Donatello’s Bronze David is the highlight of Florence’s Bargello Museum.

Recently restored on-site in the museum so as not to remove it from view, it is now in Milan for a short visit on occasion of the trade show “Campionaria delle qualita’ italiane”. There’s a little buzz in the local papers about the appropriateness of this venue for Donatello’s work.


The Anglo community newspaper The Florentine asked for readers’ opinions on the question of the physical as well as cultural risk of moving the David, and on the appropriateness of moving Donatello’s sculpture to Milan for the trade show. Their article seems prompted by a polemical article in the Corriere Fiorentino by art historian Tommaso Montanari (no link provided, unable to find online). As summarized by the author of the article in The Florentine, amongst other things, Montanari maintains that the David should not “be used to fulfill the ministry’s [Sandro Bondi’s] latest cultural mission to bring Italy’s greatest artworks to the people, instead of bringing people to see the art.” Interestingly, thus, Montanari sees the move of the David as part of the same movement that prompted the loan of the Chimaera of Arezzo, yet as far as I know, he has not (yet) protested that loan despite the Etruscan Bronze being perhaps the most important work on display in the Archaeological Museum.

This is my response to The Florentine

You ask an interesting question with regards to the appropriateness of Donatello’s Bronze David in the context of a trade fair devoted to Italian competitiveness, innovation, and craftsmanship. In this show, the sculpture is intended to represent “made in Italy” and the Italian economy. Putting the work in its historical context indicates that on one hand the characterization within a competitive ambiance of artistic excellence is appropriate, but the Italy-wide and economic aspect is ahistorical.

We don’t really know the context of the commission for the bronze David; it’s assumed that it was a Medici commission and destined for the courtyard of their palace because it was documented there in 1469. In 1495, during a Medici exile, the statue was ‘adopted’ by the republican government and put in a courtyard in the Palazzo Vecchio. While they took the Judith and Holofernes by the same artist and adapted its meaning to their political aims, the David stood inside, his adolescent cockyness unfit for public eyes.

This private placement reflects the style, subject, and context of the work’s creation. In the 1440s, Donatello also made other weird bronze sculptures – the other great example, also in the Bargello, is the Attis-Amor, a putto in chaps with winged sandals, a tail, and poppies on his belt, whose meaning is extremely unclear. Artists and patrons in the mid-Quattrocento loved a good iconographic mystery; it made for good after-dinner conversation and massaged viewers’ egos. Donatello was taking on a challenge when he made this work. His subject matter is the well-known David, but his approach to the figure is innovative, in that it is different from works that preceeded it. It has inexplicable details like the costume and the designs on Golaith’s helmet. As the recent restoration reveals, the artist’s choice of bronze has a luscious warm effect that is highlighted with gold leaf. This subversively sexy David must have been a very private commission in which the artist innovated and competed with the past. As for craftsmanship there is no question that the bronze pour was a technical success; the new cleaning and display of the work allows us to see its perfection up close, and even observe some small unplugged holes that Donatello thought we’d never notice.

But the innovation, competition, and craftsmanship of this Renaissance sculptor took place within a private, limited, local, and scholarly ambiance that is totally different from that which can be represented by a modern trade show. Obviously, in the Quattrocento there was no Italy, no made-in-Italy, and no penninsula-wide unified economy. Donatello worked within an elite market of humanists, not as an exporter of quality goods. If I were to choose a better representative work from the Renaissance, it would be a bolt of quality wool made in Prato or Florence. Now that’s a commercial product that was appreciated across Europe, and that contemporaries mentioned in letters as being of much better quality than that produced anywhere else.

campionariaI think there’s nothing wrong with the David being absent from the Bargello for a month, but that the choice of this work as a representative of Italian production is ahistorical. The trade show’s slogan “I Capolavori delle aziende italiane… più uno” shows that it was a stretch even for them to accommodate Donatello’s David into the meaning of the show.


INFO: 18,000 Milanesi went to view Donatello’s Bronze David for free over the weekend of May 7-10 at Fieramilanocity.  David will be staying in Milan until May 31 2009, and can be viewed for free.

Open: 10.00-19.00
Fieramilanocity, Piazzale Carlo Magno 1, 20149 Milano

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