David (Donatello)

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The first version of David (1408–1409). Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Height 191 cm.
This article is about the sculptures by Donatello, for other uses see David (disambiguation).

David is the name of two statues by Italian early Renaissance sculptor Donatello.

The biblical text[edit]

The story of David and Goliath comes from 1 Samuel 17. The Israelites are fighting the Philistines, whose best warrior – Goliath – repeatedly offers to meet the Israelites' best warrior in man-to-man combat to decide the whole battle. None of the trained Israelite soldiers is brave enough to fight the giant Goliath, until David – a shepherd boy who is too young to be a soldier – accepts the challenge. Saul, the Israelite leader, offers David armor and weapons, but the boy is untrained and refuses them. Instead, he goes out with his sling, and confronts the enemy. He hits Goliath in the head with a stone, knocking the giant down, and then grabs Goliath's sword and cuts off his head. The Philistines withdraw as agreed and the Israelites are saved. David's special strength comes from God, and the story illustrates the triumph of good over evil.[1]

The marble David[edit]

Donatello was commissioned to carve a statue of David in 1408. The commission came from the Medici family who wished to decorate their Palazzo courtyard. Nanni di Banco was commissioned to carve a marble statue of Isaiah, at the same scale, in the same year. One of the statues was lifted into place in 1409, but was found to be too small to be easily visible from the ground and was taken down; both statues then languished in the workshop of the opera for several years.[2][3][4] In 1416 the Signoria of Florence commanded that the David be sent to their palazzo; evidently the young David was seen as an effective political symbol, as well as a religious hero. Donatello was asked to make some adjustments to the statue (perhaps to make him look less like a prophet), and a pedestal with an inscription was made for it: PRO PATRIA FORTITER DIMICANTIBUS ETIAM ADVERSUS TERRIBILISSIMOS HOSTES DII PRAESTANT AUXILIUM (To those who fight bravely for the fatherland the gods lend aid even against the most terrible foes).[5]

The marble David is Donatello's earliest known important commission, and it is a work closely tied to tradition, giving few signs of the innovative approach to representation that the artist would develop as he matured. Although the positioning of the legs hints at a classical contrapposto, the figure stands in an elegant Gothic sway that surely derives from Lorenzo Ghiberti. The face is curiously blank (curiously, that is, if one expects naturalism, but very typical of the Gothic style), and David seems almost unaware of the head of his vanquished foe that rests between his feet. Some scholars have seen an element of personality – a kind of cockiness -(contrapposto=relaxed stance, shifted weight) suggested by the twist of the torso and the akimbo placement of the left arm,[6][7] but overall the effect of the figure is rather bland.

The bronze David[edit]

Donatello, David (1440s?)
Museo Nazionale del Bargello
h.158 cm

Donatello's bronze statue of David (circa 1440s) is famous as the first unsupported standing work of bronze cast during the Renaissance, and the first freestanding nude male sculpture made since antiquity. It depicts David with an enigmatic smile, posed with his foot on Goliath's severed head just after defeating the giant. The youth is completely naked, apart from a laurel-topped hat and boots, bearing the sword of Goliath.

This piece was requested by the Medici family to be placed in the centre of the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. This daring move showed that the Medici family thought that they could take ownership of David, a symbol of the city of Florence. Because this was such a scandalous idea at the time, Donatello put some shifts on the subject matter that could explain away the identity of David as "just another sculpture". Goliath's helmet has a feather protruding that can be seen as attached to David's foot, and thus characterized as Hermes, the Greek god. The David also has slight breasts which could classify him as a woman if seen from the side where his leg is blocking his testicles. The Medici family were exiled from Florence in 1494, and the statue was moved to the courtyard of the Palazzo della Signoria (the marble David was already in the palazzo). It was moved to the Palazzo Pitti in the 17th century, to the Uffizi in 1777, and then finally, in 1865, to the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, where it remains today.[8][9][10][11]

Left side of Donatello's David.

