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Talking Location With … author Zoe Disigny: FLORENCE

3rd July 2023

#TalkingLocationWith … Zoe Disigny, author of The Art of Traveling Strangers: FLORENCE

David was a popular subject in Renaissance art, especially in Florence, Italy, where the biblical hero who killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot became the symbol of the invincible city.

Zoe Disigny

The Piazza della Signoria and the Famous Davids of Renaissance Florence

In my novel, The Art of Traveling Strangers, art historian Claire introduces her traveling companion Viv to three Florentine sculptures of David. But there’s more to know about these artworks than my book could tell. So, in this blog, I’ll take you beyond my novel for another look at these masterpieces and how all three are woven into the fabric of fifteenth-century Florence.

Walking tour of Florence from the Piazza della Signoria to the Accademia Googlemaps.com

Donatello, David, photo by author

Cosimo de’ Medici likely commissioned Donatello’s David in the 1440s. The Medici were the unofficial rulers of Florence who embraced humanism and the study of classical antiquity. Donatello’s David resides in the Bargello Museum—an austere medieval fortress and the oldest public building in Florence. The museum sits around the corner from the Piazza della Signoria—the political and civic center of the Florentine Republic and one-time home of all three of our Davids.

Everything about Donatello’s David breaks the medieval mold. Not only does this bronze nude stand on its own with nothing to support it (the first since ancient Roman times), but it’s also strikingly realistic, quite unlike the medieval art that preceded it. So, what changed?

People in the Middle Ages saw the spiritual world as superior to the physical. The human body was simply a shell for the divine soul. But with the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and art, people began to see the body as a reflection of the soul.

Zoe Disigny

David and Goliath Medieval Narrative Capitals in the Basilique Ste-Madeleine, Vezelay, France. Creative commons 2.0 Generic LIcense https://www.flickr.com/photos/art_roman_p/3954808345

Donatello, David, (detail) photo by author

Donatello luxuriates in the beauty of the human body, showing it as sacred as the human spirit. His David celebrates a unique individual—young, unmuscled, and acutely aware of his budding sexuality. His smooth body is physically delicate, and his angelic face is more feminine than masculine.

Did the public object to this effeminate version of David? We don’t know. But since the sculpture was moved from the private courtyard of the Medici Palace to the Piazza della Signoria in the 1490s, we assume it was accepted and admired by the public.

Lately, though, there’s been considerable controversy about this sculpture. Besides the effeminate qualities of the body and face, art historians have noted that David appears to be running his toes through Goliath’s beard and that one wing from Goliath’s helmet seductively climbs David’s right leg to his groin.

Zoe Disigny

Donatello, David, (detail) photo by author

Andrea del Verrocchio, David, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Was the artist gay? Quite possibly. Was his work a reflection of sexual attitudes at the time? Most definitely. As in ancient Greece, homosexuality was commonplace in Renaissance Florence—so much so that the French referred to sodomy as the “Florentine vice,” and the German slang word for a homosexual was “Florenzer.”

The second David on our list is also in the Bargello. It was commissioned around the mid-1460s by Piero de’ Medici but sold in 1476 for display at the Palazzo Vecchio (city hall) in the Piazza della Signoria. Some say the artist, Andrea del Verrocchio, was asked to create this bronze David to rival Donatello’s, which it does admirably.

Instead of depicting a gentle, contemplative nude boy, Verrocchio shows us a wiry youth in a stylish close-fitting jacket who’s more proud than thoughtful about his deed. In both cases, the artists created distinct, believable personalities in free-standing idealized bodies, just like the ancient Romans.

Zoe DisignyOf course, the most famous David of all is Michelangelo’s. Today, it’s located in the Accademia—a ten-minute walk from the Bargello. Although commissioned in 1501 for the Florence Cathedral, it ended up in the Piazza della Signoria, like the other two, as a political rather than religious statement.

When Michelangelo finished his David in 1504, the Medici had been expelled from the city, a new Republic had been formed, and Florence was still reeling from the impact of Savonarola—a charismatic monk who preached against the evils of material excess, the humanism of the Medici, and the immorality of the Catholic Church. Savonarola was burned at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria just five years before Michelangelo’s David was installed there.

Michelangelo’s workshop was behind the cathedral and only a half mile from the Piazza, but it took four days and forty men to roll his David to its destination. During the journey, it was pelted with stones, and within a month of its arrival, the sculpture was draped in a skirt of twenty-eight gilded leaves to hide David’s genitalia.

By the dawn of the sixteenth century, Florence was torn between its admiration for the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome promoted by the Medici and the strict Christian conservatism of Savonarola.



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