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Donatello’s Marble and Bronze David Statues


Written by Sarya Gulec


David was the second and the greatest king of Israel between 1010-970 BCE. He is usually represented as a young shepherd holding a sling who defeated the giant Goliath. Under David’s rule, Israel became a powerful empire. After David, his son Solomon came to the throne and the United Kingdom of Israel continued until 930 BCE, when it was divided into two states. Even though King David has great respect for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, his legacy is complex; he is also credited as a ruthless conqueror who engaged in numerous bloody battles.  Despite all this, his status as one of the most famous figures in history and the Biblical scriptures is indisputable. 



The meaning behind the David sculptures in Florence


David was not the first biblical or mythological figure to have a special meaning to Florence. John the Baptist was a saint who appeared on the coins and Saint Anne was seen as the city’s protector after the tyrant Walter of Brienne (1302 – 1356) was expelled from Florence on her feast day in 1343.[2]


However, the figure that the David statues most functionally resemble is the Greco-Roman figure, Hercules. A bronze relief of Hercules was installed on the doors of Florence Cathedral in 1405. As a classical hero, he is depicted naked with a powerful build, showing his strength. His mythological role as the one who defeated the tyrants was full of political meaning. 


David and Goliath's story in the Old Testament is a metaphor for Florence, who saw itself as a strong state holding its own against the neighboring threats. David’s unexpected victory against the Philistine giant Goliath made the perfect allegory for Florence, a smaller state that has succeeded in its independence among the great and strong states.



Donatello’s Marble David Sculpture



Donatello carved his first marble David when he was in his early twenties, and it was commissioned in 1408 by the Opera del Duomo, to stand high on the buttress of Florence Cathedral. It demonstrates a traditional gothic influence alongside Donatello's clear knowledge of the sculpture of Ancient Greece and Rome, seen in David's youthful head and the hint of a classical contrapposto stance (with the weight carried on his left leg).[4] David appears more beautiful than heroic. There is not much of a traditional contrapposto throughout the statue, which is often seen in the statues of male heroes. We can observe Donatello's carving skills in the details of the tightly warned garment, stitched at the side and knotted on the chest of the young David and Goliath's head, with its wiry hair and beard, still has the lethal stone embedded in its forehead, and the sling (minus its straps) is loaded with another missile in readiness.


Despite David's elongated body and Donatello’s attention to how his sculptures would be viewed, the finished product was too small to be seen when high up in the Cathedral. In 1416, it was taken over by the government, and Donatello was paid to make adjustments for its move to the Palazzo Della Signoria (now Palazzo Vecchio), or town hall. We still don't know the exact work he took, but we know it was placed in Sala dell'Orologio (room of the clock) where it soon became the symbol of good government. An inscription was added in 1510 stating that with God's help, it was possible to defeat even the most terrible of foes. 



Donatello’s Bronze  David Sculpture



Donatello tackled the subject of David once again in the 1440s. This time it was in the form of a bronze sculpture commissioned by the Medici family, whose political influence in Florence was increasing.[2] Donatello sculptured his second David in a very different way from the first. While his previous work presented David as beautiful, this time he took the notions of ideal beauty to the realms of erotic. He shaped David’s body to be especially lithe, to the point of almost feminizing him.[2]


The sculpture presents David naked, emphasizing his youth. This was the first nude sculpture in Europe since the classical period. David's feminization is further enhanced by his posture. David's hips are tilted to one side, giving the appearance of feminine curves, as he raises his left foot to step on Goliath's severed head. Donatello delves much deeper into the specifics, the feather that reaches up David's exposed leg from Goliath's helmet acts like a hand caressing the flesh.




Since the second statue was a private piece for Palazza Medici the eroticism is greater than the marble statue which was a government commission. The erotic nature of the design is improved by its bronze medium. Bronze's intelligent quality emphasizes the points of interest and forms of the body, drawing the viewer's eye toward the illusion of soft skin.


Crucially, the Medici family appropriated David as a symbol of their power, linking it explicitly to the marble David in the Palazzo della Signoria by commissioning the same artist. Rather than a civic symbol for the government, David now represented the Medici family's political influence over Florence. The wreath underneath Goliath’s helmeted head only emphasizes this victorious theme.[2] 


In 1495, after Piero de’ Medici's fall and Dominican friar Savonarola's rise, the Florentine Signoria seized the sculpture, relocating it to the Palazzo della Signoria, home of Donatello's first David. This move transformed the political iconography, portraying the Medici as tyrannous giants defeated by the Florentine government. Perhaps the political importance of relocating the sculpture was more significant than putting a controversial homoerotic artwork in a government building.  



References:


  1. Bazzanti Art Gallery Florence. (2015, February 13). Donatello's David. https://www.galleriabazzanti.it/en/prodotto/david-di-donatello/

  2. Cobb E. (2023, November 2). The 4 David sculptures of the Renaissance: Donatello to Michelangelo. TheCollector. https://www.thecollector.com/david-sculptures-renaissance-florence-donatello-michelangelo/

  3. McAloon, J. (2018, November 8). Understanding Donatello’s “David” as a work of gay art. Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-point-one-worlds-famous-sculptures

  4. Victoria and Albert Museum. (n.d.). Donatello's 'David'. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/donatellos-david/

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