Michelangelo's David

There is more than one "David" in Florence

What is the story of David and how accurately do these statues reflect that story?

Did you know that Michelangelo's David is one of a longer list of Davids made in Florence? Donatello and Verrocchio also did David sculptures, while the figure also appears (more rarely though) in painting. What is the story of David and how accurately do these statues reflect that story?  

In the Middle Ages the biblical figure of David that was favoured was that of an aged King David (usually shown with a harp as his attribute), while in the Renaissance they began to promote David before his rise to the throne. And that’s when he was a shepherd-boy, keeping his father’s flocks. The Catholic Encyclopedia is a great resource for reading on Saints, by the way, from which we learn:

"whilst his three elder brothers were in the field, fighting under [King] Saul against the Philistines, David was sent to the camp with some provisions and presents; there he heard the words in which the giant, Goliath of Geth, defied all Israel to single combat, and he volunteered with God’s help to slay the Giant. David’s victory over Goliath won for him the tender friendship of Jonathan, the son of Saul. He obtained a permanent position at court, but his great popularity and the imprudent songs of the women excited the jealousy of the king, who on two occasions attempted to kill him".

King David in the Spanish Chapel

This is the only painted David in Florence of which we can think, let me know if you know of others. David is seated with other Biblical figures on the wall depicting the Triumph of St. Augustine in the Spanish Chapel of Santa Maria Novella. As this fresco dates from 1366-8, we get a rare glimpse of the Elderly King version of David. (We are pretty sure the guy with the harp is him.)

Donatello's Marble David

David becomes a wiry youth in Donatello's Marble David, when the sculptor, too, was in his youth (dating 1408-16, it was his first work). The age of this figure probably approximates the correct biblical age of the boy whose older brothers were off fighting while he was excluded. The clothing is also rather credible. You can get right up close to this work so go check out the way the rock is embedded into Golaith's head.

Donatello, Marble David
Donatello, Marble David

Donatello's Bronze David

David becomes a rather sexy tween in this bronze version that may date to the 1440s. He is wearing a warrior-like helmet and boots, and he stands on a large winged helmet attached to the head of Goliath.  The bronze must have been a personal commission, for display in a private situation that would have allowed for outright sexuality like the way that the wing on Goliath's helmet runs up David's leg and tickles his privates. Read a bit more about this David and his roommates in the top 5 things to see in the Bargello.

Verrocchio's David

On the top floor of the Bargello Museum, in a room almost to himself, is the cocky young David by Verrocchio (circa 1475). This artist certainly knew the Donatello version and has chosen to depict the same moment of the story, but again with stylistic and formal differences.  The figure holds a short sword (remember it's supposed to be the sword that belonged to the 9-foot tall Golaith) in order to extend the direction of his jutting-out hip, creating a rather more open composition than the closed, finalized position of the Bronze by Donatello.

Verrocchio David
Verrocchio David

Michelangelo's David

Dated 1501-4, this masterpiece can be visited at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, where it is enshrined in its own "tribune". After seeing the precedents, I don't have to point out the fact that this is the first David to be nude; in fact it's the first monumental nude since antiquity. Michelangelo also picked a different moment - most scholars agree that this is the moment before the action, as the figure's brow is furrowed in contemplation of the task ahead. And of course it's much larger, but that's because it was created for placement high up on the cathedral. 

 

Cover image credit: Michael Kooiman

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