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Classic Asses

Believe it or not, a couple of years ago I visited the Italian city of Florence. Since I don’t speak Italian I was dependent on an acquaintance who showed me around and paid the bills. The heart of the city is frozen in the Renaissance, but now the palaces have velvet ropes separating tourists from artifacts, and wherever you go, the old public buildings house art. Initially I was enamoured with the sexy nude statuary, but since I was not the man then that I am now, I was embarrassed to stare at exposed naughty bits, let alone take pictures. However, my companion soon set me on the right path by saying: “Somebody spent months carving that ass; you should damn well enjoy it!”… and soon my giggles of glee echoed through the halls and off the chiselled bums.

Donatello was born in Florence sometime around 1386. He began sculpting young and developed further as an artist via the study and excavation of ancient artifacts, which he did alongside Filippo Brunelleschi. Giorgio Vasari, writer of one of the first art books, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, wrote of Donatello, “His work, such was its grace and excellence and masterly design, was considered as fine as the best of Greek or Roman art.”

Patronage of the arts was one of the more important contributions made to the Renaissance by the renowned Medici family. In The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, Paul Strathern explores Cosimo de’ Medici’s funding of Donatello’s work. Donatello demanded to be treated in a special way — he was a diva — and Cosimo indulged him. “He appears to have been one of the first patrons to recognize the new kind of artist being produced by the Renaissance, insisting, ‘One must treat these people of extraordinary genius as if they were celestial spirits, not as if they are beasts of burden,” Strathern writes. Cosimo seems to have acted almost like the beleaguered manager of a finicky actress, catering to her whims and patching up her disagreements. Donatello also does not seem to have been terribly discreet: “Donatello made no secret of his homosexuality, and his behaviour was tolerated by his friends.”

Florence seems to have been full of horny young men looking for outlets for their passions, but young women were considered valuable assets; marrying them could provide profitable family alliances. So, while homosexuality was generally considered wrong, it was tolerated as a way to keep the boys busy and the women pristine. Strathern writes, “All this meant that sodomy amongst young men was covertly tolerated . . . and its practice was so rife in Florence in the fourteenth century that the German slang for ‘gay’ was a ‘florenzer.’”

David, from the tale of David and Goliath, was a symbol of Florence and thus frequently featured in statuary. Michelangelo’s David is probably the best-known example. This statue is impressive, but not as tantalizingly scandalous as Donatello’s David, which sits where I enthusiastically admired it, in the prison-barracks-turned-art-museum called the Bargello. Strathern describes it: “an unabashed masterpiece of homoerotic sexuality; and its sensuous nudity is only emphasized by the young David’s calf-length ornamented boots, large floppy ‘country-style’ hat and the long curly tresses that fall down over his shoulders. His open-toed boot rests casually on the helmeted severed head of the slain giant Goliath, but in such a way that the exaggerated feathered wing of Goliath’s helmet softly caresses his inner thigh.”

No one knows whether Cosimo de’ Medici was queer, but being the most probable patron of this particular work he must have seen preliminary sketches; he would have known beforehand just how boyish and, for most Florentines, inappropriate the statue would be. He allowed it to be carved anyway. Maybe he was still behaving as the indulgent patron. It is conceivable that a gay patron might commission an especially sexy sculpture — perhaps to keep as a kind of pornography in his courtyard — or that a gay sculptor might carve a figure that turns him on (as was probably the case with Donatello and his David). In any case, it seems clear that many of the great statues of the Renaissance were carved in ancient methods freshly uncovered, but also envisioned with eyes hazy with boy-lust.