{Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence}

What makes Donatello’s sculptures so compelling?

Born in Florence in 1386, Donatello was, and remains to be, celebrated as one of the most skilled sculptors of the Renaissance. Studying under the likes of Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, he developed a style influenced heavily by the Classical language of architecture but not restricted to this. He used materials ranging from wood to bronze and produced statues in the round, bas-reliefs, and larger architectural reliefs, all executed with the utmost elegance and precision. It was Donatello’s capability to tell a story through his works, which is a direct product of his interest in the human psychological and emotional experience, that makes his sculptures so captivating. However, it is undeniable that his technical talent and style ultimately allowed him to be so successful in conveying a narrative and so plays a fundamental role in the success of his work.

At very first glance, Donatello’s bronze David could be any young boy. Created in the 1440s, the life-like statue is thought to have been commissioned by Cosimo De Medici, to stand in the centre of the courtyard of the Old Medici palace as a statement of religious diligence, a comment on the Medici as they saw themselves. Interestingly, both Donatello’s David and his Judith and Holofernes evoke references to the two celebrated instances of tyrannicide which would have been known to the Florentine elite: The attempted murder of Hippias of Athens, and the murder of Julius Caesar. The anti- tyrannical descriptions at the base of both of these statues suggests that this is a deliberate link and so the meaning which Donatello’s works take on is a much broader metaphorical one, as Sarah Blake McHam argues in her essay “Donatello’s Bronze “David” and “Judith” as metaphors of Medici rule in Florence”. The choice to have David commissioned could either be related to the claim that the Medici were of David’s line or Cosimo’s return from exile in 1434, which would explain the need for this political message in the work. Focusing on the literal meaning, taken from the biblical story of David and Goliath, Donatello here entirely succeeds at producing a detailed narrative of his perception of story by way of his interest into the human experience. Depicting the moment after he has slain the giant Goliath, this is a triumph scene and David looks serenely pleased, knowing he has completed his act of faith and bravery. Donatello subtly incorporates details which speak great volumes about David as a character and about the conquest of good over evil and it is this which makes this statue so mesmerizing and such a consistently relevant work. The bronze David stands in contrapposto, using his weapon as a stick to rest on. His hip protrudes and he sinks into it, head slightly inclined as if to suggest his quiet pride. He wears a hat rather than any armour, and an elaborate one at that. While he does not display the typical ‘heroic’ build (muscular, defined etc.), his slightly softer lines serve to highlight how this sort of act of heroism is not built into him; he is the unlikely hero, the power of God his armor. As Richard Williams argues (“Virtus perficitur: on the meaning of Donatello’s Bronze david”), “this statue’s presence in the semi public spaces of the Medici palace would have delivered a very clear message to visitors… [it] would have been understood to express the Medici’s awareness that they owed their position of power less to their own power than to the mercy of God”, as David himself does. The effeminate and slight boy is further dwarfed by the size of the sword beside him and the immensity of Goliath’s decapitated head on which he places his foot on. David’s face is thought to have taken influence from statues of Antinous, a favourite of the emperor Hadrian, an example of Brunelleschi drawing from classical works and one of the bases for the viewpoint which many take: that this David is a product of homoerotic curiosity for Donatello to indulge in his fantasies with. It is startlingly different to Donatello’s earlier ‘marble David’ which displays a more gothic style, influences of Ghiberti characterizing the more ‘bland,’ as it has been called, statue. While obviously the execution of the piece, the attention to detail in his physique and the skin-like quality of the bronze finish, allows the narrative elements to be received effectively, I do not really think the material or technicality here play a particularly significant role in this statue’s impact on the viewer and so this statue aligns with the statement posed.

