Donatello's bronze sculpture of David is his second of two works based on the biblical hero. This statue is regarded as his finest achievement and the most famou sculpture produced by this artist.
The Museo Nazionale del Bargello holds this memorable creation that is far more well known and artistically respected than his earlier marble version that arrived in around 1408-1409. Donatello was undoubtably one of the finest sculptors in all art history and highly significant in influencing elements of the Italian Renaissance. The bronze version of David is perhaps his most famous sculpture from a list of around 20 that still remain today. Some of these are similarly free-standing figures whilst some of his other work was more decorative for existing architectural features. The achievements of Donatello in this extraordinary bronze sculpture have unfortunately been overshadowed some what by Michelangelo's sculpture of the same name. Art history has a tendancy to go through fashionable periods and currently the work of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael is focused on much more than that of the single-disciplined Donatello.
The theme of David featured in the oeuvre of many famous sculptors from the various stages of the Renaissance, though Donatello was certainly one of the earliest. Besides the world famous version by Michelangelo from 1501-1504 there were also significant contributions from Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bartolomeo Bellano, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Verrocchio and Antonio del Pollaiuolo. The concept of something or someone overcoming overwhelming odds provides inspiration that remains timeless. It is specifically the triumph of good over evil, thanks to the intervention of God, that makes this such a symbolic tale. David receives strength from God which enables him to defeat his much larger opponent with just a small sling. Having stunned Goliath he then uses the giant's own sword to behead him and confirm victory.
Goliath's initial challenge is rejected by all of the Israelites' soldiers, leaving the brave shepherd boy to step into the breach and take him on. The Philistines agree to withdraw from their occupation if David is victorious, believing his chances to be virtually nil. They honour their agreement after the battle and the Israelites are saved. The story tells of great courage, and of how one can overcome the greatest of challenges, against all the odds. Countless numbers of artists and writers have used David within their work to deliver powerful symbols of these important qualities. Donatello himself saw an opportunity to cover this theme in different ways across his sculptures, and was not someone who liked to repeat what he had done already, as underlined by the number of different materials that he used across his career. Some notable sculptors would stick to a single material throughout their careers but Donatello was to adventurous and curious to follow this path and eventually mastered wood, marble, bronze and clay by the end of his career.
Donatello's Bronze David Sculpture from 1430s-1440s
The artist's second sculpture of David measures 158cm and is dated from around the 1430s to 1440s. David wears only his helmet and boots in this depiction. Many elements of this sculpture offered a return to the style of ancient art, and it is this version which has become much more famous today. In this truly charismatic pose, David holds Goliath's sword by his side, whilst holding down his severed head under his left foot. Renaissance sculpture was often about bringing emotion into the faces of each subject, and in this particular piece we see David giving out a subtle smile as he looks down to the ground. The composition places David just after his battle, seemingly relaxed and relieved to have prevailed against a formidable opponent. Whilst the story behind this artwork is well known, the artist would always aim to re-invent it a little within his own interpretations and never simply follow the same method as previous sculptors had done.
Donatello's David in Marble from 1408-1409
The earlier marble version displays how Donatello worked prior to developing his signature approach. At this point he was following the traditional gothic approach where facial expressions and emotions were kept to an absolute minimum. This makes the piece more bland in the opinions of some, as compared to the bronze version which followed on afterwards. That said, there is still much to be impressed by with the technical work in this sculpture. This was Donatello's first documented commission and he was already very accomplished in his abilities, even whilst just in his early twenties. David stands with an aura of self confidence as he leans over slightly with a hand resting on his waist. Again, the head of Goliath is resting under his foot, though without the emotion in his face it is hard to connect to the battle that has just been won. In this version he is fully clothed, and this offer an insight into how Donatello was able to produce lifelike drapery within his sculptures.
Where can the David be found today?
Both the bronze and marble sculptures can be found today in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, Italy. This city was a key element of the rise of the Renaissance and it still today contains some of the most significant paintings, sculptures and architecture to have been produced during that time. To be able to see the two together is a real treat for visitors, and offers an easy way in which to visually compare the earlier and later work of Donatello. The important nature of these sculptures has meant that a number of high profile copies have been made of them, and these are dispersed today right across the world. The bronze statue received considerable preservation work as recently as 2008 in a process that was carefully organised by the Bargello itiself. This helps to ensure the highlights of their collection remain in tact for future generations to enjoy.
