xxx Donatello’s David

A Symbol of Florentine Male Culture

If a body of choice existed in Ancient Greece, it was most likely that of a stripling: youthful features, fresh, nubile, on the cusp of manhood. A young male figure represented budding knowledge and potential brilliance. The female body at this time offered no other purpose than to procreate, and while this body was not at a complete loss for intrigue, it had a staunch competitor in the stripling.

By Christian times, new ideas about the female form had certainly developed and a number of works in poetry and art were beginning to celebrate its beauty, but these were only considered acceptable when put in context of the Virgin Mary. In other words, the female body was celebrated even less for its sexuality than in Ancient times. Sanctifying women’s bodies forbade any sexual acts outside of procreation, and this law was not created solely to limit heterosexuality. It also applied to homosexuality. As the sin of sodomy was laid out by Thomas Aquinas, any “unnatural” act involving two men, two women, or male and female that was “contrary to nature” warranted punishment. Sex was understood to be an act between a married man and woman, man over woman, child anticipated. A woman’s purity was her honor, one she and the men responsible for her guarded safely.

Despite the emphasis on the female body during the late medieval period of Italy, men continued to hold a taste for that of the adolescent male. In fact, this emphasis on the female body – even if prude – is considered to have been created partially to dissuade men from engaging in sex with one another. Florentines seemed in fact to prefer these younger males over women, and for this the term “sodomy” has come to reference only “unnatural” sexual acts of the homosexual variety. Evidence from many Italian cities documents this homosexual activity about the time of the early Renaissance and the rediscovery of Antiquity. The Catholic Church expressed embarrassment over it, as Pope Gregory XI demonstrates in his 1376 denunciation of the Florentines’ two most awful sins.

In the whole world I believe there are no two sins more abominable than those that prevail among the Florentines. The first is their usury and infidelity. The second is so abominable that I dare not mention it.

Florence ascended to a dominant status within its region during the 13th through 15th centuries, promulgated by the first sin mentioned by Pope Gregory. International banking filled Florentine aristocrats’ pockets, and this money funded the artists who gave birth to the Renaissance. Cosimo de Medici was the father of this patronic tradition, seeing potential and ingenuity where others only saw insanity or failure. He respected artists and their ways, whether womanizing or temperamental, sensitive or troubled. This exchange of trust enabled an artist such as Donatello the confidence and the means to create the innovations that launched a new era in art, architecture, and human perception. His bronze David is one of the first signals of innovation and it captures his city of origin perfectly—a revival of the antique freestanding nude, a symbol of Florentine victory, and a representation of most every man’s desire.




To understand the meaning of David the geography of gender from late medieval to early Renaissance times must be established. In this society gender roles both in public and private fell under tight constriction. Men ultimately handled the most freedom, though this liberty only went so far as enabling him access to the amount of power, movement, and economical control suitable for his class. He was still expected to conform to an accepted male identity, largely built up by the aforementioned aspects of the male sphere. In all of these matters women and children, both male and female, were denied access. Thus we can see this society built up by two primary spheres: public male and more private female/child. Seclusion of women and children from the public sphere of life was a result of a few factors. With the streets and piazzas dominated by men and adolescent boys, it was unsafe for women or children to travel outdoors unless chaperoned. Both women and young children were vulnerable to injury and sexual assault. A population of women in the streets at any given time except for Sunday, when middle and upper class women accompanied their families to church, would have been composed of either lower class women forced to join the breadwinning population or prostitutes.

