Raphael / Donatello / Verrocchio / Michelangelo Essay

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Raphael / Michelangelo / Donatello

Raphael's School of Athens is considered a high point of humanism. We can understand this by considering some basic facts about the work: it is a fresco painting done on a wall in the Vatican, arguably the center of Christianity in the world, and yet it depicts a large number of figures, the vast majority of whom had never even heard the name "Jesus Christ." This is not to imply that humanism was somehow a pagan phenomenon (although various humanists ranging from Marsilio Ficino to Giordano Bruno did their best) but rather that one of the most salient effects of Renaissance humanism was the revival of classical learning and the rediscovery and publication of Greek and Latin texts. For example, Plato -- depicted centrally in Raphael's School of Athens, pointing his finger upward toward God and the heavens -- had gone mostly unread for centuries, and his rediscovery in this time period would be due to the efforts of those like Marsilio Ficino, who translated Plato into Latin that he could be more widely read by ordinary educated persons. It is worth noting that even the trompe-l'oeil architecture depicted in Raphael's fresco is itself a symbol of Renaissance humanism, when we recall that classical architecture was revived largely due to the discovery and publication of the ancient text of Vitruvius. Although humanism was nominally Christian, the placement of this fresco in the Vatican demonstrates that it was a Christianity that was willing to indulge pre-Christian philosophy and learning for its own sake, but one can imagine certain religious zealots (such as the notorious Savonarola) to find the depiction of pagan goddesses like Athena (whose marble statue is seen in the niche on the upper right of Raphael's composition) on the Vatican's walls to be a form of sacrilege. But humanism was willing to indulge classical learning for its own sake, and accommodate it syncretically to Christianity if it proved valuable enough.

Three different sculptures of the Old Testament figure of David -- beginning with Donatello's bronze David in the 1440s, followed by Verrocchio's bronze in the 1470s, and culminating with Michelangelo's iconic marble David from around 1500 -- demonstrate, to some extent, the elements of continuity and transformation within the Renaissance itself. If Donatello's David is the earliest, in many ways it is also the most surprising of these three depictions. We certainly have a representation of the Biblical David in terms of his unprepossessing size: Donatello's David has his left foot placed on the mammoth head of Goliath, and Goliath's head appears so large within its military helmet that it looks practically the size of David's belly measured from genitals to sternum. Even if that is an exaggeration for effect, the sword that David holds in his right hand appears too ponderous for him to lift with one arm, and we are led to wonder if he has picked up the vanquished Goliath's sword. The overall effect, though, is clear: we are looking at a boy David, not a male hero. But this does not begin to capture the strangeness of Donatello's depiction here. David is depicted naked, except for a rather comic-looking helmet and sandals. But his long hair and the lack of any particular muscular definition in his frame make the body look feminine: in particular the gentle rounded curve of David's stomach, and the angle of his cocked hip, might have been modeled on a woman. The emphasis seems to be placed on the fact that David defeats Goliath with a slingshot -- a weapon that requires precision and aim rather than overwhelming muscular strength. The sculpture's right arm is practically the only place where particular muscular definition is displayed, insofar as Donatello's David has a slight bicep, and this is the arm that is also holding the stone that brought down the Giant. But the provocative dandy-ish pose of the statue makes it seem like military virtue is hardly the point.

In some sense, Verrocchio's bronze David seems to betray an intimate knowledge of Donatello's earlier depiction. We may assume this because, in many ways, Verrocchio's less well-known bronze seems designed to correct every single error and strangeness in Donatello's original, while maintaining most of the basics of its compositional approach. Verrocchio's David exhibits a remarkably similar pose to Donatello's David: both have the downward-pointing sword in the figure's left hand, while the right has hand on hip with elbow cocked. Both have a placement of the bearded severed head of Goliath at the feet of the main figure, and rely on a contrapposto to cock the right hip and allow the left leg to toy with Goliath's head. But otherwise, every element which appears striking or odd in Donatello's older David has been re-imagined in a more persuasive way. If the hair on Donatello's David hangs down in inappropriate Shirley-Temple-style sausage-ringlets, Verrocchio's David still manages to depict youth with slightly longer hair, but it seems altogether more masculine hair. If Donatello's David seems like a pudgy girl or a prepubescent child in his lack of musculature, Verrocchio has concentrated on making David physically slight yet obviously taut and wiry: bulging veins stand out on the statue's inner right forearm, and the forearm itself swells with muscles. The stomach is taut and lean, and the statue's contrapposto allows an extension of the torso such that we can see the ribcage clearly defined on David's left side. His pectoral muscles and collarbones are clearly delineated, as are the sinews of his neck. In short we have a credible, if ectomorphic, athlete. Unlike Donatello's sculpture, we actually believe that this David could have taken down Goliath with a single stone. Oddly, however, the only thing missing in Verrocchio's David that is present in Donatello's earlier and Michelangelo's later treatments is the stone itself: Verrocchio seems to have decided that the depiction of the gaping wound in the center of Goliath's forehead would serve in its place. And indeed this seems to fit in with the general pattern here of a David that is an explicit critique or reimagining of Donatello's earlier version -- if Donatello's David has just killed Goliath and indeed beheaded him with a sword (possibly Goliath's own sword, to judge from the size contrast between the boy and the weapon in Donatello's bronze), then why is David bothering to hold a stone? Verrocchio loses the stone, but depicts notably the effects of the stone. Perhaps the oddest thing about Verrocchio's David, though, is the way in which it even retains (although again re-imagines) the strangely aestheticized and feminine elements of Donatello's statue. If the rather camp chapeau worn by Donatello's David seems inappropriate for God's own anointed warrior-king, then what are we to say of the Janet-Jackson-style nipple-shields (if that's what they are) worn by Verrocchio's David? These weird rosettes look like the sort of ornament one would find on an armored breastplate -- but Verrocchio's David is not wearing armor, even if he wears slightly more than the hat and boots of Donatello's. Verrocchio's David wears a sort of harness with a highly ornamental hanging palm-frond just below the sternum -- this stretches credibility for the viewer, but does not break it entirely as the nipple-rosettes do. We can only think that somehow Verrocchio felt necessary to retain some version of Donatello's obvious femininity, and did so through ornament. Yet if Verrocchio's statue were as naked as Donatello's is, this David might otherwise be sheer realism.

This finally brings us to Michelangelo's David, which comes as far after Verrocchio's as Verrocchio's does after Donatello's. And it is worth noting that what Michelangelo has abandoned, almost completely, is the Bible story to which the statue is obliged to allude. There is no severed head of Goliath in Michelangelo's version. There is also no clothing whatsoever: if both Donatello and Verrocchio rely in different ways on the clothing to aestheticize and contextualize their statue, Michelangelo gives us a David heroically naked and almost totally devoid of context (except for, crucially, the stone in his left hand. Without any indicator of Goliath's presence, though, we cannot tell how large Michelangelo's David is supposed to be -- the only thing we know is the size of the actual physical statue, which is massive (seventeen feet tall) and more worthy of Goliath than David. But of course Michelangelo displays very little interest in the Old Testament narrative in depicting David here: the total nudity is more Greco-Roman pagan than Biblical Hebrew. If we were told that this figure was depicting whomever brought down Achilles with a single missile-shot to the heel, instead of whomever brought down Goliath with one to the head, it would not be surprising. Although later than Donatello and Verrocchio, Michelangelo here surprisingly depends more heavily on the ancient Classical examples than either of his earlier predecessors. What we do get in Michelangelo's statue, however, is a sense of divine election, the massive confidence that what we are looking at…[continue]

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