Andrea del Verrocchio's sculpture of David is one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. Made between 1473 and 1475, the statue reflects the biblical hero posing victoriously over the head of the slayed Goliath.
The story of David would inspire many sculptures and paintings during the Italian Renaissance, with Christian themes being prevalent within art at this time. It would be the specific tale of David overcoming Goliath that would be featured most often, as artists looked to harness this powerful tale as inspiration for their own work. Even just within this single art movement, there would be many different interpretations, and each generation would influence the next with their own innovations on this historic theme. Although David would also appear many times within paintings too, it is undoubtably the sculptures which remain strongest in our minds, with this three dimensional discipline seemingly more suited to this particular topic. Andrea del Verrocchio was himself a master of both mediums, as well as being a draughtsman of note too. There was a passion for art flooding through the veins of the city of Florence during this time, where many masters would cover different mediums as a means to take their creativity just as far as it could go.
The artist would have been close to forty by the time that he produced this David sculpture and would continue on for another decade before his death in 1488. Italian regions would use art as a battleground for their own entertainment, seeking to add the finest paintings, sculpture and architecture to each region in order to out do the neighbouring kingdoms. This led to buildings become larger and larger, and also ensured there was plenty of finance and support available to artists with the strongest reputations. Many innovations would come during this fruitful period, and the qualities of the Renaissance in Italy would influence other artists for centuries to come, right across the rest of Europe and further afield. Andrea del Verrocchio was not one of the foremost masters, but is still an importance addition to the 15th century era, with David perhaps being his most memorable sculpture of all. Here we dissect it's qualities, and place it within the context of his career and the overall Italian Renaissance.
Andrea del Verrocchio is perhaps best known today for the pupils that he taught, as much as the work that he produced. That said, the Equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice is still regarded as one of the true gems of the Renaissance era and a number of his paintings are also still highly regarded. Within his own studio, he would help to develop the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino and Lorenzo di Credi, all of whom would go on to become major figures themselves. Linking to the sculpture discussed here, it is actually believed that Leonardo himself served as the model for David, which adds a further historical twist to this highly regarded sculpture. Large studios were common during the Renaissance, with large commissions requiring a good number of assistants in order to be completed within a reasonable timeframe. The great masters would nurture their colleagues' abilities in order to ensure a consistent production in which they can confidently serve in a supervisory role.
The status of David features the figure standing proudly with the head of his victim placed by his feet. He leans slightly to the left, with his hand perched on his waist. In his opposing hand a small knife can be seen. The artist includes details of his clothing, as well as his impressive physical figure, which includes a toned body and athletic presence. David is typically seen as small and slight, but agile, which matches the narrative of his unlikely victory against a far bigger and stronger opponent. The accurate detailing of the veins on his arms contributes to sketching the dynamics of the scene. The giant's head is placed at the foot of the young David. The positioning of the giant's head has been long debated by various schools of art. When the statue was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, Goliath's head was placed between the boy's feet. However, other art historians believe that Verrocchio's intention was for the head to be placed on the right side of David, as a continuum of the ensemble's diagonals.
The Story of David
David rose from a simple shepherd to become King of Israel. His story is told in the Hebrew Bible and several episodes from his life would later inspire artists from around the world. His slaying of Goliath would mark his arrival as a prominent figure and also taught us all about what can be possible in life. Most artists have tended to focus on David in battle, or just after as he enjoys his moment of victory, but others have also taken on other aspects of his life, with Gerard van Honthorst capturing him as an established monarchy in a delightful painting from 1622. The slaying of Goliath is actually a very early point in the story of David, with most passages describing his experiences as king, which includes his extra marital affair with Bathsheba which would lead to great complications with their respective families. He would also come into conflict with his own son, Absalom, which resulted in him having to flee for a period of time.
Leonardo as Model
For the statue figure, the artist may have used a young Leonardo da Vinci, who was a newcomer in his workshop. This view has not been entirely confirmed, however, but has appeared several times in accounts of the sculptor's career. Leonardo's father was friends with Verrocchio but his son's admission to the studio is believed to have been entirely based on his merit. His early talent was clear and eventually Da Vinci would surpass not just his master, but pretty much any other artist from the entire Renaissance, spreading his talents into a diverse selection of inventions, drawings, paintings, sculpture and mathematics. He may have been inspired in the manner in which his master achieved considerable success both as a painter and a sculptor, and would also use his knowledge in each discipline to advance his work in the other. It was encouraged at this time to work across mediums and there would normally be plenty of exchanging of ideas and techniques within the larger studios.
The statue was meant to be a symbol of Florence as a rising power. The bronze statue was first installed in 1476 in the Palazzo Vecchio and then placed in Florence's National Museum of the Bargello. The statue was ordered by Piero de Medici and later sold to the Signora, which was the ruling authority in Florence, Italy. It earned a republican representation such as Donatello's David. However, the similarities between the two end here. While Donatello's David features a vulnerable and nude young boy, Verrocchio's statue is clothed and holds a sword in his right hand, depicting his victory over Goliath. This paragraph cannot be complete without also mentioning the world famous David by Michelangelo. The story of David more generally teaches us about the possibility of achieving the seemingly impossible, even in the face of the lowest of odds and is a lesson that we can take into our own lives as a means to motivating us in times of difficulty. Its prominence within Renaissance sculpture is partly driven by the strength of this story, but also in how artists would study the work of previous masters for ideas of what to cover within their own careers.
