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A Tale of Two Davids

Debra Brehmer

Michelangelo's David

Middle aged men in Florence wear bright colored pants. 


Orange, deep yellow or even an off red faded to almost pink. It seems to be the fashion this season. Sometimes they tie a sweater around their waists or shoulders and sometimes their shirts contrast strangely with the pants. If this sounds awful as our minds superimpose the description on Midwestern males, think again.


Men in Florence get better looking as they age. This is not one person’s opinion. It is absolute fact. Even the 20 year old college students we are here with agree. The young men, while pretty, are a bit brash and awkward and urgent, their features almost too sharp. As they age, they take on a refinement and a posture that speaks of all the old beauty in Florence, be it faded yellow buildings or stone streets. Tones deepen, character emerges and the men walk with a regal and assured upright, perfect posture gait. Their style appears effortless, but it is all carefully considered, from shoes to glasses to hair. 


We regularly eat at a small trattoria that we have nicknamed “Mamas” because the matronly owner is always there, working hard, with her black hair pulled back from her sharp features, wearing a black dress and a large necklace. She looks exactly the same every day. The waiter, Stefano, (50-ish, with perfect posture, animated, whimsical eyes and an exaggerated Italian nose), said she has not worn a different outfit since he started there 20 years ago. The restaurant is very small, as small as our suburban kitchens. Two rows of tables are crammed together lining the walls. It fills to capacity by the peak eating hour around 10 p.m. Patrons sit very close together, like a big family. We go there because it’s out of the way, in the less trod Oltrarno district, and almost exclusively patronized by Italians (few tourists). This is where we really study the men of Florence.


Unequivocally, the men are better looking than the women. And they seem to know it. Just as American women might preen and celebrate their femininity when out with their husbands, so do Italian men. At the risk of being reverse
sexist, they are arm candy for the women. They groom with absolute intent. One man sitting across from me recently at
the Trattoria, probably in his late 40s, had shoulder-length light brown hair (not particularly styled), light colored cool but understated designer glasses,  rustic-looking handmade Italian leather shoes and lovely masculine chiseled but full-of-character features.  He looked both unkempt and casual, styled and undone. And that’s the secret. They make it look effortless and unconscious.

Between courses at the restaurant, the men drift to the sidewalk and smoke or talk on their cell phones. Their
camaraderie and ease with one another is also fetching. Dinner ambles on. They come back in for Secondo (the main course), then Dolce (dessert), then another smoke and then the final grappa, that alchemical clear liquor, sipped without a hint of internal greed or depressive anxieties to quell. They drink it with nonchalance, each taste a confirmation of a momentary pleasure to savor. When finished, the chairs rustle away from the tables and the group re-enters the night air, exuding a sense of satisfaction, not so much from the physical pleasures of the food, but from the whole relaxed communal sharing of  the ethereal:  the night, the voices, the talk, the stories — moments completed  and solidified by the ritual and spiritual act of touch and taste, the taking of the external to the internal. This poetry of the dinner party, the ability to relax and go slow and  leave all expectations behind, seems to be one of those deep cultural traits that can only be bred into the bones through 500 years of heightened aesthetic practice. And the same could be said for the ability to tie a sweater around one’s shoulders and walk through the Piazza della Repubblica with perfect regal posture, but still look unstudied.

This notion of culturally bred masculinity is something I’ve thought about for a while. If art is a sticky repository for the quirks, whims and secret ideals of a culture, then to de-code the DNA chain that led to Stefano’s fine carriage and chin angle, one needs to look back 500 years to the true birth and celebration of the individual  “uomo,” in the 1400s: the Renaissance. The paternal antecedents of these contemporary Italian guys are obvious. Like everything since the birth of Christianity in Western culture, all seemingly immaculate and magical conceptions actually require the potent alchemy of duality: the co-mingling of things in spiritual balance and harmony with one another. Opposing forces. Heaven and Hell. Body and soul. Right and left. Angels and demons. Dark and light. All of the power of Western culture and aesthetics runs on taut lines between polarities. That’s the electricity we sense behind the images.

