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David (Donatello)

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Donatello, David, bronze, 1435–40, Florence, Bargello, detail
Year1416 (marble)
c. 1440s (bronze)
Dimensions158 cm (62 in)
Donatello, the bronze David (1440s?), Bargello Florence, h.158 cm

David is the title of two statues of the biblical hero by the Italian Early Renaissance sculptor Donatello. They consist of an early work in marble of a clothed figure (1408–09), and a far more famous bronze figure that is nude except for helmet and boots, and dates to the 1440s or later. Both are now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. The first was Donatello's most important commission up to that point, and had a religious context, placed on Florence Cathedral. The bronze remains his most famous work, and was made for a secular context, commissioned by the Medici family.

The biblical text[edit]

The story of David and Goliath comes from 1 Samuel 17. The Israelites are fighting the Philistines, whose champion – Goliath – repeatedly offers to meet the Israelites' best warrior in single 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 armour 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]

The Marble David (1408–1409 and 1416), Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Height 191.5 cm.
Marble David, detail
Marble David, detail of the head of Goliath

Donatello, then in his early twenties, was commissioned to carve a marble statue of David in 1408, to be placed on the tribune of the dome at one of the buttresses on the north side of Florence Cathedral. Nanni di Banco was assigned to carve an equal statue of Isaiah. One of the statues was lifted into place in 1409, but with just under two metres high 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][5]

In 1416, the Signoria of Florence commanded that the David be sent to the Palazzo della Signoria; 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, that would now be seen at close range (especially Goliath's head was worked over), 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").[6]

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 derives from Donatello's solely documented teacher Lorenzo Ghiberti. the face appears rather blank (that is, if one expects naturalism, but very typical of the International Gothic style), and David seems almost unaware of the head of his vanquished foe that rests between his feet. Nevertheless, at its time the statue was considered "as an achievement of great significance",[7] and some scholars have seen an element of personality – a kind of cockiness – suggested by the twist of the torso and the akimbo placement of the left arm,[8][9] but overall the effect of the figure is rather bland. The head of Goliath, lying at David's feet, "is carved with great assurance and reveals the sculptor's genuinely Renaissance interest in an ancient Roman type of mature, bearded head".[10]

The experience with the inappropriate size contingent upon the beholder's point of view was probably decisive for Donatello. The consequence was the Joshua, a five meter high colossal statue made of whitened terracotta (to imitate marble), which was erected in 1412 on one of the buttresses of the dome. However, permanent repairs soon became necessary and finally the decaying sculpture was dismantled in the 18th century.[11] Donatello's friend and colleague Filippo Brunelleschi probably already was involved in the project of the Joshua, because in 1415/16 the opera commissioned both of them to look for alternative material and technical possibilities, to make the twelve actually planned sculptures more resistant to climatic influences, for example by using gilded lead as a protective coating. However, it never came to that.[12]

After another but abruptly aborted attempt in 1464 by Agostino di Duccio on a huge block of marble that had been acquired by the opera, and a short-lived engagement by Antonio Rossellino ten years later, it was finally Michelangelo who managed to carve a colossal David out of the neglected deformed block,[13] which, however, was not installed on the cathedral either, but in front of the Palazzo della Signoria (today a copy), because again of his vital symbolic meaning for the city-state.[14]

The bronze David[edit]

Another view

Donatello's bronze statue (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, and bears the sword of Goliath.

The creation of the work is undocumented. 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.[15]

According to one theory, it was commissioned by the Medici family in the 1430s to be placed in the center of the courtyard of the old Medici Palace. Alternatively it may have been made for that position in the new Palazzo Medici, where it was placed later, which would place the commission in the mid-1440s or even later. The statue is only recorded there by 1469. The Medici family were exiled from Florence in 1494, and the statue was moved to the courtyard of the Palazzo della Signoria along with Donatello's bronze Judith,[16] which had an equal topic and potent symbolic meaning. The David lost its place (and its column) in the middle of the courtyard to a fountain in the 1450s and was installed in a niche flanking the doorway near the stairs, where the Judith stood since the early 1500s.[17]

