Michelangelo’s David towers over the history of Renaissance art in Florence. His expression of beauty, idealized and immortalized in stone, has drawn millions of visitors from around the world. Yet, there are other Davids, equally fascinating and artistically important, across the city of Florence. Four remain in the city and two have been placed in other collections.
Representations of David, the youthful seemingly weak warrior who changed the destiny of an army and a people, became the symbol of republican Florence. In the view of the Signioria, the governing body of the city, David signified this strong message: “Don’t assume weakness in what might appear to be a feeble government. We have slingshots and we will use them.”
One of the earliest pieces sculpted by Donatello is his first David, completed in 1409. Though the work was given additional touches by the master in 1416, it still stands as a monumental change in the style of the more staid and accepted statues of his day; the mark of a master artist.
This is a gentle David, not a fierce warrior. The position of the fingers on the left hand, the curve of the body in a kind of easy repose, the lay of the right hand over the center of the body all convey someone at rest, someone who has not just beheaded a Goliath and turned the fortunes of war. Laying almost serenely at his feet, the head of the giant peers out from between David’s feet. Perplexing in its ease, confounding in its implied intent, this is truly a master’s piece.
The masterpiece of the collection of these varied and unique works of art is, I believe, the Donatello bronze David. Michelangelo is quoted in many sources as saying it was Donatello’s work, his eye and his commitment to an entirely new way of creating sculpture, that inspired Buonarotti’s work. Donatello’s is the second oldest of the Florentine Davids, having been completed in 1440. It was commissioned by Cosimo di Medici to be placed in the central courtyard of the family’s home in the center of Florence.
Cast in bronze and astonishingly different, viewers who study the piece – its details and hidden messages – are constantly amazed at its complexity. As with many masterful works of art, Donatello’s vision of the young David incites criticism and inquiry.
Why does Goliath have a helmet on his head? If David’s slingshot is, as the Bible implies, capable of accuracy with a stone, would that stone have penetrated the helmet? Would the blow have been so strong as to kill the Goliath?
Why does Donatello’s work figure a man as you view the piece from the front, yet from the back seems so feminine? The asexuality of this David presents one of its most confounding questions.
Then, there is that feather…Goliath’s helmet was cast with two feathers on it. One has been crushed by David’s foot, yet the other feather caresses nearly the entire distance of the inner right thigh. Was the feather used to create increased stability for the pose of the cast bronze? Was it a slap in the face of the supposedly conservative morals of a city that was known to be anything but conservative?
Is this Donatello David an homage to the ancients – a rebirth of the classic bronze nudes of Greece?
The list continues. The more a viewer takes the time to study the statue on the first floor gallery of the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, the more questions that viewer takes away.
It was in 1473, that Andrea del Verrocchio began work on his bronze statue of David. (Note: Many art historians estimate the work to have been completed in ca. 1465). This work mimics the asexual posturing of the Donatello bronze David in many ways. The languid curve of the body, the position of the hand on the statue’s left hip, and a sword that seems to be held at the ready all underscore, once again, the figurative representation of Florence’s idealized vision of itself. The commission that Verrocchio received was for the work to be displayed in the Medici home.
A recent restoration of the bronze has uncovered gilding, hidden by centuries of varnish and pollution. Additionally, the placement of Goliath’s head on the piece, as originally intended, seems not to be where it has lain for centuries. Many art historians now believe that the head was originally intended to lay to the right of David’s right foot. At a recent loan to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the head was so positioned raising even more questions about this masterpiece of Renaissance art.
It is interesting to note that, until the next statue of David was commissioned, Verrocchio’s bronze still interpreted the youth as relatively weak, ostensibly incapable of violence. The piece now has a place of importance in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence.
Sometime between 1470 and 1480, another young sculptor who was a student of Donatello, one Bartolomeo Bellano, created a bronze cast statue of David. This work, gilded on bronze, is another curious representation of the moments after Goliath’s death. Rather than head up in pride and strength, Bellano’s work shows the young man posed in a very similar way to Donatello’s bronze: the sword supports the right arm, the sling lays loose at the figure’s side, the head of the giant lays between the feet of the conqueror. This particular piece, though created in Florence, now is part of the Met Museum’s collection in New York City.
