Patrick A. Rodgers, CC BY-SA 2.0
Where? Room 7 on the first floor of the Bargello Museum
When? Uncertain, but sometime between 1425 and 1455
Commissioned by? Cosimo de’ Medici
What do you see? A bronze statue of about 5 foot (150 cm) tall. David is nude, except for the military boots he is wearing and the shepherd’s hat with a wreath of laurel around it. He is sculpted as a young man with long curls and is not very muscular. David is calmly looking down, which is not exactly the pose we expect after the defeat of Goliath, and he is depicted in a somewhat androgynous way. For example, he has small breasts and from the back it is not clear what the gender of the statue is. David holds the sword of Goliath in his right hand and a stone in his left hand. He has his left foot on top of the head of Goliath. His eyes are gazing downward and, to increase the impact of Goliath’s look, the statue is placed on a pedestal so that the viewer can meet his gaze. The bearded Goliath still wears his helmet, which is decorated with cupids. You can see cupids in front of a chariot in which another cupid is sitting. The helmet also has feathered wings. David is standing with his right foot on the short right wing, and the left wing runs along the right leg of David all the way up to his groin (which you can see from the back only).
Backstory: In 1408-1409, Donatello also created a sculpture of David. This marble sculpture, however, is clothed and can also be found in the Bargello. According to Vasari, the pedestal for the bronze statue of David is probably created by Desiderio da Settignano. This statue is the oldest surviving bronze since antiquity. Bronze was perceived to be the most precious metal after gold, and therefore it was considered to be a special statue.
David and Goliath: The story of David and Goliath is described in 1 Samuel 17. The Philistines were at war with Israel, and the giant Goliath challenged the Israelis to fight with him. If an Israeli would beat Goliath, the Philistines would become their servants, but if not, it would be the other way around. When none of the Israelis dared to fight him, the small David stood up. He declined to wear the armor of King Saul [though it does not say that he went out naked]. He goes into the fight with a sling and five smooth stones and kills Goliath with a single throw. David then took the sword of Goliath and cut off his head. The story of David and Goliath has been an inspiration for many artists, including Michelangelo whose statue of David is in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence.
Inscription: The base of this statue carried a Latin inscription, which can be translated as: “The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe. Behold - a boy overcame a great tyrant! Conquer, O citizens! Kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtues. Behold the neck of pride, severed by the hand of humility.” This inscription was intended to remind the Medici family of how to reign Florence.
Symbolism: This statue symbolized the victory of humility (represented by David) over tyranny (represented by Goliath). The Medici family displayed this statue in the courtyard of the Medici Palace to remind them and others of their humility and strength, but also to justify potential violence against people who were against their regime. The statue was placed footsteps away from the famous Judith and Holofernes statue by Donatello which can now be admired in the Palazzo Vecchio. The cupids on the helmet of Goliath are a symbol of non-religious passion and are a reference to the pagan people who are defeated by God. The wreath of laurel on David’s head is an indication of his victory over Goliath.
Who is Donatello? Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (c. 1386-1466), better known as Donatello, was born in Florence. He was a sculptor that was ahead of his time. He was initially trained in a workshop of a goldsmith. Early in his career he worked together with and learned from Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. He has created statues and reliefs using materials such as bronze, stone, wax, and wood. Together with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, he is considered to be one of the four greatest artists of the Renaissance.
Fun fact: It is assumed that Donatello was homosexual and some people argue that he created this nude statue of David deliberately in a daring erotic posture. The left wing of the helmet that runs all the way up the right leg of David until the groin is interpreted as another sign that this is a homoerotic statue. Homosexuality, however, was forbidden during that time in Florence, but Donatello’s good friend Cosimo de’ Medici defended him from insults and the law. Cosimo was known to appreciate very talented artists and therefore he overlooked some of the bad behaviors that they may display.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster, canvas, or statue (Amazon links).