Which version is more artistically impressive?
There is a clear difference between the style of Donatello's two interpretations of David. The earlier piece in marble is more in line with the International Gothic direction which was common in Italy for several centuries leading up into the Early Renaissance. We were therefore seeing Donatello displaying more of the influences upon rather than his own innovations at this point. The bronze iteration, however, would be much more interesting and artistically significant, particularly in how emotion is brought into the facial expression of the subject. Additionally, there are some technical features which were found in ancient times and that make a re-appearance here, which would then spread into other parts of the Renaissance once a number of sculptors became sold on this re-imagining of past methods. Donatello would therefore bring back the old, but with innovations that made it all seem entirely fresh.
What is the story of David?
David was a young shepherd who rose to become king over all of Israel and Judah. He would impress initially by slaying the giant Goliath, when all the trained and armed soldiers refused to take on the challenge. This achievement would bring him favour with the then king of a united Israel but later he came to be considered a threat and was forced into hiding. Once the danger was gone he returned to take his new position as king and then conquers the city of Jerusalem, and then establishes the city as the capital of Israel. As important as his political roles were, most of the general public are only aware of his iconic battle with Goliath and the manner in which he overcame slim odds in order to be victorious. Those knowledgeable on the Hebrew Bible will be aware of many other aspects of his life besides just this single scene which would inspire so many painters and sculptors from many centuries.
How do the two status differ?
The differences between these two artworks help to underline some of the changes that occurred within Donatello's work as he progressed through his career. In terms of how the pieces were composed, both David's have their arms by their sides. In the bronze version, the sword of Goliath is grasped as a symbol of victory. Both have similarly angled left arms which are bent, with the hand resting on his waist. The marble status features stunning drapery, particularly in the lower half, whilst the bronze reduced the clothing to almost nothing and this gives Donatello the opportunity to show off his ability to deliver a lifelike physique which suggests David to be a particularly slim and athletic hero. Both have their foot on the head of Goliath as a further symbol of the impressive victory that they have just achieved against all the odds. The marble version is somewhat taller and also does not have the same gap between the subject's legs, with a cloak covering it from behind. The bronze version features a helmet which again is more explicit about the recent battle than in the stone version from several decades earlier.
Does Donatello use any symbolism within these sculptures?
The most obvious example of symbolism within the story of David against Goliath is of courage and bravery, and how it can help you to overcome the greatest of odds. The bronze sculpture in particular depicts the figure as relatively slim and petite in stature, yet still he has the head of Goliath under his foot. The victorious battle is represented by the helmet that he wears, but also in how he holds Goliath's sword in his own hand. His confidence is delivered from a small smile which extends across his face, whilst the earlier piece is relatively neutral in that regard. The sword also represents the specific slaying of Goliath, who took it from his opponent before finishing him off, after initially stunning the great fighter with the single strike of a well aimed stone. The strength of will that he found is believed to have come from the word of God, which also symbolises the power that one can enjoy if they follow and respect his word.
What other sculptures did Donatello produce in bronze?
Donatello had a diverse career which made us of a wide variety of different materials, all of which he was able to master over time. Clay, wood, marble and bronze formed different artworks from across his career. In terms of other examples of his use of bronze, the most famous example would have to be his Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata which resides in the Italian city of Padua. That piece features a horse and rider upon a two-sides relief, with a column beneath which holds the display high in the air above one of the region's busiest piazzas. The Feast of Herod is perhaps the artist's other famous bronze creation and was a relief which featured some extraordinary hand crafted detail that offers something different to the free standing monuments that we find with the other items mentioned here. He was a truly gifted and versatile sculptor who rightly remains regarded as one of the true masters of the Italian Renaissance.
Which other sculptors depicted David?
Michelangelo's David, of course, remains the most famous depiction of this figure and perhaps is also the most famous sculpture in the world. There were, however, many other notable contributions from other Renaissance artists, as well as several who followed on afterwards such as in the Baroque era. The story of David featured powerful content which could inspire emotional and impactful art, be it sculptures or paintings, and so it was inevitable that others would take these tales into their own work. Other notable contributions include Domenico Ghirlandaio's David, Verrocchio's David, Antonio del Pollaiuolo's David and also another version of the figure by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Even within this small selection, there is an interesting mix of mediums, including fresco, oil, marble and bronze.
Large Image of David in Bronze
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.