Is all Old Master art as masterful as advertised?

In previewing Donatello’s sculpture debuting Feb 11 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Art Newspaper ranked this Renaissance artist as "one of the most important sculptors of all time."

If you go by Donatello’s celebrated “David” (there are two - a bronze and a marble), I have misgivings. Both works inadvertently mock the biblical hero. (I’ll get back to that).

The bronze “David” won’t be in the London show, only the marble, although a plaster cast copy of the bronze will be on view.

Donatello carved the marble “David” in 1408 in his early twenties – 32 years before his bronze version.

Mistaken identity

Considering the better-known bronze first, I can’t help but wonder what madness struck Donatello to fashion a Biblical hero a fop.

As you can imagine, mine isn’t a popular view. Nora McGreevy writing for the Smithsonian Magazine considers Donatello’s bronze “David” a “key inspiration” to Michelangelo’s version.

How can that be? How can a dandified figure beget Michelangelo’s heroic “David”? Putting aside the superficial likenesses, they couldn’t be more of a mismatch.

Never mind that Donatello’s bronze version is more than three times shorter. And forget that it depicts the slaying after the fact rather than before.

You can also let go of both statues’ nonchalance, presumably intended to convey bravado to the Philistine giant.

Distinctions with a difference

The bigger dissimilarities begin with the nudity in each statue. Michelangelo used it to demonstrate the boy’s vulnerability and courage in the face of battle.

But the way Donatello posed his nude “David,” he seemed more intent on showing off the boy’s body and less on the action taking place. It’s all in the posture and the mannerisms.

(I’ll be right back about this).

Even though Donatello’s “David” has his foot on the severed head of Goliath, his facial expression is not one of a conquering hero.

Instead, you see a faraway look, as if daydreaming, as if he had nothing to do with what’s going on.

Then there’s the foppish-looking hat bedecked with bay leaves that sits rakishly on the boy’s head.

Yes, David was a shepherd who spent his days in the not sun.

But if the hat is meant to protect the head, why not the rest of the body? Wearing a hat and nothing else looks silly.

Most of all, though, the posture and mannerisms in the bronze are hard to take seriously. One hand on his hip in what looks like a dallying way – less triumphant and more theatrical, dandyish, even flirty – as if modeling for Adam Film World Magazine.

And what is one to make of Donatello’s “David” in marble? The face is blank. And unlike his bronze “David” and Michelangelo’s marble “David,” this one is not nude.

And with one hand on his hip, it looks like the boy is holding up the cloth that covers him before it falls down.

His other hand hovers over more of the cloth on his other side, again as if expecting it to fall down.

Perhaps the big shock in this work is the blank television stare so completely disconnected from the Goliath he just killed and beneath his foot.

But wait. The irony here is that of all the Renaissance sculptors Donatello excelled at expression. His gift for picturing emotion outclassed his contemporaries. Every historian says so.

Giorgio Vasari explained this in his history book "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects," saying it was the ability to impart feeling in stone and metal that set him apart.