The story of David and Goliath is often told as incitement to stand up to a bully, encouragement to an underdog, and incentive for trusting in God. Because David, a poor shepherd boy, took on the gigantic Goliath with only his faith and a slingshot for weapons, he epitomizes human achievement, intelligence and valor. That he grew up to be King, reputed for wisdom, only adds to the symbolic value of the story. As such, it is hardly surprising that David became a favored sculptural subject during the Renaissance and Reformation. In particular, the three Davids of Donatello, Michelangelo, and Bernini exemplify the Early Renaissance, High Renaissance, and Baroque periods in Italian sculpture.
Donatello’s David, sculpted in the 1440s in Florence, is a lost-wax cast bronze sculpture, the first of its kind both freestanding and human size since classical antiquity. It marks a departure from Gothic sculpture and reengagement with antiquity in that it is: freestanding rather than being attached to a building or other monumental structure; in the round (sculpted 360 degrees); a nude human subject. The nude human form breaks with religious iconography of the Middle Ages by embracing the body rather than demonizing it. The figure stands in a relaxed contrapposto, glancing down, and smiling almost contemplatively. Both posture and positioning are sensualized and the warm tones of the bronze give it an intimate eroticism that the other two sculptures lack. Originally displayed in the Medici gardens, this young David invites identification with the triumph of humanity and Florence’s victory over autocratic Milan.
By contrast, Michelangelo’s marble David (1504) is a civic monument from start to finish. Comissioned by the republic to sit atop the signoria, it was to represent the Florentine Republic. Even the marble was given to young Michelangelo by the republic. Like Donatello’s, Michelangelo’s David is freestanding, nude, contrapposto, and sculpted in the round. However, it is marble, more than three times human size, and depicts David before the battle. While Donatello glorified the human form, Michelangelo employed extensive accurate anatomical knowledge. His David’s musculature is pronounced, showing the tension of potential movement. Instead of repose, Michelangelo’s David stands in readiness. He has just turned his head to lookin the direction of Goliath. He is not in motion yet, but about to be. Monumental rather than intimate, Michelangelo’s sculpture makes a civic statement about the rising potential of Florence.
Instead of High Renaissance humanism, Bernini’s David (1623) epitomizes the Baroque obsession with drama and movement. David’s garment, the twist of the upper body and the forward step, and the strong diagonals create energy and tension. Bernini’s David captures the scene in media res: David has not acted and is not about to act, rather, he is acting on his faith, about to loose the fateful stone. The emphasis has moved away from anatomical correctness to emotional affect. Viewers feel the explosive force of David’s throw; they share with David the high stakes and strong passions. It is unmediated, not an object for meditation, but an experience. Carved for Rome during the Reformation, this Baroque sculpture arose from the Church’s call for drama and pageantry in contrast to “cold” Lutheranism, to create something stirring and immediate, like David’s experience of God.