Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Both Donatello’s conception of David’s encounter with the Philistine champion, Goliath, and the version wrought by Michelangelo some seventy years later arose from specific political challenges. In the mid-fifteenth century, Florence faced the Milanese Sforza menace. As the century progressed, the Medici family, long ascendant in the city, confronted a republican insurgency which finally expelled them in 1494. By the time Michelangelo had finished work on his David, the resurgent Medici, themselves, were the chief threat to the city’s inhabitants. However, the particular circumstances in each case have resulted in very divergent figures.
Donatello’s statue reflects a triumphalist view of his patrons’ social position in Italy. He depicts the moment of victory. The severed head of the giant lies beneath the boot of a soft, barely adolescent boy with long, flowing tresses. Donatello's choice emphasizes the power of a family at the height of its fortunes.The statue was intended for display in the courtyard of a Medici palace and would impress both guest and passers-by as a symbol, not only of the family’s political potency, but also of its wealth and refinement. To this end, Donatello depicts the victor as an idealized object of desire whose slight military equipage radically offsets his delicate, alluring nudity. Instead of a hardened soldier’s rugged form, we behold an ethereal figure, symbolically defeating a brutish colossus. This is how the Medici preferred to see themselves – not debased by the rough and tumble of Italian politics, but transcending it. Though victorious, they are almost impervious to its coarseness.
Michelangelo’s composition, on the other hand, was finished in circumstances of looming menace from the Medici exiles. He takes as his subject a moment of defiance before the battle ensues. David's sling is readied over his left shoulder as he gazes intently at his foe. Unlike the relaxed contrapposto posture adopted by Donatello, every muscle is tensed and ready to spring into action in defense of the city. Michelangelo’s warrior is bold, mature and committed. Though beautiful, he is no mere love object. The statue was intended for placement on the Duomo, turned toward Rome, the direction from which the invading army was likely to come. It makes a statement. “We are ready to meet your challenge. We will defend our hard-won republic to the last man.”

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