The division of Renaissance art into three distinct periods began with Giorgio Vasari, the great Florentine art historian and chronicler of the lives of the artists. Vasari concluded, based on his universally accepted perception of Michelangelo as "Il Divino," that Renaissance art reached its most sublime expression in the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. However, some modern art historians wonder how valid or valuable this categorization and consequential value judgment is. Roberta J.M. Olson challenges the very existence of a "High Renaissance," on the grounds that "the term is artificial, a qualitative judgment of 'High' signifying the best," (149). Surely, there are noticeable differences in the vivid expressions of Italian Renaissance art from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Art from the early period of the Renaissance sprouted from the preceding medieval and Gothic artistic traditions, with their emphasis on dramatic facial expressions and compositions. This is especially evident in the sculptural arts, those three-dimensional figures that rendered the human form with increasing idealism. This trend toward idealistic renditions of the human face and figure directly derived from a revived interest in the Classical arts of ancient Greece and Rome. In fact, Renaissance art in general is defined by its classical motifs, materials, and mannerisms. "The tentative introduction of motifs derived from classical art into an otherwise Gothic scheme heralded the coming of the Renaissance," (Avery 32). Donatello signified this coming together of two artistic and philosophical traditions in the early periods of the Renaissance in Florence. A century later, Michelangelo Buonarotti built upon Donatello's earlier contributions to Italian art, and sculpture in particular. Although the works of Michelangelo defy categorization, his is generally considered to be "instrumental in creating the High Renaissance," and is heralded as that period's hallmark (Avery 168). Of all the works available for research by art historians, the two that most epitomize their periods and styles and which are most easily comparable because of their similar subject matter are Donatello's and Michelangelo's statues of David.
Donatello was first employed as an apprentice to Ghiberti, and by 1408 he was commissioned to do a sculpture of David to be used as an architectural feature for a Florentine cathedral. At the time, life-sized, free-standing sculptures were unusual commissions, as most were designed to be integral to buildings. However, in 1416, Donatello's David, which was cast in bronze, was sold to the city as an independent work of art. It was placed in the Palazzo della Signoria, and this movement was significant in defining the political, social, and economic climate that distinguished the Renaissance from the Gothic periods which predated it. Namely, art became increasingly secularized in the fifteenth century. This secularization was evident not only in the wealth of corporate commissions, but also in the treatment of religious subject matter as the Biblical tale of David and Goliath. In fact, both Donatello and Michelangelo's David sculptures seem so far removed from their religious origins that today many viewers forget the association. Donatello's David, in particular, marked the momentous break; it "converted (David) from an Old Testament figure into a partly secular civic hero," (Olson 48). The differences between earlier Gothic art and David's facial expressions, his posture, and especially his lack of clothing indicate that the sculpture "teeters between the Gothic and Renaissance worlds," (Olson 48).
Ironically, as art became more secular in its patronage, placement, and portrayal of figures, Donatello interpreted the slaying of Goliath with greater allegiance to the Bible. His David is notably young, an adolescent boy who rather than being a wealthy king is a peasant hero. Donatello's treatment of David suggests the boy's physical prowess secondary was to his divine inspiration. Olson notes that "Donatello's David is unconventional -- his slightness and youth deriving from textual sources rather than visual traditions where it was customary to depict him as a king, not a shepherd," (84).
Moreover, Donatello's David signifies the budding Renaissance style because it incorporates distinctive classical elements. These elements would later mature in the corresponding David by Michelangelo. Nevertheless, while Donatello preserved Biblical accuracy in his rendition of David slaying Goliath, he also paid tribute to the sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome. His David, in fact, is almost Mercurial with its pagan-influenced hat and its adorning wreath. Here, Christianity and paganism coexist in one statue. Michelangelo's later version had none of this; in fact, Michelangelo did away with the image of Goliath altogether to focus solely on the stature of the hero -- as if he perceived David as more of an ancient athlete than a Christian warrior. Similarly, Michelangelo underemphasized the actual struggle between David and Goliath: instead of a sword placed valiantly in the foreground as it is in Donatello's, Michelangelo's David sports a barely noticeable sling. The viewer must encircle the colossal statue to see the weapon at all. On the contrary, Donatello's David not only sports a sword, he leans on it proudly, emphasizing his victorious deed. That the sword is an integral part of Donatello's sculptural composition indicates the artist's interpretation of the character of the young David.