An anonymous sculptor, known as the Master of the David and St. John statuettes, created a David out of terracotta in 1490. Absent the fact that this statue was created from fired terracotta rather than bronze, this work reflects very strongly the influence of Verrocchio’s 1476 work. The hand position, the lay of the hand on the left hip, the position of the sword all are similar in both style and, it seems, creative intent to that of Verrocchio. This piece is currently in storage and is not available for public viewing as of the date of the blog post.
Now comes Michelangelo. The young master selected a piece of Carrara marble that had long been abandoned in a side yard of the city’s cathedral workshops. Rossellino – who had attempted years before to carve the piece, had ceased to work on it for reasons still unknown.
The Operai, those who were responsible for the works of the Duomo, were commissioning sculptors to create large statues to be placed along the buttresses of the Duomo, Santa Maria dei Fiori. Michelangelo’s persistence and insistence that he should have the commission, even after masters like Leonardo da Vinci had been consulted, finally paid off. The Operai made it clear that this David was to be strong and veral. Since this statue was to be a major work for the duomo, it was to communicate to the world, THIS is Florence, this is the city of the Medici, of art and of financial power.
For as many books have been written about how the David was carved, there are differing opinions. One historian posits that the master used a wax model that was submerged in water. Michelangelo, he proposes, slowly let water out of the container and, as the level exposed the model, so carved Michelangelo. Another wrote that the statue was created, as the master so often is quoted as saying, “I simply saw the figure of David in the marble and I carved away all the stone that did not belong.”
Whatever anyone’s interpretations are, the first view of the statue, mounted on a large base at the end of a low-lit corridor that is lined with Michelangelo’s “Slaves” (once displayed outdoors in the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace) is breathtaking. Few are unaffected by the stunning visual impact of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
The physics of moving such a heavy piece of marble to the top of the cathedral generated long discourse over the appropriate location for the statue. Final agreement was reached that it should stand outside the entrance doors of the city’s Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of the city government. It remained there from 1504 until 1873 when it was moved into the protection of the Accademia di Belle Arti.
The space that was once occupied by the David, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, remained empty until 1910 when a copy of the David was placed in the same location.
Michelangelo’s intent in leaving the head of Goliath completely out of the work was in keeping with the Operai’s original intent that the work would surmount the entrance of the city’s cathedral. Others have interpreted the absence of the giant’s severed head as indication that Michelangelo created a young man who had made the decision to kill Goliath. The stone in the statues right hand and the position of the sling over his left shoulder seem to support that view. The fierce determination on the young man’s face, especially when seen straight on in photographs, also shows a focused determination to action.
As with all things Florentine, surprises are found in nearly every museum, every piazza, every palazzo. When you are in the city, be sure to expand your understanding of the history of David. Many exist and each deserves the same attention that “the David” has garnered for centuries.
IF YOU GO: (Details for the Accademia follow the Bargello)
Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Via del Proconsolo, 4 50122 Florence, Italy
Entrance Tickets: Euro 4.00 per person
Hours (Please note the unusual hours that this museum is open)
Monday – Sunday, 08:15AM – 1:50PM
NOTE: The ticket office closes at 1:20PM and closing processed begin at 1:40PM
Closed the 1st, 3rd and 5th Sunday of each month,
Closed the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month
Closed January 1, May 1 and December 25.
Accademia di Belle Arti
Via Ricasoli, 66 50122 Florence, Italy
Tickets: BOOK YOUR TICKETS and ENTRANCE TIME IN ADVANCE! (Web: Pre-Reserved Tickets)
Lines at the Accademia for public access are, during the summer, as long as a two hour wait. To avoid that delay, you can prepay for tickets to the Accademia to see the David on a specific day and for a specific time. Also note: the afternoon summer sun warms (and I mean WARMS) the wall where the public access line is located. To avoid any long delays book in advance!
Note; CLOSED ON MONDAY
Open 08:15AM to 6:50PM Tuesday to Sunday
Closed: Mondays, January 1, May 1 and December 25