In the 17th century the David was moved to the Palazzo Pitti, to the Uffizi in 1777, and then finally, in 1865, to the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, where it remains today.[18][19][20]

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.[21] A quattrocento manuscript containing the text of the inscription is probably an earlier reference to the statue; unfortunately the manuscript is not dated.[22] Although a political meaning for the statue is widely accepted, what that meaning is has been a matter of considerable debate among scholars.[23]

The iconography of the bronze David follows that of the marble David: a young hero stands with weapon 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 favourite of Hadrian renowned for his beauty. The statue's physique, contrasted with the large sword in hand, shows that David has overcome Goliath not by physical prowess, but through God. The boy's nakedness further implies the idea of the presence of God, contrasting the youth with the heavily-armoured giant. David is presented uncircumcised, which is customary for male nudes in Italian Renaissance art.[24]


Back view of the buttocks 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 placed in the town hall of Florence in the 1490s indicates that it was not 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."[25] 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.

Goliath's beard curls around David's sandaled foot, as if the young hero is running his toes through his dead opponent's hair. 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.[26][27] A second is to suggest that the work refers to homosocial values in Florentine society without expressing Donatello's personal tendencies.[28][29] A third interpretation is that David represents Donatello's effort to create a unique version of the male nude, to exercise artistic licence rather than copy the classical models that had thus far been the sources for the depiction of the male nude in Renaissance art.[30]


Detail of the base

The traditional identification of the figure was questioned in 1939 by Jenő Lányi [de], with an interpretation leaning toward ancient mythology, the hero's helmet especially suggesting Hermes or Mercury. A number of scholars since have followed Lányi, sometimes referring to the statue as David-Mercury.[31] 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.[citation needed] However, all quattrocento references to the statue identify it as David.[32]

3-D model of the bronze statue (click to rotate)


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 "mineralised 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.[33]

Copies and influence[edit]

After Donatello, David, before 1879, plaster, shellacked, Gipsformerei of Staatliche Museen, Berlin (inv 2204)

David continued to be a subject of great interest for Italian patrons and artists. Later representations of the biblical hero include

Following the model of Donatello's David for other figures are for example Pollaiuolo's bronzetto of Hercules at Rest (c. 1480), two figures of Andrea del Castagno's cycle of Illustrous Men and Women from the Villa Carducci at Legnaia (detached frescoes, 1448–49, Uffizi, Florence). Pontormo and Francesco da Sangallo are among the artists who made sketches of the bronze David, that have been preserved (c. 1514 and 1455 resp., Uffizi).[34]

Plaster casts taken from original sculptures that were otherwise unobtainable, were bought by museums and other collections or have their own plaster workshop like the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. Among the 7000 casts the workshop produced since 1819 is also a copy of the bronze David, that was taken from the original some time before 1880, and served itself again for over a dozen plaster copies in the last century alone.[35]

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has also a David in their huge plaster collection, although with a broken sword. Full-size white marble copies are to be found in the Temperate House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey (near London), and at the Slater Museum at the Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Connecticut, United States.[36]

