My visit to Florence to meet Donatello’s David

I shall be going to Florence in less than a week and I am truly excited about it. I stayed in the peerless Italian city of Florence in January 2008 – it was my first visit even though I had been to Italy many times before and have always had an intense passion for things Italian, be it opera, fine art, leather shoes, vino rosso or just pizza rolled up and scoffed whilst wandering down some of the most beautiful streets in the World. I am not sure how it happened that I had never quite got round to visiting this, maybe the most important centre of Italian Renaissance Art anywhere in the world. I was even more amazed by his negligence when I got there and a part of me never really wanted to leave.

I had travelled to Florence from Rome on the train after being totally wowed by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican whilst being totally unphased by the aggressive instructions from the uniformed guards telling me to move on. 
In fact the whole trip turned into a Michelangelo pilgrimage which culminated in Florence’s Academia gallery with my first encounter with, er, in the flesh, so to speak, the famous David as well as, and  maybe even more moving, the four semi-finished slave or prisoner sculptures that still struggle to escape from the rock from which Michelangelo was carving them. They are not just trying to escape from the rock, they show art escaping into life with all its anguish just as at times we struggle to cope from that same life.
Then there were the Botticelli pictures in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence’s answer and extended tongue to any great art gallery in the world. The Birth of Venus and The Allegory of Spring are worth a visit to Italy even if you see nothing else. The birth of Venus is also, of course,amongst other things, the birth of love itself  seen here in all its glory and frailty. No reproductions of these paintings prepared me for the radiant colours and the epic proportions of these wonderful paintings.

Then there was Donatello who is really the “other” great Renaissance sculptor and the artist who, in more knowledgeable opinions than mine, established the revolution in sculptural realism and the celebration of the body for the first time in Western art since Ancient Rome.  I headed for Florence’s Bargello gallery which has an impressive collection of  Donatello’s work. Donato di Niccol√≤ di Betto Bardi  (c. 1386- 1466) was one of the “big four” Reanissance artists, along with Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphel but he should  not  be confused with that maybe better known Donatello (or Donny, born 1987) a  Mutant Teenage Hero of the same name. 

He, like Michelangelo, could bring palpable life to the inanimate materials that he carved.  I am still moved by memories of his statue of Mary Magdalene with its anguished expression of  suffering and regret felt as much in her rags and her body as in her face.

Donatello’s most famous work though wasn’t in its usual place – the bronze David was lying on his back in the middle of the gallery being seen to by a very serious-looking woman in a white coat.

David was dirty after over five hundred years hanging around in galleries and the time had come to get him back to his original glory when his body was highlighted in golden gilding instead of the dark grime that had accumulated on his much regarded body.

A battery of modern hi-tech equipment, including laser,  was being applied to his surface so that the delicate but hidden gold leaf could be restored without damage.

The gallery took the decision to do the work on the statue in full public view and it was fascinating to be able to stand and watch the restoration.

Donatello’s David is said to have been the first free-standing nude statue produced since Roman times but, sadly, I wasn’t able to see him stand, freely or in any other way. Happily, he is now fully restored and back on his feet, magnificent in his glowing light bronze with his original gilding visible after hundreds of years. Seeing him will be one of the high points of my holiday. What a strange, ambiguous figure he is, as difficult to define as the Mona Lisa’s smile, his androgynous mixture of coyness and mischief is as mysterious as his provocative attachment to the slaughtered Goliath.

Here is an Italian news clip that announced David’s return – it was seen in Italy, at least, as an event of real importance:

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