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The Evolution of David: Donatello to Bernini

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The Evolution of David: Donatello to Bernini

            Everybody likes an underdog, perhaps none in history more than the city of Florence.  Facing invaders who often, fortuitously, were stricken with illness or other non-battle related deaths, Florence believed that they had God on their side, much like the youthful David in his battle with Goliath.  Florence, the Rome of the Renaissance, took David as their symbol, and the Medici often used his image to portray themselves as the reason for the success of Florence.  So many masters have portrayed David in so many manners that there seems to be at least one example from each of the major art styles of the time.  From Donatello’s classically inspired feminine boy to Bernini’s Counter-Reformation warrior, the biblical slayer of Goliath is a worthy measuring stick of style and political influence on art.

Donatello’s bronze David reflects a revival of the Classical period and the style of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  The Medici family, great patrons of the arts, and the most powerful political family of Florence, commissioned Donatello’s bronze David.  The Medici thought of themselves as the reason for Florence’s superiority as a city-state and thus used the Florentine symbol of David as their own (Kleiner, 2010).  Donatello’s bronze David is vastly different from his marble David, which was completed while Florence was under threat of invasion by King Ladislaus (Kleiner, 2010).  Donatello’s marble David portrays an older, more warrior-like, fully clothed David to show that Florence was willing to fight for its freedom, and is in the Gothic style rather than the Classic-inspired style of the Renaissance.  His bronze David was the first freestanding nude in the Renaissance (Shaked, 2007).  David is nude, but wears a shepherd’s hat and sandals, possibly as a note of sarcasm towards Church officials who argued that a biblical hero and ancestor of Christ should not be nude (Shaked, 2007).  David stands in a typical contrapposto stance, weight shifted on one leg with hips pointing one direction and shoulders in another.  Donatello depicts him after his victory over the giant, Goliath, with Goliath’s sword in hand and his head beneath his foot.  Goliath’s head itself offers much detail and conflict over what that detail means.  The tendrils of his hair curl over David’s foot, and his iron helmet, much better suited for battle than David’s lack of armor, is adorned with a scene that some say depicts the Ark of the Covenant (Shaked, 2007).  The battle on his helmet shows a previous battle in which the Israelites brought the Ark out, confident of their victory, but the Philistines won, an outcome Goliath was hoping to repeat (Shaked, 2007).  In addition, while Goliath’s helmet is often depicted with small, decorative wings, the wings on this Goliath appear to be live and large.  While David stands on one wing with his right foot, a much longer wing on the other side rests against the inside of David’s thigh, coming very close to his groin.

There have been a number of suggestions about why Donatello portrayed David as such an effeminate figure with the wing of Goliath’s helmet resting on the inside of his thigh.  Some say it was to point towards Donatello’s homosexuality (Schneider, 1973).  Another example may be found in the revival of Plato and the current atmosphere of Florence.  Plato, and many other ancient Greeks, believed that the greatest love was found between two men, due to the inherent inferiority of women (Schneider, 1973).  The Bible is wholly against homosexuality in places, but read with a certain eye, the verses about Jonathan’s love for David can easily refer to such love.  Plato’s Symposium asserted that the love god Eros, the Roman version of Cupid, inspired soldiers and was a protector of those soldiers who went into battle alongside their male lovers (Schneider, 1973).  By making David a beautiful boy, which also keeps with the biblical statement of David being “ruddy and handsome, with pleasant eyes,” Donatello may have been inferring that David was protected not only by the Jewish God, but by Eros as well (1 Samuel 16:12 New Living Translation; Schneider, 1973).  Florence, at the time, was considered a “modern Sodom” and David, as a symbol of Florence, could have been meant to portray the defender of laws that encourage Platonic love, the love between men (Schneider, 1973, p. 22).

The Renaissance was, at first, not as much an advance of culture, but a rediscovery of Classical Greece and Rome after the Middle Ages.  The influence of Classical art is evident in David, as many of the ancient Greek and Roman statues depicted nude males in contrapposto, but rather than a young god or hero from myth, he chose the biblical slayer of Goliath.  He uses the soft form, “proportions and sensuous beauty” of the Greek sculptor, Praxiteles (Kleiner, 2010, p. 427).  As mentioned previously, with the interest in ancient Greece and Rome came a rediscovery of the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, possibly lending credence to the suggestion that Donatello placed David under the influence of Eros.

