mark over the Florentine People
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.
Works Cited
Hartt, Frederick, and Carole Gold Calo, ed. “Art and Freedom in Quattrocento Florence.”
Viewpoints: Readings in Art History. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001
“Mark, Saint,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001
 16 Aug. 2001
Tansey, Richard G., and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 10th ed. Fort 
Worth: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996.

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