According to Vasari, the statue stood on a column designed by Desiderio da Settignano in the middle of the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici; an inscription seems to have explained the statue's significance as a political monument. Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite..., ed. G. Milanesi, Florence, 1878–1885, III, 108. A quattrocento manuscript containing the text of the inscription is probably an earlier reference to the statue; unfortunately the manuscript is not dated. Although a political meaning for the statue is widely accepted, exactly what that meaning is has been a matter of considerable debate among scholars.[12]

Most scholars assume the statue was commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici, but the date of its creation is unknown and widely disputed; suggested dates vary from the 1420s to the 1460s (Donatello died in 1466), with the majority opinion recently falling in the 1440s, when the new Medici Palace designed by Michelozzo was under construction.[13] The iconography of the bronze David follows that of the marble David: a young hero stands with sword in hand, the severed head of his enemy at his feet. Visually, however, this statue is startlingly different. David is both physically delicate and remarkably effeminate. The head has been said to have been inspired by classical sculptures of Antinous, a favorite of Hadrian renowned for his beauty. The statue's physique, which Mary McCarthy called "a transvestite's and fetishist's dream of alluring ambiguity," contrasted with the absurdly large sword in hand, shows that David has overcome Goliath not by physical prowess, but through God. However, the intention of Donatello is still debated among scholars. The boy's nakedness further implies the idea of the presence of God, contrasting the youth with the heavily-armored giant. David is presented uncircumcised, which is generally customary for male nudes in Italian Renaissance art.[14]


Back view of the legs of the David in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

There are no indications of contemporary responses to the David, however the fact that the statue was not placed in the town hall of Florence in the 1490s indicates that it was viewed as controversial. In the early 16th century, the Herald of the Signoria mentioned the sculpture in a way that suggested there was something unsettling about it: "The David in the courtyard is not a perfect figure because its right leg is tasteless."[15] By mid-century Vasari was describing the statue as so naturalistic that it must have been made from life. However, among 20th- and 21st-century art historians there has been considerable controversy about how to interpret it. Some scholars believed that viewers also became engrossed in distinct achievement and stressed life in this world, as divergent to preparation for afterlife.

The beard on the severed head curls around David's sandaled foot. Goliath is wearing a winged helmet. David's right foot stands firmly on the short right wing, while the left wing, considerably longer, works its way up his right leg to his groin.

The figure has been interpreted in a variety of ways. One has been to suggest that Donatello was homosexual and that he was expressing that sexual attitude through this statue.[16][17] A second is to suggest that the work refers to homosocial values in Florentine society without expressing Donatello's personal tendencies.[18][19] However, during the time of the Renaissance, when the statue was created, sodomy was illegal, and over 14,000 people had been tried in Florence for this crime.[20] So this homosexual implication was very risky and dangerous. A third interpretation is that David represents Donatello's effort to create a unique version of the male nude, to exercise artistic license rather than copy the classical models that had thus far been the sources for the depiction of the male nude in Renaissance art.[21]

Change in identification[edit]

Plaster copy of Donatello's David (sword broken off)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The traditional identification of the figure was first questioned in 1939 by Jeno Lanyi, with an interpretation leaning toward ancient mythology, the hero's helmet especially suggesting Hermes. A number of scholars over the last 70 years have followed Lanyi, sometimes referring to the statue as David-Mercury.[22] If the figure were indeed meant to represent Mercury, it may be supposed that he stands atop the head of the vanquished giant Argus Panoptes. However, this identification is certainly mistaken; all quattrocento references to the statue firmly identify it as David.[23]


The statue underwent restoration from June 2007 to November 2008. This was the first time the statue had ever been restored, but concerns about layers of "mineralized waxings" on the surface of the bronze led to the 18-month intervention. The statue was scraped with scalpels (on the non-gilded areas) and lasered (on the gilded areas) to remove surface build-up.[24]

Copies and influence[edit]

There is a full-size plaster cast (with a broken sword) in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. There is also a full-size white marble copy in the Temperate House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey, a few miles outside central London. In addition to the copies in the United Kingdom, there is also another copy at the Slater Museum at the Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Connecticut, United States.[25]

David continued to be a subject of great interest for Italian patrons and artists. Later representations of the Biblical hero include Antonio del Pollaiuolo's David (Berlin, Staatliche Museen, c. 1470, panel painting), Verrocchio's David (Florence, Bargello, 1470s, bronze), Domenico Ghirlandaio's David (Florence, S. Maria Novella, c. 1485, fresco), Bartolomeo Bellano's David (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1470s, bronze), Michelangelo's David (Florence, Accademia, 1501-4, marble), and Bernini's David, (Rome, Galleria Borghese, 1623–24, marble).

