Artibus et Historiae no. 65 (XXXIII)

2012, ISSN 0391-9064

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PETER WELLER - A Reassessment in Historiography and Gender: Donatello’s Bronze David in the Twenty-First Century

This essay examines the historiography and gender surrounding Donatello’s bronze David and refutes twentieth-century interpretations of the statue as an instance of intentionally homoerotic art. No single work of Renaissance sculpture has attracted as much argument, with dating, iconography, even the very identity of the figure a subject of scholarly dispute. Arguing from Donatello’s presumed same-sex preference, H. W. Janson, in 1957, maintained in his critical catalogue that the David’s nudity and posture embody a deliberate homoerotic disposition. Janson’s assertion subsequently sparked half a century’s vigorous debate among scholars across disparate methodologies. The case for David’s homoeroticism rests, first, on the figure’s alleged prurient and effeminate physical deportment and, secondly, on the supposition that its iconography is primarily secular – as if primarily religious, Quattrocento sensibilities would have most probably rejected the deliberate eroticizing of such a celebrated ancestor of Christ, venerated in the Gospel according to Mathew. Reviewing in chronological order the historiography in several critical opinions on the David, including the dating and patronage evidence crucial to the argument, this paper contends that the assertion of intentional homoeroticism, assumed from a misleading construal of both the statue’s posture and iconography, is grounded in twentieth-century anachronism.

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