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Celebrating the Male Body in Renaissance Florence

Donatello, David, 1430-1432, Bargello, Florence. Associated Press/The Spokesman-Review

Bodies And Erotic Art

Celebrating the Male Body in Renaissance Florence

The adoration of a male body was an inspiration for many artists and there’s no medium better suited to presenting the full beauty and complexity of it than sculpture. Today we’ll take a look at the works by three Florentine artists celebrating the male body.

In Renaissance Florence homosexual relationships or sodomy as it was called back then, was illegal. Despite the otherwise open mindset and curiosity about antiquity, same-sex relationships were condemned as violating the natural right of God. Which of course does not mean they didn’t happen.

Donatello’s David, the First of the Firsts

Donatello, David, 1430-1432, Bargello, Florence

Donatello, David, 1430-1432, Bargello, Florence

This beautiful work of art scores two major historical ‘firsts’: the first unsupported bronze cast in Renaissance and the first freestanding male nude since antiquity. He stands already relaxed, the fight is over, his body leaning in the soft natural contrapposto. His hair in luxurious curls and his thigh almost caressed by the feather of Goliath’s helmet. His body soft, inviting us to touch it and yet full of energy from the fight still running through him. A light smile on his lips, as the thought of victory, becomes a realization. The historian Paul Strathern claims that Donatello made no secret of his homosexuality and that his behaviour was tolerated by his friends.

Michelangelo’s David, the Most Famous

male body

Michelangelo, David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Academia, Florence

Despite the beauty of Donatello’s David, it is the one sculpted by Michelangelo that is by far the most famous. He is young, he is tense, he has been exercising. Where Donatello’s David does not have too much muscle and seems almost soft and boyish, Michelangelo’s one does not have an ounce of fat on him. He is focused but confident, frowning as if already measuring the distance from his enemy. It is a male body at its peak, young but fully shaped, muscled but not too bulky, perfection.

Tommaso dei Cavalieri and Michelangelo

male body

Michelangelo, The Genius of Victory, 1532, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

There is no conclusive proof that Michelangelo was gay, however, it is known that in 1532 he met Tommaso dei Cavalieri and fell in love with him. He sent him multiple letters, sonnets and drawings, despite this Tommaso married in 1538 and had two sons. They remained lifelong friends and Tommaso was present at the artist’s death. It is believed that the Genius of Victory is Tommaso’s portrait, some even interpret the old figure as Michelangelo (he was 57 when he met 23-years-old Cavalieri).

The youth is presented in a beautiful, dynamic pose, accentuating his musculature. The old man is defeated, but he is slowly raising his head, looking straight not down. They both look as if something in the distance caught their attention.

Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus

male body

Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1545-1554, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Photo Paolo Villa

By far the most ripped one. Perseus is not relaxing, he is an active figure taking his victory, he is boasting. If Donatello’s David was slowly tasting his victory, Michelangelo’s one was preparing for the fight with quiet confidence (actually Perseus is just opposite from him, almost like a ‘before and after’), and the Genius of Victory seems a tad distracted, Cellini’s Perseus is here and now, in a strong contrapposto, but still standing very firmly on the ground he is confidence incarnated. Celebrating but also focused on his victim, looking at her with satisfaction and contempt. The sculpture was cast from a single piece of bronze, which is a technical feat in and of itself. You can read more about it here.

Cellini is known mainly as a goldsmith; his skills were admired also by Michelangelo. Yet, he always wanted to be more than just a goldsmith, he wanted to be a sculptor of fame equal to Michelangelo. Cellini not only was ambitious, but he also had many run-ins with the law, some of them for sodomy.

In fact, despite being illegal homosexual relationships in Florence were quite common and typically accepted in the aristocratic circles. Clearly, the love of the male body has given us some of the most stunning sculptures in the entire art history.

Further reading:

Why is St Sebastian a Gay Icon?

Lesbianism in Art?

Male Homosexuality in Western Art

Art historian by education, data geek by trade, art and book lover by passion, based in London in love with Europe and travelling around it. You can visit my book blog here:


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