Positioned between Michelangelo's monumental "David," which set a new standard of heroic masculinity, and the strangely androgynous version by his predecessor Donatello, Verrocchio's "David" marks a moment in the later 15th century when the ideal of virility included what we would today consider both masculine and feminine traits.
Figuratively, Verrocchio's "David" is sizing up his predecessor. Both statues were commissioned by the Medici family, and both would be moved from the Medici palace to the town hall, to unite the family's political identity with that of Florence.
Donatello's "David" supposedly symbolized the patriotic defense of Florentine liberty, yet as a soft and sensuous nude he presented a dubious masculinity that has been linked with Florentine homoerotic practices (as James Saslow suggests on this page). Knowing his bronze "David" would be measured against its predecessor, Verrocchio decisively revised Donatello's introspective boy, offering a leaner, less complicated and more outgoing example of adolescent masculinity.
Verrocchio "corrected" Donatello's eccentric "David" by strengthening the hero's virility -- a feature that Michelangelo would exaggerate a few decades later. Verrocchio's "David" is brave but not tough, muscular yet graceful. He has a stylish coiffure, wears a short skirt with a fringe and a military cuirass softened by ornamental decoration -- have you ever before seen armor with floral nipples?
Somewhat precociously, Verrocchio's "David" partakes of the style cultivated by Lorenzo de Medici, whose refined taste for the decorative is epitomized by Botticelli's "Primavera." We could call this a feminized style, by comparison to the brusque masculinity of some earlier 15th-century Italian public sculpture, yet it was also a conscious expression of cultural civility. In Renaissance Florence, where firm Medici rule was often concealed behind artful fictions, Lorenzo gained political advantage by defining the image of his court in gentle and non-threatening terms.
Verrocchio's "David" is androgynous, but in a different way than Donatello's, and it brings an innovation that effectively served the values advanced in Lorenzo's court.
Before Verrocchio, a sculpted figure might look out, yet its body remained a tightly closed shape, as in the Martelli "David" seen in the National Gallery exhibition. It was Verrocchio who first activated the space around his statues. In part, this came of using bronze, which facilitated the projection of limbs into surrounding space. But Verrocchio developed a new aesthetic, circulating air around his figures to create a participatory environment. Moving around the statue, we find surprises: From the back, the boy is not so confident. As our viewpoint changes, diagonal axes and accents emerge and recombine.
In his Colleoni monument in Venice, Verrocchio reinvented the equestrian statue, transforming it from a static profile image into a forceful play of shifting planes. At the Florentine church of Orsanmichele, he daringly combined two figures in a niche, putting the axis on the void between them. The National Gallery's Putto on a Globe seen in this exhibition (if not by Verrocchio's hand, then surely conceived by him) presents rippling contours that change dramatically as you shift inches; its left arm traces a complex arabesque in space.
By creating a dynamic interchange between figure, surrounding space and viewer, Verrocchio invented statues that not only speak but also listen. They were models of civilized discourse in a culture that was still largely defined by males, yet included values and tastes later to be marked as feminine. That Renaissance men deployed feminine style to political advantage does not diminish the richer masculinity that also resulted.
Mary D. Garrard, professor emerita at American University, is a pioneer of feminist art history and an expert on the work of the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.