A few days ago, as we are apt to do from time to time, a group of painting friends and I were discussing various important art topics of the day, when somehow or other, the subject of nude, adolescent figures in art came up. Everyone had an opinion and for the most part (with some minor exceptions and variations), they were all pretty much the same. About 570 years ago, had we been a group of Florentine painters slumped over crude tables and benches in a neighbourhood vintner's establishment, we might very well have been discussing the same thing. One of the more important members of our group would have been Donato di Nicolo di Betto Bardi. He might very well have been showing us charcoal and chalk sketches of a sensuous nude boy of about fourteen, long hair over his shoulders, wearing a rakish hat, sword in hand, contemplating the decapitated head of his nemesis, the towering Goliath.
We would not have had to be told the figure represented the biblical David. As Florentines, we would have recognised him as quickly as today we would our own Uncle Sam. We might well have discussed his youth, his surprisingly feminine qualities, the striking contraposito of the pose, maybe argued that the figure should not be nude, and in any case laughed at the inclusion of the silly hat. We might even have wondered in the back of our minds if our friend, Donato (known to us, his colleagues, of course as Donatello) might not have more than a passing interest in the boy. We are a little surprised and awed when we hear the sculptor announce he plans to cast his slender nude boy in bronze. We might well have warned him of the difficulty of his proposed undertaking in that nothing of this sort, least of all a nude figure, had been done since ancient times. Some of us might even have laughed behind his back, gleefully speculating as to how big a metallic mess he might make of the whole project.
Of course, several months later, as the figure is unveiled in a ceremony rivalling that of the Ghiberti's great bronze baptistery doors of San Giovanni, we would have been laughing from the other sides of our mouths, jealous perhaps, but nonetheless tremendously impressed by the man's sculptural dexterity, audacity and success. And, whether sculptors or painters, we would have been unavoidably influenced by the striking beauty of Donatello's almost heroic nude boy. We would have gone back to our own individual hovels, perhaps not with an eye out for the most comely young boy in the neighbourhood, but with a new understanding and appreciation for the power of the nude figure in art, and determined to try drawing and painting the human body in its natural, most beautiful state. As artists knowing only Medieval or Gothic models as the basis of our art, we would have suddenly awakened to a whole new world of naturalistic art, realising, perhaps for the first time, that we stood poised on the brink of a new era in art, as yet without a name, but one that would, several hundred years later, be known as the Renaissance.