Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 13, 2003
Adrian W.B. Randolph Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 352 pp.; 20 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300092121)

Adrian Randolph’s Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence possesses a most provocative and, indeed, engaging jacket: an image of the rear view of Donatello’s bronze David. The photograph is cropped, tantalizingly, so that the beholder (the expression Randolph himself uses consistently throughout his book, in place of viewer) is prevented from feasting his or her eyes on what are perhaps the most sexually charged pair of male buttocks ever produced by a Renaissance sculptor. When aligned with the content of the book, the cover’s chastened and desexualized David could be seen as somewhat disingenuous. Randolph’s mission, one in which he succeeds admirably, is to insert firmly the place of gender and the subject of gendered viewing into politicized art objects. In doing so, he also focuses upon the discourse of and the relationship between art and politics in fifteenth-century Florence, a Florence primarily colored by the Medici family.

Engaging Symbols can be considered as the latest in a line of scholarship dealing with the intersection of gender and art in fifteenth-century Florence. These include Christiane Klapisch Zuber’s work on objects such as holy dolls, Cristelle Baskin’s on cassone imagery, and Jacqueline Musacchio’s on birth-related artifacts. Randolph takes a somewhat different path from these other scholars, in that concepts of masculinity play a greater role in his work, and, to a larger extent, he engages with public objects. In fact, three of his five chapters are dedicated to what would be termed monumental sculpture. But Randolph does not shy away from working outside the more traditional canon; his book has ample references to and discussions of cassoni, deschi di parto, prints, and small statues destined for the home.

Randolph is also prepared, in two of his chapters, to take on the most challenging of objects, ones that are lost or destroyed; it is to his credit that his discussion succeeds in making the reader forget that these works no longer exist. Such is the case with his opening chapter, “Donatello’s Ninfa Fiorentina,” dedicated to the sculptor’s Dovizia, an allegory of abundance. Made of pietra serena, a friable sandstone unsuitable for an outdoor statue, the Dovizia had crumbled away by the eighteenth century. Its location, Florence’s Mercato Vecchio, is also gone. Randolph gives a lucid account of the appropriateness of this figure of womanly abundance as a public emblem of the mercantile city. He also shows how Dovizia’s nymphlike form was appropriated in other imagery, both private and public. Of particular interest is the idea Randolph proffers of Dovizia as a form of social control, which he poses along similar lines to the Virgins of the Street Corner, investigated by Edward Muir (“Virgin on the Street Corner: The Place of the Sacred in Italian Cities,” in Religion and Culture in the Renaissance and Reformation, ed. Stephen Ozment [Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1989], 25–40). But if the street-corner Virgins were a means of crime prevention, Randolph convincingly suggests that Dovizia served as an agent of sexual activity and control. On the one hand, women were admonished to look to the statue for what it represented in regard to the importance of fertility and procreativity within the context of abundance. On the other, as Michael Rocke has demonstrated, sodomites were sometimes chained to the column on which Dovizia stood, where they were whipped. The location for the punishment could be seen as a deliberate choice to underscore their sinful, nonprocreative sexual activity, which did not result in fruitful abundance.

The Dovizia chapter is the only one in Randolph’s book not concerned with a specifically Medicean use of gendered objects and symbols. His second chapter, “Florentia Figurata,” looks at portrait medals of Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici. Depicted on the obverses of these medals, in all’antica profile form, are the Medici men themselves. On the reverses is Florentia, an allegorical female figure representative of Florence. The rendering of Florence in such gendered language demonstrates the Medicis’ paternalistic relationship with their city: Florentia effectively becomes their “daughter.” Randolph’s reading of the medal thus permits him to make a compelling interpretation of one of Sandro Botticelli’s most mysterious portraits, Young Man with a Medal of Cosimo de’ Medici (Florence, Uffizi, ca. 1475). The unidentified young man, whom Randolph plausibly posits as one of Cosimo’s numerous godchildren, holds an actual gilded gesso version of Cosimo’s medal, his profile portrait visible. This position thus implies that the obverse, the Florentia side, is directed toward the young man himself and is, in fact, positioned over his heart. As such, it allows the sitter both to convey his allegiance to his city and to show that he too, like Florentia, is a Medici “child,” acknowledging the family’s paternalistic role.

Chapter 3 also engages with Medici use of gendered objects within a familial context. The Medici diamond ring is a widely recognized symbol of the family. Randoph investigates the matrimonial symbolism of the ring to suggest the Medici used it as a way of imparting the idea that they were wedded and committed to the city. Within this context of love, honor, and chivalry, chapter 5 is actually best read in conjunction with chapter 3; its subject is a lost banner depicting Pallas Athena made by Botticelli for Lorenzo’s younger brother, Giuliano de’ Medici, for a tournament held in 1475. Under discussion here is what the banner’s subject matter, the chaste and wise goddess, meant to Giuliano, to the Medici, and to the woman Giuliano championed during the tournament, Simonetta Vespucci.

