Donatello's bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici rule in Florence.

Author:McHam, Sarah Blake

For all the individual analyses of Donatello's bronze David and Judith and Holofernes, these sculptures have rarely been considered jointly, despite the fact that they were displayed in coordinated outdoor spaces of the Medici Palace for about thirty years. I argue here that their iconography was meant to evoke republican themes, well known to the Florentine elite, that the Medici aimed to embrace and co-opt. (1) The associated meanings of the David and the Judith and Holofernes were signaled by their related inscriptions. As I shall demonstrate by reference to Greek and Roman authors, particularly Pliny the Elder, these two works drew on descriptions of the Athenian statue group called the Tyrannicides, and on the writings of the twelfth-century English theologian John of Salisbury, all well known in fifteenth-century Florence, for the purpose of creating a visual rhetoric insinuating that the Medici were defenders of Florentine liberty. These literary and artistic sources combine with the two sculptures' re lated size and material to strengthen the likelihood that the David and the Judith and Holofernes were intended as pendants. Together the sculptures conveyed the controversial, self-serving message that the family's role in Florence was akin to that of venerable Old Testament tyrant slayers and saviors of their people, symbolically inverting the growing chorus of accusations that the Medici had become tyrants who had sucked all real power out of the city's republican institutions.

The Statues' Setting

Donatello's bronze sculptures of Judith and Holofernes (Fig. 1) and David (Fig. 2), according to evidence recently uncovered in contemporary sources, stood respectively in the Medici Palace garden and courtyard by 1469, possibly even as early as 1464-66. (2) They remained in these adjoining locations until 1495, after the Medici were expelled from Florence in the previous year. (3) We know that the palace was constructed for Cosimo de' Medici, between 1445 and the mid-1450s, but both sculptures are undocumented commissions. (4) They were installed in the palace within a decade after 1457, the approximate date when Cosimo, his two sons, and their families moved into the recently completed residence. The sculptures' status as two of the earliest freestanding Renaissance statues makes the uncertainties of their dates and patronage particularly tantalizing, because these pieces are crucial to the reconstruction of the history of Italian Renaissance art. (5) Nevertheless, their existence in the Medici Palace court yard and garden for about thirty years allows them to be studied jointly in the context of their placement within the most public spaces of the palace that served as the de facto seat of Florentine political power. Investigation of the sculptures reveals a prime and largely unexplored example of how Cosimo and Piero de' Medici contributed to the creation of a family imagery in the secular context most closely identified with it, the newly constructed palace on the Via Larga. (6)

The bronzes were focal points of the two connected open spaces, the courtyard and garden (Fig. 3). The axial arrangement of the palace's main entrance and courtyard means that the David, which was raised on a high base at the center of the courtyard, was visible even from the street when the main portal of the palace was open. (7) Although there is no certainty about the precise position of the Judith and Holofernes in the garden, (8) since the garden was just behind the courtyard, the sculpture could have been visible from the courtyard if it was situated on the garden-courtyard axis. Nevertheless, as the courtyard was open to palace visitors and the garden to an invited group, the two statues were readily accessible to the desired audience. (9)

The family's suites were grouped around the palace's most striking innovation all'antica, the first colonnaded courtyard of the Renaissance, in which the David was positioned centrally. The courtyard, whose proportions and regular shape determined the impressive symmetry of the palace's plan, established a new type of interior formal space that came to supplant the exterior loggia on the Medici and other Florentine palaces as the site of formal receptions and family rituals. Behind it, the walled garden, with arcaded loggias at its north and south sides, provided a more private outdoor area, which was sometimes open to guests to the palace and used in conjunction with the central court when magnificent occasions, such as the wedding of Lorenzo de' Medici and Glance Orsini in 1469, demanded additional space. (10)

