FLORENCE — In Italy, the largest Donatello exhibition ever is taking place across two venues — the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and the Musei Del Bargello. Its size and scope eclipse the Bargello’s first retrospective in 1887 as well a 1985-86 traveling exhibition at several venues. Curator Francesco Caglioti deserves kudos for convincing numerous churches to part with their Donatellos for the first time, for devising an accessible exhibition that introduces the general public to subtler nuances of the Donatello literature, and for openly acknowledging in the catalogue that Donatello was not straight. Predictably, this final queer point was not unpacked in any prominent English-language review of the show. It’s time to set the record straight.
Three anecdotes in a collection of jokes attributed to the queer Florentine poet Angelo Poliziano form the basis upon which historians establish that Donatello wasn’t straight. Poliziano satirizes how Donatello would hire beautiful boys to assist him on projects and “stain” (tingere) them so that no one else would find them pleasing. After an assistant stormed out during a quarrel with Donatello, they made up by “laughing” at each other — Florentine slang for sex. Poliziano’s humor is filled with codewords, puns, double entendres, and inside jokes that remain somewhat undecipherable to historians. As James Saslow, professor emeritus of art history at CUNY, explained by email, stain might not be the best translation of the verb tingere. It may more broadly mean to “actively transform their ‘tone’ (physical, moral, whatever) in some way that will repel others.” Donatello was evidently nervous about losing his handsome assistants to another artist. The humor seems to be that he can keep them longer by corrupting them.
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It may be tempting to categorize Donatello as gay, queer, or homosexual, adding him to a pantheon inspiring the next LGBTQ+ generation to come out. But these good intentions can obscure messy, undefined lived realities during the Renaissance. Donatello did not aspire to fulfill modern categories that did not yet exist. However, cryptic sources like Poliziano can open up ambiguities that may easily accommodate our 21st-century projections.
Did not being straight influence Donatello as an artist? It’s a hard question to answer definitively — neither the artist nor his contemporaries addressed it directly in any documentation that survives today. A conscious decision was made by Vasari and other historians to put Donatello in the closet. For example, Vasari’s biography does not explicitly mention that Donatello neither married nor had children; he simply reports that the Medici financially supported the elderly artist when he could no longer support himself, and leaves the rest unsaid. The veiled nature of the closet will always conflict with the axiom that serious art criticism should not stray too far from the sources into speculation. (This epistemological paradox was a major point in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s landmark queer theory book from 1990, Epistemology of the Closet.)
If we can agree that being “queer” challenges individuals to experience their bodies and their pleasures in ways that are outside the conventional heteronormative box, this emotional process undeniably echoes formally in Donatello’s work. Throughout his entire career, the artist impressed his patrons and viewers by disrupting the conventional ways that the body was portrayed. Typically, his deviations from the standard iconographies are described by scholars as innovations to tell the story more dynamically, to infuse well-known subjects with an unfamiliar level of emotional gravitas. But it seems apparent that a queer element was also in play.
Donatello related to bodies in a profoundly different way as a queer man. And from this difference flowed a unique capacity and gift to reimagine the role of the body in his sculpture. The sense that queer people relate to their bodies differently is still being hashed out and theorized. Although the level of homoeroticism varies between sculptures, what does not is the unorthodoxy of the body’s depiction. Such blurring of the lines around the body is something the word queer, whose overuse has emptied its meaning, is meant to convey and champion.
Donatello’s “controversial” relationship with the body is the focus of the opening room at the Palazzo Strozzi. His lifelike 1408 crucifix is juxtaposed with a comparatively rigid and stylized 1410 example by Filippo Brunelleschi. Both have left their respective churches for a rare moment to hang side by side at the museum. Brunelleschi criticized Donatello’s crucifix as too naturalistic, famously saying “he had put a peasant on the cross.” Donatello presents a Christ who writhes in pain as his head tilts to one side and his legs subtly asymmetrically contort. Although the faces of both Christ figures express agony, only the cosmetic splatters of blood in Brunelleschi’s figure suggest pain. Donatello painstakingly rendered Christ as the victim of torture with greater physiognomic realism and emotional effect. He also violates the iconographic tradition of portraying Christ schematically as a nod to his divinity. This comparison sets up the entire show. Throughout his oeuvre, Donatello summoned emotional intensity through the entire body, not only facial expressions.
