Donatello's David wields ambiguous, baffling power


April 13, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

FLORENCE, Italy -- Michelangelo's statue of David here in the Accademia Gallery is one of the most famous sculptures in the world. Hundreds of people come to see it every day, from everywhere.

The Michelangelo David is so well-known it is one of those few works of high art exploited commercially. It is put on T-shirts, sweat shirts and even aprons, so that people back home can know you've been to Florence as you cook the burgers. Posters of it are sold in the streets, and reproductions of it in some kind of white composition material are turned out without number from Florentine factories. You can have a David for your desk, den or --board.

It is an icon of art whose power has been eroded by the unending reproduction of it. It is boring, but not only for reasons of over-familiarity. Michelangelo's David looks like a quarterback emerging from the shower, powerful, utterly male. He fulfills all preconceptions of hero-hood. There are no surprises.

There are several Davids in Florence. One is Verrocchio's David in the Bargello sculpture gallery. He looks like Peter Pan, a playful boy foaming with his youth. And there is Donatello's David, also in the Bargello. This one raises endless questions and answers none. It exists in accord with not a single idea that we might have about where the nature of heroism resides in human beings, or about the boy called David who grew up to be a king in Israel.

And yet people who see it for the first time are clearly impressed, for it is one of Donatello's masterworks. Some are repelled by it. Most appear puzzled. People scratch their heads, as the American couple did, who kept returning to it from different parts of the room where it is displayed, walking around it, wondering. They left the room, came back. It wouldn't let them go.

Donatello was working in Florence in the 15th century, before Michelangelo was born. His frescoes, sculptures and paintings are all over the city. He was serious, devout, not known as a joker.

The first point to be made about the Donatello David is that it is exciting, and not just because it is unfamiliar. It is exciting because it captures the most triumphant moment in the biblical story: It is the instant after David has decapitated Goliath. His public life has begun.

Michelangelo's David is already a young man. Donatello's David stands at the crucial divide of puberty, and from the way the boy presents himself it is not certain which way he will go.

This isn't the hero we are accustomed to. It is a young boy, that is obvious. But the pose is feminine: He is a being of ambiguous sexuality. The right hand daintily grips the handle of the sword; the left hand holds the lethal rock. His foot rests on the giant's head.

So who got it right?

If the point was to reinforce and continue the image of heroism that is bound up with male prowess at combat then it is Michelangelo.

If the point was to emphasize the immensity of the heroism, then maybe Donatello did. For who could believe that such a youngster, undeveloped physically, teetering on the edge of his own sexuality, could have the presence of mind to march onto a dusty field full of men screaming out their blood lust, and the strength and sang-froid to smack a thug like Goliath between the eyes with a rock? Donatello's David had to overcome much more than the giant.

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