Donatello’s decapitations and the rhetoric of beheading in Medicean Florence

Donatello’s decapitations and the rhetoric of beheading in Medicean Florence

By Allie Terry

Renaissance Studies,  Vol.23:5 (2009)

Abstract: While Donatello’s bronze sculptures of Judith and David are stylistically discrete, and may have been originally created in and for different contexts, they are firmly connected to one another through their content: both figures clearly are characterized as active agents of decapitation. As this article argues, the Medici fostered a familial association with the iconographic, symbolic and practical language of decapitation in Florence since the Albizzi coup of 1433–4, when the family came to be associated with the feast of St John the Baptist’s martyrdom, through the placement of the Donatello sculptures in the family palace in the 1460s.

Although rarely mentioned in the vast art-historical literature on the Medici, visual allusions to beheadings in paint, performance and sculpture served a rhetorical function in Florence to describe the shifting political status of Cosimo de’Medici and his family. By outlining a cultural map by which this visual rhetoric of decapitation may be charted in relation to the Medici family, this article contributes yet a further layer of meaning to the Donatello sculptures within the larger context of early Medici patronage and politics and offers a new methodological approach for the investigation of early modern Florentine visual culture.

Donatello’s bronze sculptures of Judith and David continue to elude a definitive art-historical interpretation despite their high visibility within the field of Renaissance studies. The dates of the two works, the motivation for their creation, their intended exhibition and reception, amongst other issues, have been widely debated. The absence of archival documents and a still inconclusive record of the sculptures’ earliest provenance, however, prevent emphatic conclusions to these kinds of inquiries from being put forward. Many of the most recent studies on Donatello’s sculptures have made significant advances in contextualizing the works in their decorative role within the Medici Palace. Placed in the garden and courtyard from at least 1469, when they were described in the context of Lorenzo de’Medici’s wedding to Clarice Orsini, the sculptures assumed a definitive Medici association until 1495, when they were confiscated by theFlorentine government and taken into the custody of the Signoria. Recognized both as a semipublic and highly charged political space, the Medici Palace visually framed the Judith and the David in their aligned positions in the garden and courtyard and endowed them with overt familial and political meaning by association with the other material artifacts collected and commissioned within those spaces. Yet, the justification for the placement of these two works within this setting and their specific familial and political significance are still largely contested.

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