In contrast to Donatello’s Classic-inspired David, another sculpture for the Medici was Verrocchio’s humanist, realist David.  In this David, Verrocchio did not portray David as nude, and he wears a leather doublet instead.  According to the Bible, Saul, the King of the Israelites, gave David a bronze helmet and coat of mail to protect him when he volunteered to go into single combat against the Philistine giant.  David put the armor on, but discovered that it was too heavy, and he could not move well, so he removed the armor.  Many representations of David show him as nude, inferring that David had removed his clothing to don the armor, and when he removed the armor, he had no other clothes on.  This is possibly corroborated by Goliath’s proclamation that “I’ll give your flesh to the birds and wild animals” since his flesh would have been open to injury (1 Samuel 17:46).  Unlike Donatello, Michelangelo, and Bernini, however, Verrocchio chose to show David donning a lighter version of armor common with runners and assistants on the battlefield (Shaked, 2007).  This idea is suggested by Shaked by comparing David’s clothing to that of a prince’s assistant in the painting Ferrante d’Aragona, duca di Calabria, e il suo seguito by Angrea dall’Aquila (2007).  The prince wears armor, plain and unadorned, specifically suited for protection, while the man next to him wears an “ornate blouse and skirt, though he is armed with a sword and a helmet,” suggesting that he may need to move about the battlefield as an assistant or a runner, but still be capable of fighting if necessary (Shaked, 2007, p.25-26).  The skirt would have allowed for better movement than the heavy armor that was given to him, and may have been more indicative of his gear as an armor bearer, which Saul had made him prior to the battle (1 Samuel 16:21).  As it stands, the clothing worn by Verrocchio’s David is extremely form-fitting, and the floral embellishments mimic the human body.  His ribcage and belly button are both easily visible despite the clothing, which makes it appear as though he was originally intended to be nude, but for the skirt hiding his genitals, or if it is to be left to the viewer to decide whether he wears clothing or not.  There is similar confusion with his feet, his shins depicted as wearing some form of boot, but his toes are exposed.

Unlike Donatello’s effeminate boy, Verrocchio shows David as wiry, but strong in adolescence.  This is more an example of humanism and narrative realism as his protruding veins and the pride of a hunter posing with his kill show Verrocchio’s understanding of the Bible and the “psychology of brash young men” (Kleiner, 2010, page 428).  As an interesting bit of additional trivia, it is said that the model for David was a young apprentice of Verrocchio’s, named Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo, n.d.).  Verrocchio did choose to portray David at the same moment as Donatello, after his victory, with Goliath’s sword in his hand, and his head at David’s feet, but unlike the almost comically large sword in Donatello’s work, Verrocchio’s sword looks like it was made for David instead of Goliath.  Also like Donatello’s David, this piece was commissioned by the Medici, reaffirming their connection with the biblical hero, who later sold it to the Florentine government to place in the Palazzo della Signoria (Kleiner, 2010).  After the Medici’s exile in 1494, the government appropriated Donatello’s David to place in the city hall as well (Kleiner, 2010).

Seven years after the exile of the Medici, the Florence Cathedral building committee requested that Michelangelo use a block of marble that had been intended for another project to make another David.  Initially, it was to be placed atop the cathedral’s roof, offering one of many reasons for it to be so large, but its beauty and size demanded an alternate placement.  After much debate, it was placed outside of Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine city hall, replacing Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes (Levine, 1974a).  There was some vocal opposition to having David face the Florentine public since his gaze is so intimidating and terrifying, but from the “front,” which is actually the side view, he looks calm and peaceful, as though he was simply tending his sheep (Levine, 1974a).  It is possible that the original intended placement would have David staring maliciously at Rome, Florence’s enemy at the time, and even his current placement may be to turn his hostile gaze away from public sight, since he is facing a set of columns and a true frontal view is unattainable in person (McCulloch, 2007).