The female sex personified the temptress Eve role and was believed to possess an inferior mind and a sexual appetite larger than that of men. Secluding women to the homes of their parents or future husbands reinforced male superiority and prevented women from falling to debauchery. Women can be seen as moving from one house to the next—from casa del padre to casa del marito. Society deemed any unmarried woman over the age of 20 as dishonorable; if she married and became widowed, the dishonor would fall on both the house of her parents and her new home if she did not choose a new husband. While it was written in law that women held the rights to their dowry when widowed, abandoning her husband’s children (not all being hers, most likely) was not a respectable choice. These children were bound to their father’s casa and their deceased father would have left means for their continued support; the woman of the household was under no responsibility to her husband once he was gone in law, only in honor. For it was an honor system that governed a woman’s place in society—her family guarded her honor until she was married and then bestowed the responsibility of her protection to her husband. This honor system upheld female purity as the most vital and redeeming quality in a woman. That money could buy a fortress to prevent any need for a woman to venture outdoors and subject herself to the possibility of sin rendered male economic dominance a requisite to this honor system. While modern opinions concerning the origins of this honor system would warrant a much longer discussion of female gender, we are ignoring modern dialogue and considering instead, to our best ability, attitudes of gender relevant to Donatello’s time. Thus, female gender is really this simple and straight-forward, and men will receive more complex attention.

Boys and Men

With so much emphasis on a man’s role as supporter and protector of his wife and daughters, if he should produce any, the responsibility required of the individual to take on this role took many years of cultivation. In addition to the male and female spheres was an intermediate sphere allotted to adolescent boys, who, unlike female siblings, were given additional training and education and invited to join the male sphere outside the home, but denied the extent of economic and political power which older, married men practiced. It was during these years that young boys came of age both sexually and professionally. Boys also assimilated themselves socially into the larger population of men, often by violent means. Commonly boys would engage in stone throwing—another danger women and children avoided from in their homes—which trained them for the larger shows of violence that characterized warring families at the time. It wasn’t until their late twenties or early thirties that young men established themselves professionally, and it was acquired wealth and notoriety that enabled them to marry and fully establish themselves in the male sphere.

The male sphere was composed of almost all aspects of society outside of the home: schools, sports and entertainments, workshops, guilds, confraternities, the markets, public squares, taverns, and civic life. A hierarchy divided this male domain into its respective classes: nobility, merchant, business and artisan, and worker. A magnified view within these classes exposes a series of social webs which young men spent the first half of their lives weaving. The quantity and quality of a man’s connections enhanced not only his social and professional standing but also protected his life in any given time of feud. A solid network of supporters ensured a man professional success and stability. Just as women were expected to fulfill their passive, virginal role, men were expected to exert their dominance in all realms of life. For this reason the double standard existed that excused men from adultery (so long as the woman was not married) but strongly reprimanded a woman who cheated on her husband. Even though it was believed that a woman’s sexual appetite was greater than a man’s, in such a highly patriarchal society it was to men’s sexuality that judgments catered.

Men had many options that women did not have in terms of sexual partners. None of these options aside from a married man’s wife were technically legal, but they were made available out of the culture’s general forgiveness for male sexuality. In addition to the possibility of having a wife, who was expected to consent to her husband’s wishes so long as they were deemed lawful and natural, a man could satisfy himself with any of his servants or slaves, women on the streets, prostitutes, or young boys. Cases of consensual and nonconsensual sex with married women also existed, though this would not be a respected option, despite the fact that the penalty for the man would have been less than the penalty for the woman. In addition to dominating the male and female sphere, men also dominated the intermediate sphere of adolescent boys. Because boys at this age did not possess equal political or economic power to men over 20 years, sex between older men and younger boys did not challenge contemporary notions of dominant and passive roles. The vast majority of same-sex relations conformed to this age opposition, called pederasty. Derogatory terms only applied to the younger adolescent, all relating him with women: bardassa or bardassuola—nouns of feminine gender, rooted in Arabic for “slave,” that become terms for a young male prostitute (putto), puttane (female prostitute), cagniuola or cagna in gestra (bitch/bitch in heat), come una donna, come una femmina (like a woman), come sua donna, per moglie (like his wife). These terms indicate the lower status allotted to their age group and the fact that it was expected of young men to no longer take the passive role in sex after a certain age if they wanted to be considered a true man.

