Atys by Donatello

Also housed in the Bargello and completed around the same time, the unusual small bronze sculpture that has come to be associated with the name Atys continues the playful mood established by the bronze David. According to Greek mythology, Atys was the beautiful shepherd of the Phrygian town, Celaenae. According to Ovid, Cybele loved Atys and made him her priest on condition that he should preserve his chastity. Atys broke the covenant with a nymph, the daughter of the river-god Sangarius, and so was driven by the goddess into a state of madness, in which he castrated himself. When he wanted to put an end to his life, Cybele changed him into a fir tree, henceforth sacred to the goddess; she commanded that in future her priests should all be eunuchs.

No documentation survives regarding the origins of the sculpture; in fact, during the seventeenth century it was mistaken for an ancient Roman bronze of a classical youth. Even the identification of the mythical Atys has been disputed. There are numerous other possibilities for the identity, which have included Priapus, Mercury, Perseus, Cupid, Harpocrates, Mithra or Ebrietas.

The precisely executed sculpture is characterised by a lively, pagan attitude, as exemplified by the youth's little tail and the friendly snake. Other unusual aspects include the exposure of his genitals by unusual leggings, the putti-like wings on his shoulders and heels and a cord tied around his head and decorated with a flower. His face breaks out into a happy and carefree smile, while the poppy heads on the belt likely symbolise sleep. The iconographical individuality of these features hint that this was indeed a private commission, perhaps from an esoteric circle of educated humanists. The boy's arms are held loft in an awkward posture - the long absent object from his hands would have probably provided the missing clue to the boy's true identification.