Sculpting David: Donatello and Michelangelo

The young figure of King David, as represented in the Biblical story of David and Goliath is frequently represented throughout art history.  Perhaps no representation is as well known as Michelangelo's sculpture of David in Florence.

David, Michelangelo, marble, 1501-1504, Accademia Gallery, Florence
photo- © Rico Heil / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

Michelangelo won a contest to carve the figure of David out of a block of marble that had been worked on more than 50 years earlier possibly by Donatello or a member of his workshop.  At that time the marble was said to have had a flaw in it and the project was abandoned.  Michelangelo however was very excited to have the opportunity to now carve from it.  He was just starting out in his career and only 26 years old when he began this piece.  


The subject of David and Goliath was a popular one, and at this time in history it was commissioned to represent the city of Florence.  Florence was a small city and could be seen as the smaller "David" winning battles with several different "Goliaths." France had taken control of the Duchy of Milan in 1494 and then the French army marched to Florence, however Florence was able to negotiate for peace instead of captivity.  The famous influential Medici family was exiled from Florence when Lorenzo's son Piero II rose to power, before the Florentines created their peace treaty with France he surrendered the main fortress of Tuscany to avoid war.  The Florentines were enraged and the Medici were exiled for nearly 20 years.

In the 1490's the Domenican monk Savonarola had wielded much power over the Florentines and preached that the new arts and humanism of the Renaissance would bring down the city.  He staged several huge bonfires known as "Bonfires of the Vanities" in which art, books, furniture, clothing, jewelry and anything he considered a luxury were burned.  He was burned at the stake in Florence in 1498 after being excommunicated by the Pope.

As Florence faced the French army, the Medici and Savonarola and kept coming out ahead the symbol of the boy David facing the giant Goliath had an extra layer of symbolism and came to represent the pride they had in their republic.
Michelangelo's David is different in that he chose to depict the moment before David kills the giant Goliath.  He isn't afraid at all, he is shown with complete confidence as he faces his much larger foe and knows for certain that he will emerge the victor.  The symbolism here is that Florence emerged as victorious several times from large threats in the 1490's and would again in the years to come. 

Michelangelo's close study of human anatomy (including dissecting corpses to learn more about bones and muscles) can be seen here in what has come to be thought of as the perfect example of the human form.
Giorgio Vasari was a contemporary of Michelangelo and an artist himself, but is known best for his comprehensive biography of all the Italian Renaissance artists, known as Lives of the Artists.  In this book he tells a story about Michelangelo and his sculpture of David (paraphrased from pgs 427-428):

As he was finishing the statue Piero Soderini who was the Gonfaloniere (one of the highest posts in the Florentine government) stopped by and said that he really liked the David but that the nose was too big and that Michelangelo should chisel it down to make it smaller.  Michelangelo had no intention of changing the finished David but also thought that Soderini was looking at it from the wrong angle.  He climbed a ladder with a handful of marble dust and his chisel and pretended to chisel as he threw the dust around.  

When he asked him what he thought now Soderini said, "I like it better, you've made it come alive."

David, Donatello, bronze, c-1430, National Bargello Museum, Florence
photo- © Patrick A. Rodgers / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

This wasn't the first time that Donatello had sculpted the David, but this sculpture was a departure from his earlier two.  The others were both done in marble showing a young clothed boy, the first was created in 1408-09 and the second was begun around 1412 and was left unfinished. 

In fact Donatello's 1430 bronze David was a departure from any contemporary figurative sculpture, being the first life-size nude created since antiquity.  This was done when Donatello was well established in his career and was commissioned by the extremely influential Cosimo de'Medici.

Donatello has sculpted a "Triumphant David" in that he showed him after he has already killed Goliath and his foot rests upon the giant's severed head.  He is sculpted after the battle between the two. The sculpture was meant to stand in the round, many of Donatello's works were created for niches but this was meant to be seen from all sides.  He has sculpted him in a contrapposto pose, a term which refers to the naturalistic way in which a human figure is shown with weight distributed to one hip and how the rest of the body shifts in relation to that.  Michelangelo drew on this type of contrapposto pose when he created his David as well.

Let's compare these two famous sculptures of David side by side:



Both look towards the ancient classical examples found in Greek or Roman sculpture and Michelangelo was also influenced by all the work of Donatello who he considered a great master sculptor.  Donatello's earlier version was created over 70 years earlier and was inspired by the ancient art he saw on his trip to Rome (discussed further in an older post on the Beginnings of the Renaissance.)

There is a great difference in size between the two: Donatello's stands at 6 feet tall (185 cm) while Michelangelo's is over twice it's size at 13 feet, 5 inches tall (411 cm).  Another big difference in the way they were constructed, Donatello modeled his figure in clay and then had it cast in bronze.  This was technically very difficult, after it was sculpted it would be covered in wax which would eventually be melted out when molten bronze was poured into the mold made from it.  Michelangelo carved his David from a huge block of marble.

As stated earlier Michelangelo shows the moment before David slays Goliath, where Donatello shows a scene after the battle.   Both were revolutionary works of art that changed the direction of sculpture that came after them. 


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