Chapters 4, on Donatello’s bronze David, and 6, on his Judith and Holofernes, also form a logical pair. These are perhaps the book’s most challenging subjects, given the multiplicity of readings and interpretations of each statue. Randolph’s analysis of the David is a tripartite one, considering its subject’s political, humanist, and, most innovatively of all, its erotic dimensions. The humanist discussion deals with Donatello’s relationship to and adaptation of the antique, examining his work within the context of small, ancient bronzes, gems, as well as the treatises of Leon Battista Alberti. Greater attention is paid—not surprisingly, given the nature of the book—to the political and the sexual, which, as Randolph’s narrative unfolds, actually become intertwined. If the Medici perceived about themselves in Donatello’s David “an allegory celebrating the triumph of intelligence over physical might” (141), how then should one address the issue of the statue’s provocative adolescent body? There is an undoubted duality to this aspect of the David. Randolph draws an analogy between the statue’s beautiful youth and the youthfulness of the Medici, both as a dynasty and in terms of the ages of its ruling line in the second half of the fifteenth century. But there is also no denying the highly charged sexuality the statue imparts, and here Randolph considers the David within the context of the homoerotic sexual usage of the male adolescent in Renaissance Florence.

Donatello’s Judith, Randolph’s final subject, is an equally complex piece, and, again, the author proffers a duality to an interpretation of the statue and its meanings. On the one hand, Judith is representative of the public side of the Medici. It was most likely intended for the garden courtyard of the Medici palace on the Via Larga, technically a private space, but one that gradually came to serve as the center for the shaping of public policy and the dispensing of justice. There is no denying the appropriateness of incorporating Judith slaying her country’s oppressor into such an arena, but she also could serve the Medici privately: it is within this context that Randolph directs attention to a specifically female viewer from the Medici family. He suggests that the young bride of Lorenzo il Magnifico, Clarice Orsini, might have found much to emulate in Judith’s chastity, but that she might also have used her in a carnivalesque, “world turned upside down” tradition, ritually empowering women at times of marriage and childbirth. And the statue had undoubted special meaning to Lorenzo il Magnifico’s mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, who, during her time of widowhood, actually authored a play on Judith, “The Hebrew Widow.”

However, the original resonance and symbolism of Donatello’s Judith were far removed from those of its ultimate destination. Placed in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, the figure of Judith clearly took on broader, more publicly politicized meanings. She was, however, regarded by some with hostility: Francesco Filarete, the Florentine herald, saw her as a subversive woman slaying a man, as a harbinger of political doom, and as the reason that Florence lost Pisa. Perhaps there is no more concrete example to be found in this book of the intersection of gender and political meaning, albeit one posited in a negative fashion.

Engaging Symbols is methodologically adventurous. While some historians of early modern European art have been taken to task for what is perceived as a lack of historiographical positioning in their scholarship, Randolph could never be accused of such a deficit. On the contrary, in the course of his book, he situates his approach to his subject matter within the context of the ideas of a multiplicity of other scholars in various disciplines, such as Jürgen Habermas, Aby Warburg, and Henri Lefebvre, to name but a few. Such references certainly speak to the depth of Randolph’s own learning. On one level, the book serves admirably as a methodological textbook within itself and as a way to demonstrate the different historical application of varying approaches to art history. At the same time, the multiple crediting of others’ ideas within the body of the text, while laudable, can obfuscate Randolph’s own concepts and narrative. However, scholars of Renaissance art and history undoubtedly will find themselves engaged by Randolph’s use of Michael Rocke’s work on homosexuality in fifteenth-century Florence, which, as mentioned earlier, is applied illuminatingly to Donatello’s Dovizia and David. Also noteworthy is his incorporation of the new documentary discoveries found in Donatello e I Medici: Storia del David e della Giuditta (Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2000), Francesco Caglioti’s book on the sculptor’s David and Judith, which Randolph deftly inserts into his own more innovative interpretations.

It must be said that it is a pity that the volume lacks an actual conclusion. Each chapter is conceived as an end unto itself, enhancing the book’s viability in the classroom, where an individual chapter can be assigned. However, some collective reckoning on the author’s part would have strengthened a final sense of the book’s overarching ideas, allowing Randolph’s own scholarly voice to exit on a more emphatic note. For as respectful as he is toward the methodologies of others, there is no denying that Randolph himself has produced a new matrix for the examination of gender, art, and politics, one that will doubtless come to be applied by other scholars, regardless of the period they study.

Caroline P. Murphy
University of California, Riverside

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