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. ^ Caglioti, pp. 34, 112.
  6. ^ Documents on the statue may be found in Janson, pp. 3–4, and Omaggio a Donatello, pp. 126–127. On the political implications of David for early-modern Florence, see Maria Monica Donato, "Hercules and David in the Early Decoration of the Palazzo Vecchio: Manuscript Evidence," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 54 (1991), pp. 83–98; Andrew Butterfield, ”New Evidence for the Iconography of David in Quattrocento Florence,” I Tatti Studies 6 (1995), pp. 114–133.
  7. ^ Pope-Hennessey, p. 16.
  8. ^ Poeschke, p. 377.
  9. ^ Omaggio a Donatello, p. 125.
  10. ^ Grove
  11. ^ In addition to written sources, there is only one pictorial representation in a painting by Bernardino Poccetti, Antonio Pierozzi, ordained archbishop, enters the Florentine Cathedral of 1604/5 (Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Chiostro di Sant'Antonino), in which a colossal statue can be seen placed on the second buttress of the North Stand. Cf. Caglioti 2022, fig. 61 on p. 88.
  12. ^ Caglioti, pp. 37f.
  13. ^ Milanesi, Gaetano (1875), Le lettere di Michelangelo Buonarroti pubblicati coi ricordi ed i contratti artistici, Florence, pp. 620–623. For a translation of the text, see the citation in David (Michelangelo).
  14. ^ Cf. David (Michelangelo)#Placement.
  15. ^ Greenhalgh, M. (1982) Donatello and His Sources, London, p. 166.
  16. ^ Janson, pp. 77–78 with quotation of the sources from 1469 and 1495.
  17. ^ Janson, p. 80. While theDavid seemed to loose significance as a public symbol, the Judith regained visibility with its new placement in the Loggia dei Lanzi.
  18. ^ Poeschke, p. 397.
  19. ^ Omaggio a Donatello, pp. 196–197
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ Zerner, Henri; Vasari, Giorgio; Bettarini, Rosanna; Barocchi, Paola (September 1972). "Le Vite de' piu eccellenti pittori scultori e architettori nelle redazioni del 1550 e 1568". The Art Bulletin. 54 (3): 355. doi:10.2307/3049011. ISSN 0004-3079. JSTOR 3049011.
  22. ^ Sperling, Christine (1992). "Donatello's Bronze 'David' and the Demands of Medici Politics". The Burlington Magazine. 134 (1069): 218–24. JSTOR 885118.
  23. ^ 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 (1069): 218–219. JSTOR 885118.[permanent dead link]
    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 (1): 32–47. doi:10.2307/3177189. JSTOR 3177189. S2CID 191562817.
    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. S2CID 153718684.
  24. ^ Steinberg, Leo (1982). "Michelangelo and the Doctors". Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 56 (4): 552–553. PMID 6760942.
  25. ^ 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."
  26. ^ Janson, pp. 77–86
  27. ^ Schneider, Laurie (1973). "Donatello's Bronze David". The Art Bulletin. 55 (2): 213–216. doi:10.2307/3049095. JSTOR 3049095.
  28. ^ Randolph, Adrian W.B. (2002) Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence, New Haven, pp. 139–192, ISBN 0300092121.
  29. ^ Frontain, Raymond-Jean. "The Fortune in David's Eyes". GLRW. Archived from the original on 2009-03-19. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
  30. ^ Poeschke, p. 398.
  31. ^ 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 Parronchi, Alessandro (1980) Donatello e il potere, Florence, pp. 101–115 and Fossi, G. et al. (2000) Italian Art, Florence, p. 91.
  32. ^ Shearman, John (1992) Only Connect...Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 20–21, ISBN 9780691099729.
  33. ^ Il Restauro del David di Donatello. Museo Nazionale del Bargello. polomuseale.firenze.it (in Italian)
  34. ^ Rowley, pp. 356-75.
  35. ^ Rowley, p. 122.
  36. ^ Shana Sureck (July 14, 2002). "Dusting". Hartford Courant. Retrieved 2011-10-10.


  • Avery, Charles; Sarah Blake McHam (2013) [2003]. "Donatello". Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved April 2, 2023.
External videos
video icon Donatello's David, Smarthistory
  • Janson, H.W. (1957). The Sculpture of Donatello. Princeton. ISBN 978-0691003177.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Pope-Hennessy, John (1996) [1958]. Italian Renaissance Sculpture. An Introduction to Italian Sculpture. Vol. 2 (4th ed.). London: Phaidon. ISBN 0-7148-3015-1.
  • 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 978-0810932111.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Caglioti, Francesco (ed.) with Laura Cavazzini, Aldo Galli and Neville Rowley (2022). Donatello. The Renaissance. Venice: Marsilio Arte. ISBN 979-12-5463-006-8.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Rowley, Neville (ed.) with Francesco Caglioti, Laura Cavazzini and Aldo Galli (2022). Donatello. Erfinder der Renaissance. Leipzig: E.A. Seemann. ISBN 978-3-86502-482-4.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

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