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The Other Statues of David

Elvira Valentina Resta

ASAG Journal

April 30, 2020

One of the greatest challenges in the history of art, was when creators attempted to free one of the greatest heroes of ancient times from his marble tomb using only a chisel.  The protagonist David, the young shepherd who became king of Israel, took down the fierce, but weaponless Goliath of Gath, of the Philistines, using only a slingshot. 

The task of emulating his stoic, godlike presence resulted in the birth of five sculptures, by four artists, but one clear winner in the race, with his magnificent statue, left the others in the shadows and David standing immortal for all to gaze upon throughout the centuries.

The first to step up to the task, was Donatello of Florence 1386 – 1466, bringing two renditions to life. The first of them was the marble David (1408/9), in the Bargello National Museum in Florence. The sculpture, emblem of the "Florentine civic virtus", is still linked to the Gothic style. The gentle but inexpressive face with stylized hair and amaranth crown, subtle proportions and elongated in elegant pose, still follows a canon of courteous beauty. But there are signs of a new will to represent: the support on one leg, the twisting of the torso, the realistic hands indicate a study from the real life. The crown of amaranth refers to classical works as a profane emblem of the fame of heroes. However, the human dignity and moral strength that are the spirit of change, are most visible in his second David (about 1443), bronze, also in the Bargello. This work was made for Cosimo, the Old Lord of Florence. David is depicted as the representation of the Greek god Mercury who triumphs over Argos. The sculpture is the first all-round nude of the Renaissance period, creating a new form for artists to explore. The Donatello was inspired by the Hellenistic statuary, and this is noticeable in the arched and sinuous pose of the figure. The acrid nudity alludes to the reason and courage that defeat the irrationality and brute force.

Andrea del Verrocchio’s, Florence 1485 - Venice 1488, bronze David in the Bargello ordered by Lorenzo and Giuliano dè Medici around 1475, takes the same subject of Donatello, but becomes the portrait of a proud young man and winner of idealized beauty, still linked to gothic ways. A perhaps more superficial depiction of the massive spirit of the David, and although beautiful, it did not attain monumental status in the community.

Humankind is required to wait another 26 years to see the heroic soul emerge from the slabs of stone into one of the most stunning sculptural masterpieces the world has ever seen. Among the greatest artists of mature Renaissance style, after living, working and studying in Rome, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Caprese 1475 - Rome 1564, returns to Florence and in 1501, under commission, creates a marble work of such power that it stood and shone, far above its previous counterparts. In his David (Florence, Gallerie dell’Accademia) all Florentines see embodied, the virtues of fortitude and wrath, to which the freedom and glory of the city are entrusted, and in the exaltation of its physical and moral power, they celebrate the humanistic values of the greatness and dignity of man. The ancient classical statues suggest to the artist the idea of athletic naked figure, but Michelangelo moves away from the calm of the classical statues to give his David the internal psychological tension. The asymmetry of the pose, the weight carried on one side of the body where the arm is stretched and on the other side the limbs are flexed in a hint of motion and realizes the unity through the muscular movement that passes through the sculpture making it vibrate with physical and moral strength.

However, despite Michelangelo’s accomplishment, it was the genius of the new Baroque spirit of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Naples 1598 - Rome 1680, a young artist who made his own Hellenistic sculptural technique, that reached the depths of artistic possibility. His David, portrayed in the midst of the famous struggle, created a fluidity and movement that brings it to life, as if the observer is watching the match in real time.   The Donatello David has already beheaded Goliath, while through Michelangelo, he is waiting for the clash; but in the work of Bernini, the hero is at the acme of the action. The marble David (1623/24) of the Borghese Gallery in Rome, created for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, is the ultimate in expressiveness, with its power, its concentration on the adversary and the effort are the overcoming of all Renaissance sculptures. The light envelops the body of the hero emphasizing the muscles in tension, the polished naked male contrasts with the lights and shadows that are created between the hair, along the drape and on the surface of the armor.

Bernini lives in the civilization of image, communication and persuasion of visual language. The creative freedom and the overcoming of the rules and the representation of space as infinite continuity make the artist definitely the winner of this fantastic race. Bernini freed the David from the recesses of myths to become a physical, aesthetic legend for many generations to behold.



The Other Statues of David

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