Was Donatello the first artist in history to express a queer identity?

The sculptor lived at a time when you could be burned at the stake for homosexuality. Yet, as an exhibition of his work hits London, the evidence that he was openly gay seems increasingly convincing

The godfather of the Florentine republic sighed. Perhaps he also stroked a cat, Vito Corleone-style, as he considered yet another request for a favour. This time it was the sculptor Donatello who needed help from his patron, Cosimo de’ Medici, the boss of mid-15th-century Florence. It was a case of boyfriend trouble.

Donatello had fallen out with his apprentice, who was also his lover. The young man had run off to Ferrara so Donatello, consumed with possessive rage, wanted Cosimo to give him a letter addressed to the ruler of Ferrara to explain that Donatello was there to murder his boyfriend. Cosimo provided the letter and sent a separate message asking Ferrara’s ruler to be gentle with Donatello for he was an artist and could get a bit emotional. When Donatello found his beloved, the youth “fell about laughing and Donatello, melting instantly, started laughing too”.

What a story. It paints Donatello as an openly gay artist and his main employer, Cosimo, as having a relaxed, supportive understanding of his sexuality, despite living in a medieval Christian age when you could be burned at the stake for “sodomy”.

As the V&A prepares to unveil an exhibition of Donatello, this tale suggests he is an artist who can speak directly to our time. For it means Donatello, who was born circa 1386 and died in 1466, was the first artist in history to express a gay or queer identity.

This is all the more significant as Donatello created, for Cosimo, the first lifesized statue of a male nude erected anywhere in Europe since pagan antiquity. His bronze David, planting a foot in the soft beard hair of the older man he’s slain, is a dazzling work even when you don’t know the 15th-century gossip. If the story is true, it means that when Cosimo commissioned Donatello to cast David for his palace courtyard he knew he was getting a sexualised male nude by a queer artist.

Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes statue in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes statue in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Photograph: Gim42/Getty Images/ iStockphoto

Art historians have argued for decades about this extremely old gossip and how relevant it might be to understanding Donatello’s David. One sceptic was the former V&A director John Pope-Hennessy. He shuddered at the idea of David as a gay artwork, describing it as “aberrant nonsense” and claiming such theories “left a little trail of slime on a great work of art.”

So is a word of this bold tale actually true? It was, after all, recorded in a 15th-century manuscript of jokes and anecdotes called Detti Piacevoli, which roughly translates as “pleasant things people said”. When I came across the story I thought it was illuminating, even if entirely fictional. For it surely suggests a lot about how Donatello’s contemporaries saw him. But the more you find out about the man who wrote this story, Angelo Poliziano, the more likely it is he told the plain, honest truth about the gay sculptor and his wealthy protector.

In a fresco painted in the 1480s in the church of Santa Trinita, Florence, Poliziano gravely poses with long hair, leading a group of boys to see their powerful father. These are the sons of Lorenzo de’ Medici, “the Magnificent”: Poliziano was their tutor. One giveaway clue that he wrote Detti Piacevoli is that its author casually mentions this is his job. Lorenzo greets him in the painting with a welcoming gesture, for Poliziano was his close friend as well as his kids’ teacher. Born in Montepulciano in Tuscany, he grew up in poverty after his father was murdered yet learned Greek, a rare achievement at the time, and started a brilliant translation of Homer’s Odyssey when he was in his teens.

Lorenzo the Magnificent was so impressed by “the Adolescent Homer”, as Poliziano was called, that he invited him to live in his house. Even after the Magnifico’s wife, Clarice Orsini, threw him out of the house where they were locked down during a plague outbreak, possibly for teaching more pagan authors than Christian ones, Poliziano’s friendship with the cultivated ruler of Florence was unbreakable. In a moving letter he describes sitting in tears at Lorenzo’s deathbed in 1492.

View of Florence from the South West, by Francesco Rosselli and workshop, circa 1495.
View of Florence from the South West, by Francesco Rosselli and workshop, circa 1495. Photograph: Robert Auton/Victoria and Albert Museum, L

So this is the first reason for taking Poliziano’s claims about Donatello’s turbulent love life seriously: he was privy to the innermost secrets of the Medici. Donatello’s patron Cosimo de’ Medici, “the elder”, was the grandfather of Poliziano’s protector Lorenzo. When Cosimo died Lorenzo was 15, old enough to pick up adult gossip. So Poliziano could literally have got the Donatello story from Lorenzo the Magnificent: a piece of Medici collective memory about one of the family’s favourite artists.

