The story of the biblical hero David and his battle against the giant Golliath was very popular among Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists. Four great artists of the two periods have created statues with this theme. Each of these represents the genius of the artist and the ideals of the period during which it was created. Donatello’s David is the earliest, created in c. 1428-1432 (Tansey and Kleiner, 688). Verrocchio’s sculpture was made in c. 1465-1470 (Tansey and Kleiner, 715). Both belong to the Early Renaissance. Michelangelo’s David is part of the High Renaissance, created in 1501-1504, while Bernini’s work is an example of the Baroque and was completed in 1625 (Tansey and Kleiner, 746, 825).
Donatello and Verrocchio chose to represent their hero after the battle when he has defeated his opponent (Tansey and Kleiner, 688). With the head of Golliath lying at the basis of both sculptures, the viewer immediately realizes the moment in time the artist depicts. Donatello’s David is an almost life size (62 ¼ inches) nude adolescent, depicted in classical relaxed contrapposto. He is holding his sword and is gazing downwards towards his elegant and graceful –almost effeminate- body (Tansey and Kleiner, 688).
Also depicted in a relaxed contrapposto and also made of bronze, Verrocchio’s David differs in many other ways from the earlier example of Donatello. To begin with, it is significantly shorter at 49 ½ inches. More significantly, the hero is represented fully dressed. He is still an adolescent, but is more athletic and confident, as can be seen by his posture (Tansey and Kleiner, 715). The form of the sculpture is “open” as opposed to the “closed” form of the earlier statue. This is shown through the opening of David’s body and the positioning of his sword (Tansey and Kleiner, 715).
The first two statues are both made of bronze. Michelangelo chose a different material, marble. He created his David from a gigantic block of stone and his statue is the biggest of all four standing at 14’ 3’’ high (Tansey and Kleiner, 746). Marble, unlike bronze, depicts the human skin more realistically due to its color and reaction to light (Collins). Although less strong than bronze and prone to staining, the effect it creates is more naturalistic (Collins). Michelangelo depicted a young man slightly older than the earlier examples. He is totally nude and his body idealized following the Classical ideals (Tansey and Kleiner, 746). He is represented not after the battle but at the moment before it, as he gathers his strength to attack. Although his face seems calm and serious, the tense of the muscles of his body, which are clearly articulated, reveal his tension. Unlike the earlier examples of David, this statue, seems to look out of the space of the sculpture towards his opponent (Tansey and Kleiner, 746).
Unlike the three Renaissance artists, Bernini substituted the relaxed contrapposto with a posture full of energy and action. The hero is represented at the moment of the attack. Typical of the Baroque style, the scene is dramatized showing the full extent of tension in David’s face and movement as he turns to throw the stone that will eventually kill Golliath (Tansey and Kleiner, 825). This is a man well into his adulthood, still athletic and determined. He is half naked, only his genitalia covered with a piece of cloth. The statue is also made of marble and is 5’ 7’’ high (Tansey and Kleiner, 825). More than Michelangelo’s David, Bernini’s statue directs the eye of the viewer out of the space it occupies. Not only is it supposed to be viewed from different angles, it also gives the illusion that Golliath is standing right in front of David waiting for the attack (Tansey and Kleiner, 825).
Each representation of David is unique in the way the artist chose to depict a very well known story from the Bible. The differences show how individual artists approached the subject but also reflect the ideals of the Renaissance and Baroque styles.
Collins, N. “Renaissance Sculptors”. Encyclopedia of Art. Web. 10 July 2013.
Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.