Donatello’s ‘David’

In Florence last week there were posters announcing that the renovation of Donatello’s David will at last be finished in November of this year (a former newsletter described this work in progress). The posters show the head and shoulders of the statue, brand new with the gilding discovered during the clean-up; it will be very interesting to see it in its entirety.

Within days of seeing these posters, I came across the statue in a novel:

Behind me the city was starting to bustle again as the last notes of the bell died away; in front of me was a vista of tranquillity: a courtyard, bounded by a graceful arcade of grey stone with blue friezes which coloured the air and turned midday into poignant twilight. In this misty atmosphere stood a boy, high up on a pedestal, a serene figure of bronze. At first I thought it was David, for his slender foot was on the head of Goliath, but he wore the petasus, the low-crowned, broad-brimmed hat of Hermes the God, and at his heels were the hint of wings. This was no time to stand puzzling over mixed images, but the statue had the power to arrest, and its impact upon a living youth awash with fear was profound. There was no porter at the Palazzo Medici, just a god of the gateway. He looked down on me benignly.                   (Linda Proud: A Tabernacle for the Sun, p. 172)

The idea that this statue of the Biblical David also hints at the Greek god Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) struck me as a new insight.  I’d always wondered where I’d seen that strange hat before on Greek vases, where the messenger of the Gods is often depicted lounging in the same state of divine self-confidence. Research on the Internet suggests that some art historians are happy still to call the statue David, but others would prefer it to be called DavidMercury, or even just Hermes.

Linda Proud’s fascinating and rewarding historical novel is packed with insights into the intellectual atmosphere of Renaissance Florence, with its politicians, painters and philosophers. I am now looking forward to reading the next two novels in her Botticelli trilogy, Pallas and the Centaur, and The Rebirth of Venus. When it came out in 1997 A Tabernacle for the Sun earned the highest praise from critics and historians. The frustrations of the publishing industry have led the author to set up the Godstow Press, and these books can best be bought direct from there at 60 Godstow Road, Wolvercote, Oxford OX2 8NY,, or 01865 556215.