Michelangelo’s David is full of the artist’s unique style and differs tremendously from the two bronze statues discussed earlier.  Although the biblical hero was often portrayed as a youth, adolescent at best, Michelangelo portrays him as strong, vital, and large at over fourteen feet tall.  The reason for David’s size may be due to the large piece of marble given to Michelangelo to use, or may be to signify that with God’s will behind him, David was more formidable than Goliath, standing at only nine feet tall according to the Bible (Shaked, 2007; 1 Samuel 17:4).  Another reason given for his musculature may be that the unmarried Michelangelo never had a female model, only studying male corpses (Shaked, 2007).  He may have also considered true beauty to have been in strength and muscle, supported by the rather muscular women he painted in other works, such as the Sistine Chapel (Shaked, 2007).  This may be because Michelangelo himself was rather muscular.  Working marble by hand was strenuous work, and he often referred to sculpting as the superior art form, mourning the loss of his sculptor’s physique in old age, so he depicted his figures as “the highest form of human perfection: as sculptors, as ‘Michelangelos’” (Shaked, 2007, p. 15).  His strong nature is also spoken of in the Bible when he states that he has fought and killed bears and wolves who come after his sheep with nothing but a club (1 Samuel 17:34-37).  Not only is the statue itself large, but his proportions are large as well.  His large hands and feet as well as his musculature hint at the strength to come in the future as well as in this particular battle (Shaked, 2007).

Unlike Donatello and Verrocchio, Michelangelo chose a moment in time before the battle with Goliath, instead of after victory.  There have been sketches of David attributed to Michelangelo that may show his original intent to place Goliath’s head at David’s feet, which could have been thwarted by the shallowness of the marble near the legs from a previous, abandoned work (Shaked, 2007).  Michelangelo wanted to be true to the biblical story, and due to uncertainty about the style of sling used, he placed the sling over the left shoulder, out of view (Shaked, 2007).  By turning David’s head so far to the side, the statue breaks from the self-contained tradition and almost forces the viewer to look in the same direction and imagine the giant Goliath approaching.  This is likely the moment in time that David gazes across the field of battle at the approaching Philistine and decides on his strategy.  Another of Michelangelo’s portrayals of David, this one in bronze, held Goliath’s head in the air, and was requested as a copy of Donatello’s by French Marechal de Rohan (Levine, 1984b).  This bronze David is very different from both Donatello’s work and the marble David by Michelangelo, from pose to content (Levine, 1984b).

Not only by the muscular nature of David, but by the tension of the piece, David is a wonderful example of Michelangelo’s unique style.  Michelangelo’s figures usually depict “energy in reserve,” or figures coiled tightly as a spring waiting for release (Kleiner, 2010, p. 468).  This sculpture, more than any other, proved Michelangelo to be a master in his own time.  Only forty years after its completion, Vasari claimed that it “put in the shade every other statue, ancient or modern, Greek or Roman” (Kleiner, 2010, p. 468).  The statue was placed in front of the seat of the Florentine government to signify that just as David was a just ruler and protector of his people, the rulers of Florence must also “vigorously defend the city and govern it with justice” (Kleiner, 2010, p. 468).  David truly exemplifies the Renaissance ideal of power tempered with intelligence, and his demeanor indicates the superiority of inner strength over brute force (Ruehring, n.d.).

Though Donatello, Verrocchio, and Michelangelo all produced distinctly different works of the same subject, they were all tied together within the styles of the Renaissance.  Bernini, on the other hand, was one of the greatest artists of the Baroque period.  Baroque, like many other styles, was ridiculed when it was in its infancy, in this case because of the excess and intricacy of detail compared to the restrictive and controlled Renaissance style.  Where the Renaissance painters, such as Leonardo, would infer emotion and action through slight gestures or facial movements, Baroque artists made emotion more apparent, more energetic, and, to detractors, more overblown (Baroque, n.d.).

