Sunday, October 17, 2010

Donatello's David: Renaissance Florence's relationship with nature

    It could be argued that David was the first erotic representation of personality in the history of art. The classical Greek studies of the male nude are idealised archetypes but they don’t have personal charm. You can’t imagine them talking on the phone or reading a book. They are forever frozen into their one platonic gesture. David though is alive. Almost we can imagine how he would dance, how he would skip down stairs to answer a front door.
But one has to wonder if Donatello was having a laugh at someone’s expense. Surely there was a spry gleam of mischief in his eye when he envisioned the unveiling of his David to the Florentine patriarchs. He wants us to believe his David was capable of bringing down a giant? Yeah, right. With his handbag? Or was it the fey sticky pout, the limp wrist and coy strut of hip that struck fear into the heart of the giant? 
The answer perhaps lies with the nature of the giant. What if the giant Donatello’s David defeated was regenerative Mother Nature – the most implacable and barbaric giant of all? Homoeroticism is an affront to the most fundamental function of nature: the procreative principle. The boastful swagger of Donatello’s David is like a declaration of war to Mother Earth. He seems to be saying, “You won’t be getting any of my seed, love.”

  Florence doesn’t really care for nature. It has a river running through it, a volatile emissary of the earth mother, and it has decorous hills surrounding it. But you won’t see much greenery in the centre. It’s as if anything with shoots or pollen, anything doomed to decay has been surgically removed, like moles or warts. The Renaissance was a kind of war declared on nature. Where’s the nature in Botticelli’s Venus or Flora? They look like manifestations of imagination, stunning silicon androids or angels with no messy interiority. Michelangelo produced an army of virile masculine giants as if for him nature was women who were thus to be avoided at all costs. The one attractive female in his CV presides over her limp lifeless son with a serene look of satisfaction as if it was she herself who sucked all the blood from his neck. Michelangelo is offering us a warning. Nature is a vampire. The artistic sensibility of Renaissance Florence understood this and used art as the apotropaic wooden cross. The only major artist of the Renaissance who didn’t quite elude nature’s vampirism was Leonardo whose pictures often have an ominous looming landscape in the background.  His sfumato style pays homage to nature’s proliferating murk, its blurred withering edges and liquid erosions. It’s as if Leonardo alone was gradually subsumed by nature and as a result produced very little art.  


  1. I always see Leonardo's anatomical drawings as gnarled and twisted trees and tree-roots rather than the human form as I see it - as if man at the time struggled to suck sustenance from the earth in the same way. Interesting opposing metaphors... :)

  2. in a weird touch of nature-feminine-leonardine synchronicity, i read somewhere they were digging up mona lisa in firenze today - is it so??? or was it a twisted hallucinatory anticipation of tomorrow's father day shenanigans which i, thankfully am leaving town to escape?