The ultimate paragon of male beauty?

Speaking to BBC Culture, Jason Arkles, a Florence-based sculptor, teacher and art historian, and host of the podcast The Sculptor’s Funeral, is clearly in the second camp. “There is no sexual aspect apart from his genitals are showing,” he says. “Art is nothing without context. If you don’t understand why a sculpture was made then you’re missing most of the story.” Works of art at the time were always commissioned, he stresses. “They’re not just objects of beauty or vehicles of self-expression.”  

Much has been made of the sensuous feathers running up David’s inner thigh, but Arkles’s explanation, as a sculptor, is far more pragmatic: “Donatello was building an armature, the likes of which he hadn’t seen. It was bigger and had to be completely hidden within the figure itself.” The wing running up the leg simply strengthens the weakest part of the sculpture. That any artist would risk their livelihood by expressing deeply personal thoughts in a commission is highly unlikely, says Arkles. Donatello was probably just “getting over a couple of technical hurdles”, he says, “rather than deciding, with this one statue out of his entire career, to fly his flag.”

Line of beauty

Sixty years later, Michelangelo would support his nude David in a similar place by sculpting a tree stump behind one leg in an otherwise empty tableau. Goliath has disappeared from the artwork and the boy hero, gathering his courage to do battle, commands all our attention. Where Donatello’s life-sized bronze raised eyebrows, Michelangelo’s super-sized David (1501-4), the most famous David of all, also elicited strong reactions when the marble sculpture took up a prominent position in Florence’s main square.

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