The age at which young boys morphed into men centers around the age of 20—the cut-off age for women to be married or sent to the convents. This age is reflected in the increased economic power granted to young men at this age; sexual practices also demonstrate that between the ages of 19-21 were watershed years for a young man. In same-sex relations, ninety percent of active partners were over the age of twenty while an equal percentage of passive partners were 19 or under. Some cases involve men of similar ages or reversed roles, but these practices contradicted contemporary definitions of masculinity and sex and were not well-received. Pederasty was generally well-received, especially if it warranted younger boys important social connections or monetary gifts, though its popularity in Florence during the early Renaissance garnered special attention that often turned negative. For this reason it monopolized the term sodomy and earned its own crime committee. Florentines experienced a love-hate relationship with sodomy at this time: almost all of them did it, but their city forbade it. That it was forbidden and punishable produced an associated shame and embarrassment very much unique to the city.



Sodomy as a crime fell into a lot of several other campaigns enacted at the beginning of the 15th century to clean up the city. In 1503 the Officers of Decency were created to monitor the brothels, which were created for the very purpose of preventing men from committing sodomy. Not improving the situation, however, they were supplemented by the Officers of the Night in 1432 who were assigned the task of monitoring sodomy. The Night Officers relied on a team of spies and the general public to offer denunciations. Denounced pairs were interrogated, usually the younger of the pair first who tended to confess more easily, and if two confessions were produced, the team of eight Night Officers voted on the charge. If guilty, men and boys faced fines that ranged from just 10 lire for a young boy to 50 gold florins for a first offense. Yet these fines varied over the course of the Night Officers’ 70-year reign and much evidence shows that they were not meticulous with collecting fines. It seems that the crime was not seen as so offensive that the Florentines considered it worthy of hefty fines at all times, depending on who was the accused and who currently reigned most powerful in Florence.

Sodomy earned Florence its reputation for being so widespread at first. It was considered an odd phenomenon that men seemed to prefer other men over women, especially in light of the city’s need to replenish a population debilitated by the plague. Eventually sodomy earned Florence a reputation as a crime, and in this manner it functioned less to diminish same-sex relations as it did to earn money from fines and produce a vast number of false denunciations. Self-denouncers were immune to punishment and charged a tax. This sort of money-making maneuver wasted a lot of the Night Officers’ time so far as routing out sodomy is concerned, though it did increase denunciations and profits. Over the course of the 15th century the rates changed according to who was in power at the time; they finally were abolished in the 1490s when the Medici were banished and Savonarola gained power. Harsher punishments for sodomy reigned during these years, though with Savonarola’s descent in the beginning of the 16th century, the Medici dynasty was restored and the Night Officers disbanded. Sodomy lost its criminal edge at this time not because it diminished or even lessened in quantity; rather, its place in Florence had finally cemented and was accepted. Although sodomy earned Florence much embarrassment, it also stood as a pillar of male livelihood. As David Rocke explains in Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence:

Sexual relations were often only a single thread of a weblike network of social relations made up not only of kinship, but also of age-cohort camaraderie, neighborhood ties, common occupation or workplace, and circles of friends and acquaintances—that could link two partners, the various companions of a single boy, or, in general, groups of men with sexual interests in boys (or vice versa). [183]

Same-sex relations can be understood in this sense as one of many aspects of male social life, and one that served a variety of purposes outside of sexual gratification. Challenging sodomy pitted the Florentine Tribunal against essentially the city’s entire male population (often including active members of politics or their close relations), and this was a cause doomed to corruption from the start.



It is with this broader conception of the male world in Renaissance Florence that we look again at Donatello’s David and his many layers of meaning. Taking into account the sensitivity of the Florentines to sodomy and to sex in general at this time, it was a bold move of any artist to move outside the realm of the nonsecular, even with a private work of art. And it is easy to see why this particular rendering of the Biblical hero was kept within the Medici walls. In fact, the statue’s history is largely ambiguous. It is generally accepted amongst art historians that it was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici sometime in the mid-1400s, though it is not recorded until 1469 during Lorenzo’s wedding. The unique relationship between commissioner and artist encouraged Cosimo to defend Donatello from critics who commented on his temper or made references to his sexual behavior. Certainly the David would have garnered such criticism were it not under the private protection of Cosimo.