To understand  this oasis of masculinity, this mecca of so carefully brewed uomo delicati, here in Florence, one should probably begin at the Bargello, the museum of sculpture that occupies a former prison. For a succinct analysis, the two “Davids” will do: Donatello’s early bronze, naked David, c. 1432  at the Bargello, and Michelangelo’s full blown, High Renaissance fellow of 1501-1504 at the Accademia.

Donatello's David

Donatello’s “David” is the first free-standing nude sculpture to emerge in the Renaissance. It was preceded by 1,000 years of Medieval privileging of the soul over the body, which shunned the corporeal. So when Donatello crafted his 5 foot tall naked David for an unknown private patron, he was following the new Humanist trend to look back to classical Greece and Rome for inspiration, both philosophical and visual.  

Donatello's David Bust view

His task was a difficult one. It required fusing Christian meaning (the Biblical narrative of David slaying Goliath, not from his might, but from his faith) with the pagan, ancient Greek/Roman notion of man being the center of the universe and the body being mathematically and compositionally perfect — a reflection of ideal cosmic order. Bringing together these disparate elements — Christianity which shuns the body and Classicism which shamelessly extols it — must have seriously challenged young Donatello. What he came up with is an incredibly crazy looking sculpture — one that art viewers and scholars are still puzzling over.

Donatello's David Leg

Donatello’s David looks as Queer as Boy George or Tiny Tim. This David is a limpid adolescent (which follows the Biblical account). He stands in an s-shaped repose after slaying Goliath. And he isn’t quite naked. He wears boots and a laurel wreathed floppy peasant hat. These few articles of clothing actually heighten the fact that the rest of him is naked, offering further titillation to what already reads as an almost obscenely sensual sculpture. David’s toes curl into Goliath’s beard, the severed head resting at his feet. A feather from Goliath’s helmet rises provocatively up David’s thigh, bringing a naughty sense-of-touch to the piece. David, who shifts weight in some misinterpreted manner of contrapposto borrowed from the Romans, looks like he couldn’t slay a bunny rabbit, but put an apron on him and he’d surely bake a mean scone.

Scholars have long debated whether Donatello intentionally made a homoerotic sculpture. Apparently, with the re-emergence of classical philosophy in Italy in the 1400s came a renewed elitist interest in men loving men. While sodomy was outlawed and severely punished, that didn't seem to stop the city of Florence from gaining a reputation as a hotbed of such activity.

There’s no real evidence, however, to suggest that Donatello’s David was intentionally homoerotic. Chances are better that what it does express are the new ideas of the time, which are fraught with conflict.: How to celebrate man’s individuality and the greatest creation of God, the human body, and still maintain a chaste Christian context. Donatello had to wing it. He was the first to tackle the issue and his sculpture is confused, hesitant, and beautifully odd. What it seems to speak of more than homoeroticism, even to a contemporary audience, is the Florentine idea of male beauty.

Imagine a culture that could celebrate a fey beauty like this David and still find it heroic and dignified and emblematic of great, masculine ideals.This David would be laughed off the stage anywhere else. But the Florentines seemed to be interested ina concept of beauty that was complex, refined and not easy to consume in a gulp.

Donatello’s “David,” once you get past its overt silliness, is a carefully wrought, near sublime composition in opposing dynamics. The head tilts down as the left leg pulls up. The left arm bends in response to theright leg’s locked, straight stance. One hand curls  outward, holding the stone, the other twists inward.These planes draw us around the piece. Nothing is static, rigid or stable. David is shown in total repose and introspection, literally paused in a reflective moment after his task is completed, but the subtle compositional dynamics of the piece ripple, curve and cascade energetically. This concept of beauty actually transcends gender and reaches toward a more universal and cosmic analysis of what beauty is: Beauty, that strange abstraction that lies at the hearts of men and women.

Our current culture has become uncomfortable with and unaccustomed to seeing male bodies as the objects of desire. With the close of the Renaissance came the rise of the reclining female nude, a seemingly much more suitable receptacle for an aggressive, discerning gaze. But we need to remember: the concept of ideal beauty was forged on the body of male nudes, not females. Although we are uncomfortable today putting men in the passive role as objects of desire, we can’t forget the history of ancient Greece.