The Medici family expended considerable attention on the decorative program for the courtyard and garden. Complementing the classicizing columns in the courtyard were sgraffito decoration of garlands and shields decorated with the Medici palle (or balls), as well as a series of roundels above the arcade of the courtyard. These stone roundels, of uncertain date and attribution, seem like large-scale sculptures derived from ancient gems and incised precious stones acquired by the Medici. Perhaps they were intended to remind the visitor of the family's prestigious collection and interest in antiquity. (11) There were ancient sculptures flanking the interior portals of the garden, notably, two of Marsyas on either side of the exit to the Via de' Ginori. (12)

David as a Tyrant Slayer

The recent discovery of the inscription once on the David ("The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe. Behold! A boy overcame a great tyrant. Conquer, o citizens!") (13) seems to calm the controversy as to whether the sculpture indeed represents the young giant slayer, at least on a primary level. (14) The inscription does not, however, narrow the range of dates for the sculpture, which different historians have placed as early as about 1428-30 and as late as after 1460. (15) Most scholars agree, however, that the Judith and Holofernes probably dates after Donatello's return to Florence from Padua, in 1453. Since the statue was recorded in the garden of the Medici Palace by 1469, possibly as early as 1464, it was most likely executed in the late 1450s or early 1460s and commissioned by Cosimo or Piero de' Medici. (16) If the late dating of the David proves correct, then it could have been commissioned by the Medici together with the Judith, but at this point there is insufficient evidence to confirm the theory.

The historical context of the bronze David provides some necessary background. Although very different in material and style from Donatello's earlier marble David (Fig. 4), it repeats the theme of David triumphantly standing with one foot on Goliath's decapitated head. Because David's identity as a victorious warrior has become so familiar to us through such later sculptures as Michelangelo's colossal David, we overlook that before Donatello's marble sculpture almost every representation of David interpreted him in other ways, as a king, prophet, writer of the Psalms, or ancestor of Christ. (17)

Documents indicate that in 1416 the marble David was transferred from the workshop at the cathedral of Florence and installed in the Palazzo della Signoria before a pattern of heraldic lilies painted expressly to complement it. (18) Its site at the seat of government against a backdrop of symbolic lilies, the emblems of Florence's alliance with the Angevin dynasty, argues that the theme was interpreted in political terms. Supporting evidence was recently found by Maria Monica Donato, who discovered two manuscript accounts that describe the Palazzo della Signoria in the early fifteenth century. They allude to an inscription, "To those who bravely fight for the fatherland god will offer victory even against the most terrible foes." (19) The manuscripts validate H. W. Janson's earlier, unproved speculation that this inscription might have been added to the sculpture by 1416, and that Donatello then recut the figure to emphasize a new political role for David as a defender of Florence by baring his left leg and r emoving the scroll formerly used to identify David as a prophet. (20)

The placement of the bronze David in the courtyard of the Medici Palace with an inscription of patriotic exhortation should be seen as a self-conscious allusion to the earlier marble analogue and its inscription. The marble David was at the time still standing in the priors' meeting hall in the Palazzo della Signoria, which made the Medici's identification with a symbol of the Florentine Republic all the more potent. The decision to situate an emblem of Florentine republican government in their palace could be understood as a sign that the Medici were closely connected to that regime and continued its ideals. Nevertheless, at the same time it represented an unprecedented appropriation by a single family of a corporate symbol of the state and informed the cognoscenti that true power resided several hundred meters north of the Palazzo della Signoria.

Judith as a Tyrant Slayer

David and Judith are partners in meaning, which provides a rationale for their pairing. Both were Old Testament heroes and traditionally linked as saviors of the Jewish people in Jewish and Christian imagery (as in an early medieval fresco at the church of S. Maria Antiqua, Rome, or on Lorenzo Ghiberti's East Doors for the Baptistery, where the statuette of Judith is placed in a niche next to the relief of David Killing Goliath). (21) This partially explains their choice for the public spaces of the Medici Palace, but there were additional reasons for linking the two.

Unlike David, Judith had not been politically associated with Florence, but the textual source, the apocryphal Old Testament Book of Judith, certainly lent itself to a political interpretation and was written to inspire Jewish patriotism. (22) In the medieval period Jewish and Christian writers alike interpreted Judith as a moral...

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