In addition to being the first freestanding bronze sculpture created since Ancient Roman times, it also was designed to be viewed from all angles. Donatello’s first David was cast in marble and commissioned by the Opera del Duomo—this figure is closer to traditional representations of David as a clothed hero. (See left) The bronze version is unlike any figure of its time—he is nude, though his nudity does not translate politically or symbolically as the traditional nude in pose or composition. For he is only partially nude—clothed in boots and a hat, called a “petasus,” similar to that worn by Mercury, giving him a costume appeal. Rather than the toned, powerful male figure that Michelangelo used in his later marble version of David, Donatello chose a youthful, slim, prepubescent body. He is is posed languidly with one leg supporting his body weight and another placed on top of Goliath’s head as a symbol of victory, though the pose is not victorious in a sense of brute strength. His features are soft, feminine even—his gesture is coy, and in his face can be a read an air of intrigue. A feather is attached to the helmet on the head of Goliath which creeps up David’s thigh, almost reaching his buttocks, which heightens the sensual appeal of the sculpture. For the Medici, David served as a metaphor for their city of Florence; as Mercury, he is the patron god of merchants and arts—Florence’s main source of commerce. It is possible to read David as both men, in direct alignment with Medici values.

That so much sensuality and androgyny pervades the piece suggests another reading of David aligned with a third value of the Medici. It is known that Cosimo defended Donatello when confronted with questions of his sexuality; it is also known that Lorenzo had many friends known or suspected to engage in same-sex relations. The Lorenzan era, condemned the most by Savonarola, was a time accused of exuberance in both wealth and sex, and the corruption of the Night Officers during this time reflects the Medici’s tolerance—and perhaps encouragement—of sodomy. By the time the Night Officers disbanded, it became apparent that not only was sodomy too widespread to control and too formally integrated into male life, but also too thoroughly inbred into the city’s economy to end without hurting the commerce of Florence. As Rocke elaborates,

Sensitive as always to the intricate web of material and social factors in which sodomy was bound up, and well aware of the difficulty and potential consequences of excavating too deeply into the pervasive practice, authorities apparently preferred to relax their vigilance. They tactly allowed men, or at least some men, to sodomize in the greater interests of the “common good.” [235]

Thus all of the layers of meaning of the David merge into one larger picture of Florence’s budding male culture. He is a culmination of Ancient traditions in both art and sex, the labors of merchants, artisans, and workers; also a symbol of Florence, mercantile power, male lust, Medici patronage, and Renaissance innovation. That he stands in one of the quieter museums of modern Florence as the lesser-known of the Davids despite possessing such a strong depth of symbolism is perhaps only an echo of his coveted nature in the Medici courts. Contemporary gay culture translates for the modern tourist the attraction that Michelangelo may have felt towards his more mature and masculine marble David. Pederasty, however, is a long outdated social practice that not every traveler wants to find himself staring at—all 1.5 meters of languid, sodomizable bronze.



Brown, Judith C and David, Robert C. Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc., 1998.

Kohl, Benjamin G. and Smith, Alison Andrews, ed’s. Major Problems in the History of the Italian Renaissance. Lexington, MA: Heath and Company, 1995.

Paoletti, John T. and Radke, Gary M. Art in Renaissance Italy. London: Laurence King Publishing, 1997.

Rocke, Michael. Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance. Film. Directed by Justin Hardy. Produced by Lion Television in association with PBS and Devillier Donegan Enterprises, 2003-2005.

Trexler, R. The Women of Renaissance Florence. Birhamtom: New York, 1993.


Image 1, frontal bronze David; Image 2, frontal marble David Locatelli, Francesco. “La Scultura Italiana—Donatello.” La Scultura Italiana. 2004-6. Online: Online.

Images 3,4, various views of bronze David. Witcomb, Christopher.”Donatello, David (Bargello Museum, Florence).” Early Renaissance Art in Italy. Fall 2005. Online: Online.