In his Penitent Magdalene, once more Donatello’s interest in the human emotional experience is the most significant feature in a statue’s ability is to captivate an audience, however, this statue’s materials and Donatello’s stylistic choices contribute notably, in a way not visible in his David. The statue was commissioned by the Florence Baptistery and completed between 1453-1455. It is wooden and vastly different from the common depictions of Mary Magdalene at the time, which depict her as beautiful and in perfect help. Contrastingly, Donatello’s sculpture is strikingly gaunt and rugged, conveying the hardship which Mary endured due to her penitence (in the form of 30 years spent in the desert) after her life of sin. The fact that this sculpture is named what it is, is testament to the significance of the emotion Donatello infuses this work with. It has become “one of the most famous expressions of female emotion in the history of Western art”, “an iconic image of a suffering woman”, Martha Levine Dunkleman argues, and I would agree. It is hard to find a work which produces a more intense emotional effect; we can feel her pain and regret through a screen, imagine standing in front of the life-size work. Ignoring Western versions of the story, in which Mary is fed daily by angels during her time in the desert, Donatello draws from orthodox depictions and focuses on the physical toll of her experience and the ruined glamour of sufferance. His rough, sharp carving renders her eyes deeply set and her cheekbones bursting through her skin. Her head is tilted in modesty and repentance and her hands are pressed together in prayer, an incredible realism on the skin and muscles on her arms which suggest an idea that despite her hunger, she has a certain pious strength. Though almost invisible today, we know that gold leaf paint would have streaked her tumbling hair, which blends with the animal skin she is modestly clothed in. The viewer is immediately immersed in the story which Donatello aims to tell, drawn in and simultaneously repulsed by the figure whose complete lack of beauty characterises her most prominently. The epitome of a compelling sculpture, the Penitent Mary is perhaps the most obvious example of Donatello’s focus on the human experience and is also I would argue his most intriguing sculpture thus supporting this essay’s titular claim.

In his Feast of Herod, Donatello presents a detailed and dynamic account of the biblical story (as told in Mark 6:21-28) yet I would argue that the success of this piece is not a result of a focus on the emotional experience of the figures, though this is present, but rather is a result of his exploration of composition and innovative use of perspective. The Feast of Herod is a gilded bronze relief sculpture created by Donatello circa 1427. It appears on the baptistry font of the Siena Cathedral, for which it was commissioned alongside various other panels by other artists, and is one of Donatello’s earliest relief sculptures, and his first of these in bronze. The 60cm by 60 cm panel showcases an astute understanding of perspective, making this piece a reference point for many artists of the future. The moment depicted is that when, at the request of Salome, John the Baptist’s head is presented to King Herod on a plate, and knowing the mistake which has been made and what the repercussions are likely to be, Herod is entirely shocked, as are his party. While the faces of the king and his guests are appropriately charged with emotion, the dramatic effect of this piece is a result of the placement of elements within the plane. The way that the figures are situated around the table is reminiscent of the last supper scene, which is an intriguing parallel on the part of Donatello. They are dynamic and while some draw back, others surge forwards in curiosity. Herod himself recoils. The classical arches and profiles of background figures flesh this scene out, making it more realistic and allowing Donatello to display his love of architecture and skill at the difficult art of perspective, which Brunelleschi likely aided him in cultivating. This is an example of a continuous narrative which allows multiple key aspects of a plot to be explored. For example, Salome is still dancing here, though the head is being presented which is supposed to have happened much later in the story. The soldier and Salome in the foreground are in high relief yet a second plane is created behind these figures, which includes Herod and the guests. The back of the room is constructed from a wall topped by an arcade of three visible arches behind which two more planes provide even further depth. The fact that he manages to create such a depth in a bronze relief is impressive and absolutely fundamental to the successful reception of this piece and its compelling effect. Therefore while the emotional reaction of the figures is important to the narrative aspect of this piece, it is an example of a work where the appeal comes from a technical aspect rather than the study of human experience. To conclude, though the human experience is integral to the narrative feature of most of his works, sculptures such as The Feast of Herod display a focus on other aspects yet a similarly mesmerizing result. Despite such examples, however, I would argue that although Donatello’s skill at executing his ideas enabled him to explore concepts of the human experience and emotion in such a fulfilling way, they only served to enhance and amplify the effects of this exploration which in itself is behind the compelling quality which Donatello’s sculptures exude.