Donatello's David was the first free-standing, life-sized nude of the Renaissance, indeed of the previous millennia. Nudity was revived during this time in honor of the classical traditions, but was imbued with Christian values of innocence and purity. Donatello's David does not totally capture the classical spirit, however. Its body is not nearly as idealized as those sculptures of Greek and Roman heroes. Likewise, his face is turned down, "cast in shadow," and was "never meant to be fully seen," (Olson 84). The bronze medium is ideal for Donatello's David because it captures the underlying sensuality of the young boy. His pose is defiant: left hand placed casually on his hip, his right hand still brandishing the sword with which he slay the monster at his feet. The various curves and linear shifts evoke a natural but innocent eroticism in Donatello's David. David is not portrayed in a sexual manner, but the sculpture is nevertheless suggestive.
Michelangelo's David is no less sensual or suggestive. The master's work conveys an older, more mature David than Donatello's. His manly visage contrasts with the more androgynous one of Donatello's. Although both Davids display their full, flowing locks of hair proudly, Michelangelo's wears no hat, nor is he adorned with anything but the sling on his shoulder. Michelangelo's David is rendered in a more traditionally classical manner. The body and face are more idealized, and thus more in line with sculpture from ancient Greece and Rome. Unlike Donatello's David, Michelangelo's "marble giant was so conceived that it conveyed an eternal image of spiritual courage and physical energy without the need for a symbolic weapon," (Avery 178). Michelangelo's David assumes a similar stance to Donatello's, but without supporting his weight on the sword. This is symbolic of a newer interpretation of the Biblical hero: he is more filled with manly physical power and idealized human strength. This further flourishing of the classical humanist ideal characterizes Michelangelo's David as being of the period known as "High Renaissance." On the other hand, Donatello's David still contains remnants of earlier periods of art, namely the Gothic tradition. Thus, his work belongs to the early Renaissance period of Florentine sculpture.
One of Donatello's characteristic techniques is his foreshortening of forms to create the desired visual effect. Charles Avery notes that "the eventual effect of foreshortening is typical of Donatello's rational attitude towards his art," (55). This "rational attitude" also signified the commencement of the Renaissance and the break from the medieval and Gothic periods. The neck is one body part noticeably foreshortened in Donatello's David. The sculptor compensates for this by the long hair caressing the figure's shoulders, and by the turned-down head. However, Olson detects an exceptionally long neck in Donatello's David, which the author perceives as having "jarring but interesting proportions" possibly related to his "juvenile status," (48). In any case, Michelangelo's David has a thicker and more defined neck; his head turned sideways indicates the figure's confidence and composure, while it also shows off his handsome and finely chiseled facial features. Michelangelo carved hands of immensely larger proportion than Donatello did; the latter might be due to the sculptor's tendency toward foreshortening to convey perspective. One must remember that in Donatello's time, free-standing sculptures like Michelangelo's David were rare. Sculpture was usually used to decorate buildings and was thus often placed high above the viewer's eye.
The chest of Michelangelo's David is broader, though not much more muscular, than Donatello's. Both sculptors render torso curves with aplomb. However, because the media of bronze and marble are so different, certain sculptural details cannot be reasonably compared between the two works. Again, Michelangelo's David is completely nude; his persona seeps through his valiant stance and his glorified physique. His hands and feet are huge, and the man needs no weapon to lean on. Donatello's more youthful and brash David dons armored boots, in addition to leaning on his long sword.…