Michelangelo's David

Fast forward 70 years to the High Renaissance where the ideas that emerged in the early 1400s become self-assured. Michelangelo’s “David,” of 1501-1504, at 14-feet, is three-times the size of Donatello’s. The physicality of the now-buff naked lad dwarfs viewers. With Donatello’s David, we circle around, still a bit superior in our human aliveness. With Michelangelo’s David we are immediately hushed, humbled and made to feel insignificant in the shadow of its greatness. But like its predecessor, this greatness is not generated from brute strength and intimidation, it is the greatness of sublime beauty — no longer uncertain and hesitant but fully confident in the celebration of the human body. The definition of beauty, in its most objective sense, according to Renaissance thought, was encoded by God in the human form. Everything else radiates from this exquisite compilation of logical, mathematical proportions. Leonardo da Vinci took it to the next level as he equated the internal dynamics of the human body, our veins, bones and sinews, with the underlying structure of all things in nature. Now somewhere between these two Davids, it seems to me, is the key to the unique Florentine masculine identity. Neither overtly fey nor grossly pumped and masculine, the male ideal seems to embody the lovely epistemology of contradiction. One can be both feminine (the prissy attention to dress) and masculine (strutting, smoking and overtly eyeing any woman who walks by).

 The premise is that ideas about beauty are culturallyencoded and historically ceded. The reason Florentine men look so good and carry themselves so well today isdirectly related to the ideas of beauty established by the two Davids in the Renaissance. You could go so far as to say that the Davids have allowed Italian men to preen unselfconsciously without feeling “feminized” as would be the case in American culture.

Our friend Kurt and his partner Ben, who were on this trip with us, developed a street game called “Gay or Italian?” Because Italian men naturally look “gay,” at least by our standards, it’s very hard, even for well-schooled men who love men, to make accurate identifications. Thank you Michelangelo and Donatello. Both artists played in the gray mist that occludes such easy branding. Indeed, what exactly does determine whether something is visually erotic or just sensual?
What subtle inferences suggest a person’s sexuality, especially in Italy when the aesthetic codes are so highly developed.

Florentines seem to understand this more sophisticated, underlying philosophical, neo-Platonic concept of beauty. Perhaps it’s not conscious anymore, but it’s bred into some essential radiant gait.

In a mere 70 years, these two master artists of Florence took a thought and completed it. The legacy, one could say, is overt in the streets of the city. One cannot walk five steps without being struck by some rendition of beautiful humanity. And it’s not always just the middle-aged men. The nun who emerges, squinting in the sunlight from a dark door way holding a bouquet of daisies; the women who ride mopeds in stilettos or leather boots, who take off their helmets and shake out their highlighted tresses in innumerable petite street performances. But somehow, the men are the ones with the strongest visual link to the history of this place.

We sit at Mamas and as the tables fill with evening patrons, my friend and fellow art historian, Natanya and I, slip effortlessly into the same type of  analysis we had practiced at the Uffizi over works by Titian. The angle of the nose, the posture, the wavy shoulder length hair and Prada glasses. We are shameless in our observations, knowing all too well that in a matter of weeks this dream of an aesthetic heaven will end.

The thing about history that is so easy to forget is that it isn’t linear. It’s not even quite sedimentary, with one layer on top of another. It is far more porous and close at hand, more like a vapor than a solid resting body.

I tried to sketch our waiter Stefano a number of times. My skills were not up to the task. I photographed him, thinking that would help me make the drawing, which I promised to send him. The photos had nothing in common with his presence, they were shockingly wrong. This was the real evidence. That concept of beauty narrated by Donatello and Michelangelo is as sophisticated and subtle as the world has ever seen. It encompasses Stefano, who is not even good looking in a classical sense. His beauty is transgressive. I could not fully comprehend it to translate it to sketch. Perhaps that’s why these sculptures allure us, 500 years after their inception. They hold something we need to remember.  Beauty is not skin deep, it’s procured from history, breeding, place and moment, light and darkness, and all of that stirred and regenerated by the copulation of Classical and Christian worlds. No wonder it’s so elusive.

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