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Frontain, Raymond-Jean and Wojcik, Jan eds. (1980) The David Myth in Western Literature, Purdue University Press, ISBN 0911198555.
  2. ^ Janson, pp. 3–7
  3. ^ Pope-Hennessey, John (1958) Italian Renaissance Sculpture, London, pp. 6–7
  4. ^ Poeschke, p. 27.
  5. ^ Documents on the statue may be found in Omaggio a Donatello, pp. 126–127. On the political implications of David for early-modern Florence, see Andrew Butterfield, ”New Evidence for the Iconography of David in Quattrocento Florence,” I Tatti Studies 6 (1995) 114–133.
  6. ^ Poeschke, p. 377.
  7. ^ Omaggio a Donatello, p. 125
  8. ^ Janson, pp. 77–78
  9. ^ Poeschke, p. 397.
  10. ^ Omaggio a Donatello, pp. 196–197
  11. ^ Randolph, Adrian W.B. (2002) Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence, New Haven, pp. 139–141, ISBN 0300092121. Randolph published a poem from 1466 that seems to describe the statue in the Medici palace.
  12. ^ Political readings of the David include Sperling, Christine M. (1992). "Donatello's Bronze 'David' and the Demands of Medici Politics" (PDF). The Burlington Magazine 134: 218–219. JSTOR 885118. 
    Crum, Roger J. (1996). "Donatello's Bronze David and the Question of Foreign versus Domestic Tyranny". Renaissance Studies 10 (4): 440–450. doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.1996.tb00364.x. 
    McHam, Sarah Blake (2001). "Donatello's Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence". Art Bulletin 83: 32–47. doi:10.2307/3177189. JSTOR 3177189. 
    Terry, Allie (2009). "Donatello's decapitations and the rhetoric of beheading in Medicean Florence". Renaissance Studies 23 (5): 609–638. doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2009.00593.x. 
  13. ^ Greenhalgh, M. (1982) Donatello and His Sources, London, p. 166.
  14. ^ Steinberg, Leo (1982). "Michelangelo and the Doctors". Bulletin of the History of Medicine 56: 552–553. 
  15. ^ Gaye, G. (1840) Carteggio inedito d'artisti dei secoli xiv.xv.xvi., 3 vols., Florence, II: 456: "El Davit della corte è una figura et non è perfecta, perchè la gamba sua di drieto è schiocha." Cited in Shearman, John (1992) Only Connect...Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 22 n. 17. Shearman notes that schiocha could be translated as "imprudent" or "stupid."
  16. ^ Janson, pp. 77–86
  17. ^ Schneider, Laurie (1973). "Donatello's Bronze David". The Art Bulletin 55 (2): 213–216. doi:10.2307/3049095. JSTOR 3049095. 
  18. ^ Randolph, Adrian W.B. (2002) Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence, New Haven, pp. 139–192, ISBN 0300092121.
  19. ^ Frontain, Raymond-Jean. "The Fortune in David’s Eyes". GLRW. 
  20. ^ PBS documentary "The Medici", 2003
  21. ^ Poeschke, p. 398.
  22. ^ Lanyi never published his hypothesis; his ideas were made public in John Pope-Hennessey (1984) “Donatello’s Bronze David," Scritti di storia dell’arte in onore di Federico Zeri Milan: Electa, pp. 122–127, and further developed in Paroncchi, Alessandro (1980) Donatello e il potere, Florence, pp. 101–115 and Fossi, G. et al. (2000) Italian Art, Florence, p. 91.
  23. ^ Shearman, John (1992) Only Connect...Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 20–21, ISBN 9780691099729.
  24. ^ Il Restauro del David di Donatello. Museo Nazionale del Bargello. polomuseale.firenze.it (in Italian)
  25. ^ Shana Sureck (July 14, 2002). "Dusting". Hartford Courant. Retrieved 2011-10-10. 


External video
Donatello, david 03.JPG
Donatello's David, Smarthistory
  • Janson, H.W. (1957). The Sculpture of Donatello. Princeton. ISBN 0691003173. 
  • Museo Nazionale del Bargello (1985). Omaggio a Donatello, 1386–1986 (in Italian). S.P.E.S.--Studio per Edizioni Scelte. 
  • Poeschke, Joachim (1990). Donatello and his World: Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance. New York. ISBN 0810932113. 

External links[edit]