The rise of the Baroque style coincides with the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church had long used art as a symbol of power.  The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Tomb of Pope Julius II, and Raphael’s School of Athens in the papal apartments are just a few examples (Kleiner, 2010).  With the rebuilding of St. Peter’s taking an excess of time and money, the Church began selling indulgences, or a way to lessen the amount of time spent in Purgatory, to help pay for the rising costs.  This, as well as rampant nepotism and a general distrust of the Church’s policies caused Martin Luther and John Calvin to “protest.”  They caused a split in Christianity, becoming the Protestants before splitting amongst themselves into the Lutherans and Calvinists.  The Calvinists, and to a lesser extent, the Lutherans, started turning away from religious art, claiming it to be idolatrous.  The Catholics, on the other hand, formed the Council of Trent which affirmed that when using art for religious purposes, it is not the painting or sculpture that is being worshipped, but the figure being depicted.  By using realistic depictions of movement and emotion that is conveyed by the whole body, the Catholic Church hoped, along with pushing some reforms of the Church itself, that those who had turned away from the Church in favor of a personal relationship with God would realize the error of their ways and be inspired to piety (Baroque, n.d.).

In the vein of changing times amid the Christian schism of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Bernini’s David has less in common with the other Davids discussed thus far.  Bernini’s work was one of Rome for his patron, the Cardinal Scipione Borghese, rather than a work of Florence for the rulers, whether Medici or government (Shaked, 2007).  Rather than choosing the popular “victory” to portray, or Michelangelo’s pre-battle pose, Bernini chose the moment with the most action, in keeping with Baroque style.  David is twisted, feet spread wide, rock in sling, with a look of pure determination on his face.  He is nude, but he has a piece of cloth, strategically placed to avoid scandal.  He wears the pouch for pebbles mentioned in 1 Samuel 17:40, and the armor he cast off due to weight and unwieldiness lies at his feet.  The only thing missing from the biblical story is the shepherd’s staff, which was likely dropped when he readied his sling.  Oddly, unlike the other Davids, Bernini’s also has a harp at his feet.  This harp is symbolic of the time he spent play the harp to soothe the King’s tormented soul as well as his work later in life as author of many of the Psalms (Shaked, 2007).  As such, the symbols of the harp, the armor, and the sling indicate the stages and turning points of David’s life: from harpist to slayer of Goliath, to leader of armies and king, to musician again.

Similar to, but extending beyond, Michelangelo’s modeling of bodies after his own impressive physique, Bernini added himself to his work more than any of the other Davids.  The most obvious example is that David’s face is Bernini, who had an assistant hold a mirror for him while carving (Poseq, 2006; Shaked, 2007).  It is likely that young Bernini, at only twenty-five, saw a great deal of parallel between himself and the youthful slayer of Goliath.  They are both “young, at the start of their careers, and face enormous challenges . . . using stone to secure their futures” (Shaked, 2007, p. 44).  Depending on how one would describe David’s facial features, with prominent brow, receding forehead, and curved or hooked nose, he would fit the zoomorphic typology of either the leonine face or that of a bird of prey (Poseq, 2006).  Both of these are considered men who are destined for success with many excellent gifts from God, which Bernini would be quick to assign to himself since he had been groomed for greatness since he was eight years old when he first showed an exemplary raw talent (Poseq, 2006; Shaked, 2007).

The sculpture appears to have taken inspiration from the Borghese Gladiator, an ancient Hellenistic statue that Bernini certainly would have had access to.  The way the statue uses its environment and demands space be made for it had not been seen since antiquity (Shaked, 2007).  Finally, bringing Bernini back to Leonardo, he may have used Leonardo’s advice on painting the throwing figure, from wide stance to where the weight should rest during the movement (da Vinci, n.d.).

Sculpted and painted in so many different political climates from threat of invasion to growing discontent with rulers, different styles, and by different masters, the evolution of David provides special insight into the history of art.  From Classical Donatello to humanist Verrocchio, Michelangelo’s masterpiece to the Baroque Bernini, David represents the artist, the city, and the ideals of the day.


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Poseq, A. W. G.  (2006). On physiognomic communication in Bernini.  Artibus et Historiae 27(54), pp. 161-190.  Retrieved December 1, 2011 from JSTOR.

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Schneider, L.  (1973, June).  Donatello’s bronze David.  The Art Bulletin 55(2), pp. 213-216.  Retrieved December 1, 2011 from JSTOR.

Shaked, G. Masters of Italian sculpture.  (2007). ISBN: 978-1-84799-834-7.


12/08/2011 Posted by | College Papers, Learning | , , | 6 Comments