(b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze)


c. 1440
Bronze, height 104 cm
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

The name that has come to be associated with this sculpture, Atys (Attis), should by no means be considered a definite identification of the boy. Indeed, this relatively small bronze figure has posed a great number of questions for researchers that remained unresolved to this day. This does not, however, detract from the aesthetic pleasure of looking at this playful youth who bears numerous iconographical details. There were numerous other suggestions for the identity of Donatello's sculpture which have included Priapus, Mercury, Perseus, Cupid, Harpocrates, Mithra, Ebrietas, and the guardian figure Genius, however, each identification is unfortunately selective in its choice of attributes. Perhaps the decisive clue was the object the boy once held aloft, which has been missing since at least 1677.

The precisely executed sculpture is characterised by a lively, positively pagan joie-de-vivre. The iconographical singularity of the figure points to this being a very specific private commission - perhaps from the circle of educated humanists.

In Greek mythology, Atys was a beautiful shepherd of the Phrygian town, Celaenae. His story is related in different ways. According to Ovid (Fast. iv. 221), Cybele loved the beautiful shepherd, and made him her own priest on condition that he should preserve his chastity inviolate. Atys broke the covenant with a nymph, the daughter of the river-god Sangarius, and was thrown by the goddess into a state of madness, in which he unmanned himself. When in consequence he wanted to put an end to his life, Cybele changed him into a firtree, which henceforth became sacred to her, and she commanded that, in future, her priests should be eunuchs.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.