Friday, September 4, 2009

The Body Regained: Donatello And The Male Nude

Fig. 1. Donatello - Ascension Pulpit (Church of San Lorenzo, Florence), 1460-65

'It is in what is believed to be one of his final creations, the Ascension Pulpit (San Lorenzo, Florence, 1460-65), that Donatello bequeaths us a remarkable clue to the riddle of his diverse - and, in many respects, ambiguous - representations of the male body. Over a series of three abutting panels, a man journeying from Purgatory to Paradise is shown struggling to free himself from the haggard, yet plainly mulish, straitjacket of his expired flesh. In the first, he wades through a seething throng of grasping, zombie-like corpses. In the second, he clambers sluggishly over the knee-high lip of his own sepulchre. In the third, he is finally (albeit awkwardly) tugged to his celestial destination by a risible flotilla of pint-sized cherubs. This is no ordinary man, of course, but Christ incarnate. Equally, this is no ordinary depiction of his flickering mortality. In countless canonical versions, by both earlier and later artists, he is majestically ethereal (i.e. disembodied) well in advance of his ascension. Here, however, he evinces Donatello’s career-long obsession with resurrecting the body - figured primarily as the male body - in art. Rising from its historical grave, to which it had been consigned by the carnally censorious Middle Ages, the body returns to sculpture with amplified naturalism and sensuality: and, by exceeding both sacred and classical propriety, spills out into the world of lived experience.

This impression of corporeal “excess”, artfully “spilling out” beyond the bounds of either an actual or putative frame, is one that appears repeatedly, though not always prominently, in Donatello’s representations of the male body. In the Ascension, for example, it is deftly and discreetly sutured into the narrative, taking the form of Christ’s haloed head rising to meet, then breaching, the decorative banding that separates the reliefs proper from the entablature. In his bronze David (early 1440s), on the other hand, it permeates the entire work - which, being the first freestanding statue of its type since antiquity, can be read as a flamboyant transgression of the moral and aesthetic proscriptions of medieval culture. It is in his Judith and Holofernes (late 1450s), though, that Donatello mines this trope for its full compositional, expressive and polemical potential. Holofernes’ legs, which dangle limply from the cramped pediment on which he is being so spectacularly slaughtered are, above all, exquisitely naturalistic (and hence highly seductive) eye-level intensifiers of his handsomely proportioned (but also brutishly villainous) masculinity. Whether or not Donatello was conscious of using this ingenious trope as a metaphor for his epoch-making liberation of the flesh from its centuries-old sarcophagus is debatable; but the fact that it exists, and that it predominantly - at times insistently - figures the body’s “resurrection” as male, is not.'

Lucio Crispino (from The Body Regained: Donatello's Representations of the Male Body)