Donatello worked his whole life in the orbit of the Medici. He created his bronze David and a statue of Judith and Holofernes for their palace. This, too, delights in the male form: Judith is thickly robed and cowled, while Donatello lavishes his sensuality on the naked muscled torso of the man she’s beheading. It’s unlikely the Medici would have spread random ribaldry about an artist so close to their hearts. Instead, it seems Poliziano is sharing his benefactor’s private knowledge. If Lorenzo and Poliziano chatted about Donatello and his sexuality they had the visual evidence right in front of them: David still stood in the family palace. But it would also have been a self-conscious conversation. For in the generous and liberal relationship the tale depicts between Cosimo the Elder and Donatello, Poliziano must have seen a mirror of himself and Lorenzo.

Just how much protection Lorenzo gave Poliziano’s own sexuality became obvious in 1492. Even as the Magnifico lay dying that April, a public accusation of “sodomy” was being made against Poliziano. Moralists couldn’t even wait for Lorenzo’s last breath as a crackdown on male bathhouses and sodomy-positive taverns sought to end the perceived laxity of the Magnifico. Without his protector Poliziano fell into the arms, possibly literally, of his dear friend and fellow intellectual Pico della Mirandola. This maverick philosopher was chased out of Rome for daring to argue that classical paganism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all very similar under the surface. Lorenzo offered his protection and Pico became another of his friends. Poliziano and Pico flirt brazenly in their letters: Pico, thanking Poliziano for a critique of his love poems, says the verses “are enormously in your debt for pricking them at all. Yes, who wouldn’t want to die on the receiving end of that sword of yours?”

Poliziano and Pico died mysteriously, just two months apart, in 1494. In the year they died Florence became a theocratic republic ruled by the religious zealot Savonarola after the Medici family had been briefly driven out – yet both men were buried, next to each other, at Savonarola’s monastery San Marco. In 2007 they were exhumed for a very belated autopsy. It established that Pico almost certainly, and Poliziano very possibly, died of arsenic poisoning.

Poliziano, then, did not share the gossip about Donatello in a malign or sniggering way. He found it recognisable as a man who himself loved men. He doesn’t judge Donatello at all: his tale ends in laughter and reconciliation. It’s a cheerful love story.

Another reason to trust Poliziano is that, almost uniquely for a 15th-century intellectual, he respected and understood artists. Traditionally, artists were seen as mere manual workers with none of the high status of a poet like Poliziano. But Poliziano is on record as someone who ignored that social stratification.

Decades after Poliziano died he was fondly remembered by none other than Michelangelo, whose own nude statue of David by now towered over Donatello’s, literally and in its fame. Talking to his biographer, the ageing Michelangelo remembered how, as a teenager in the early 1490s, he was “discovered” by Lorenzo de’ Medici. He was invited to banquets in the Medici palace and met Lorenzo’s starry friends. Kindest of them all was Poliziano. In fact he gave Michelangelo the idea for his first nude masterpiece, Battle of the Centaurs, a pounding nightclub ecstasy of a sculpture, all sweating bodies, done when he was about 17.

Donatello, Lamentation.
Donatello, Lamentation. Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum

Donatello, Poliziano, Michelangelo – it’s a queer line of descent. Michelangelo, while claiming his affairs with men were spiritual and “platonic”, acknowledged that his passion for the male nude was charged with desire.

The nude was claimed by later aesthetes such as Pope-Hennessy as a pure art form unrelated to sex, but it was never that in the Renaissance. Michelangelo wrestled with desire. Donatello gleefully flaunted it. His David is dangerous, even disturbing. And the story of his affair with an apprentice is the key to it. David has defeated an older man: is this Donatello himself? The meeting of David’s foot and Goliath’s hair suggests they are more intimate than anything the Bible ever suggested.

Donatello constantly foregrounds his own feelings. When he portrays women lamenting the (naked) dead Christ, you are sucked into his sorrow. In his equestrian statue of the soldier Gattamelata, he unleashes so much energy you feel he’s thrilled by this warrior. The V&A show will even include the museum’s lovely Madonna he gave his doctor as a present for helping him when he was ill. Fear of illness and death, desire and joy in life: it’s all there in this great artist’s intensely imagined forms.

You have to hand it to Cosimo the Elder: he knew artistic genius when he saw it. And he knew it needed to be free.

  • Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance opens at the V&A on 11 February.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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