Donatello animated bodies in group scenes as well. Most early Renaissance artists depicted relatively static or stylized figures, identifying them by their attributes. In the gilded bronze panel “The Feast of Herod” (c. 1427), Donatello put entire bodies to work at expressing various emotional states within the narrative. Herod leans back in surprise as his hands push away the platter. Salome gazes intensely at the head, proud to see her wish fulfilled. No figure functions as a placeholder; all respond with their entire bodies in a unique way. Although art historical discussion often focuses on Donatello’s groundbreaking use of perspective in this relief, John Pope-Hennessy and others have also remarked on the unprecedented physiognomies. Donatello coaxes out visceral feelings from each body.
In a vein similar to the crucifix, he emphasizes humanity over divinity in the “Pazzi Madonna” of 1422. Leaving out the halos, his focus falls instead on how the Madonna and child rub noses and gaze into each other’s eyes. The sadness in the Virgin’s face betrays her premonition that Christ will suffer. She clings to the Christ Child. Donatello adjusted the conventions of the Madonna and Child genre to show more intimacy and vulnerability, less divinity, and to create a more relatable image.
Donatello also took nude angelic figures known as spiritelli in bold and unprecedented directions. His most legendary is the so-called “Attis-Amorino” (c. 1435-40). He eclectically blends symbols from different myths. A figure with open trousers that displays the abdomen and genitals references Attis, consort of the goddess Cybele. After cheating on Cybele, the goddess punished Attis by inducing him to castrate himself. Despite Donatello’s clear Attis allusion, this figure is not castrated. The wings and boyish face suggest Cupid, god of desire and Aphrodite’s son, and express ecstatic jubilation. The angel’s foot tramples a snake, alluding to the baby Hercules overcoming a similar slithering obstacle. Many forces in Renaissance Italy sought to effectively castrate queer men and deny their pleasure. Is this chimerical statue an allegory of defiantly victorious homoerotic desire?
In his famous marble St. John the Baptist, Donatello portrays John as a clean-shaven adolescent at the start of his ministry, instead of a bearded, somewhat haggard veteran of the desert. John’s renunciation of desires and materialism becomes more vivid in this youthful guise, underscoring his turn away from worldly pleasures and to asceticism. Again, Donatello disrupts iconographic conventions to communicate a theological point.
Donatello likewise disrupts iconographic conventions and draws attention to the body in a bronze relief that depicts Saint Sebastian from an unorthodox perspective. Instead of placing the saint in the center, with his assailants beyond the picture plane, he positions Sebastian at left and the archers at right. This heightens the dramatic tension between their bodies. It is unclear whether Saint Sebastian as the oppressed youth was a coded gay mascot for Donatello and his quattrocento audience. Not until the 19th century does homoerotic innuendo about the saint begin to surface in several written sources. However, James Saslow recently made the case that the queer artist Il Sodoma was drawing out this queer connection in his 1525 masterpiece of Saint Sebastian now at the Uffizi.
Donatello’s famous bronze statue of David Victorious at the Bargello is unambiguously homoerotic. It was the first freestanding bronze nude statue in Italy since antiquity. The sculpture’s full effect is often distorted in photographs. Donatello originally designed it to be displayed on a pedestal with David looking down at the viewer. The right hand confidently grips the sword pointing to Goliath’s slayed head. The left hand rests on the hip with strength and a proud sense of accomplishment, and the left foot boastfully rests on the slain head. The face is equally proud. The groin and abdomen virulently and erotically jettison out, teasing the viewing to come hither. Simultaneously the long-haired figure is delicate, with rounded, womanly hips.
The meaning behind this mix of machismo, femininity, and desire has perplexed many scholars. Both H.W. Janson and Laurie Schneider have connected this David’s queerness with Donatello’s queerness. Ironically, the gay curator and scholar John Pope-Hennessy dismissed their arguments. Francesco Caglioti disappointingly does not address the debate around its homoeroticism in his catalogue entry. Nevertheless, this is an unabashed image of a strong queer, gender-nonconforming man who beat the odds and pulled off the unexpected.
At every stage of his career, Donatello pushed the envelope of Christian iconography with unconventional portrayals of the body. His disruptive figures breathed new emotional life into his subjects and their stories. Who is served by denying the gender fluidity and homoeroticism in certain figures? Who is served by disconnecting his sculptures’ unorthodox bodies from the unorthodox relationship Donatello developed between his own body and the bodies of other queer men? Sylvia Rivera once declared, “We can no longer stay invisible. We should not be ashamed of who we are. We have to show the world that we are numerous. There are many of us out there.” Instead of erasing these layers, let’s celebrate the queer glamour of Donatello.
Donatello, the Renaissance continues at the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi (Piazza degli Strozzi, Florence, Italy) and the Musei del Bargello (Via del Proconsolo, 4, Florence, Italy) through July 31. The exhibition was curated by Francesco Caglioti.