Many bronze sculptures were gilted during this period but later lost this effect from the pollution in which they were displayed. Perhaps the best example of this would be Lorenzo Ghiberti's North Doors which had almost completely lost their gilted finish by the time they were moved indoors and replaced outside by copies. Thankfully today preservation techniques are far more effective and also supported by authorities who understand the long term implications of not protecting one's cultural assets. Culture and art is a major element to tourism today, and with international travel so common today, it is essential that any major city keeps its art collection in the best condition possible. It will seem extraordinary today to some that some of these great masterpieces were kept outdoors for centuries and it does not tend to happen today (there are some major Renaissance sculptures which are still out on display in piazzas and much will depend on the medium in which they were produced).
The muscular bronze figure of David clothed in military-inspired garments was the first of Verrocchio's masterpieces. The Bargello Art Museum collaborated with the High Art Museum in the USA to restore the statue and highlight the craftsmanship with which it was executed by the artist. The restoration coordinated by Bargello's curator Ludovica Nicolai under the careful supervision of the restoration laboratory of the Opificio Delle Pietre Dure revealed the true colours of the sculptor. It also uncovered a gilding covering David's hair and parts of his boots and clothes. The positioning of the giant's head at the right side of the figure gives a sense of fluidity and movement to the entire ensemble. There is often collaborations such as this between major art galleries and museums, where their resources can be combined to produce impressive results. Indeed, many historians and art experts will actually spend their time studying in different countries and build relationships with the major local institutions.
Restorers have found that David's 10-inch straight sword is not the original. Art historians believe that David originally had a curved blade. Cutting-edge laser technology was used to remove black varnish and dirt which was covering the fine gilding without loosening any of the original flakes of gold. The restorers discovered that the gold leaf was applied with glue and not fused with mercury, which meant that the sculpture was intended to be displayed indoors. Verrocchio's David is a symbol of Florence's freedom and rising growth. It depicts a young man standing victoriously next to the head of a defeated Goliath. Verrocchio integrated strong symbols in the bronze statue which stands out through the precision with which David's triumph is represented. There has been a huge interest in this particular sculpture because of the role of this theme within Renaissance sculpture more generally, with it also being covered by the likes of Michelangelo and Donatello, as well as Bernini some years later.
Alternative Versions of David
Previous representations of David represented a vigorous and strong warrior; however, Verrocchio's approach was different. He presents David as a young, ambitious and arrogant boy whose posture reveals his personality traits. The precision with which he holds the sword in his right hand and the placing of his left hand on his right hip show the provocative attitude of the young boy. Contributions by Donatello and Michelangelo remain the most famous of all, of course, and the former actually produced another lesser known piece earlier in his carer. Aside from Verrocchio's own contribution, there was also some notable works from the likes of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and also a good number of paintings and drawings too. We do know that Raphael, for example, would sit and sketch some of these masterpieces as a means to study the human body and its role within sculpture. Indeed, this has continued for many centuries since, and one can often find young draughtsmen or women sat within museums and galleries, studying and sketching their favourite sculptures.
Overview of Florentine Sculpture
Florence played a key role in the Italian Renaissance, leading the way in bringing exciting new innovations to the art world. One must remember that the Renaissance itself came in several periods within Italy, but was also going on elsewhere, such as with the North Europeans who brought about the use of oils, for example. There were several other cities across the fragmented region of Italy, but it was Florence that impressed most within the discipline of sculpture. It's greatest names would pass on their techniques down to the next generation, ensuring a continuation of the region's success for years to come. It's reputation was also prominent, bringing patrons from other regions in to acquire the services of its masters, hoping to spread some of this cultural excellence further afield. The city was also successful and wealthy through trade which allowed a number of local patrons to pour considerable finance into some bold and ambitious projects, creating a strong legacy which is still famous today right across the world. Florentine sculpture was famed for bringing a naturalistic style to the medium, allowing visitors to connect emotionally to these stunning statues.
Andrea del Verrocchio's Role within the Renaissance
The Italian Renaissance would revitalise many different aspects of culture, with sculpture being amongst the most impacted. A more natural approach would arrive, which also took in many contemporary subjects for the first time as the discipline developed in exciting ways. This period also featured regular competitions, in which sculptors would produce small models of their designs and the winner's would be awarded the commission. Verrocchio was quick to learn the methods of winning these battles and this helped him to easily acquire a number of high profile commissions. The funds also helped him to finance a large studio which in turn allowed him to take on extra work. He installed himself as a favoured option for many wealthy Florentines, establishing his legacy and also ensuring a strong political backing for his career. Whilst highly regarded during his own lifetime, many studies into his impact now focus more on the other artists that he helped to develop within his studio, which was also very much the way during the Italian Renaissance. In return for their diligent work, students would be taught all of the techniques that they themselves needed to succeed on their own once they had departed the master's studio.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.