David by Donatello
Bronze Statue: History, Interpretation.

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David (c.1440-43)
Bargello Museum, Florence.
Icon of the Florentine Renaissance
and Donatello's most revolutionary
bronze sculpture.

Statue of David (1440-43) by Donatello


Donatello's Bronze Statue
Donatello's Marble Statue of David
Sculpture by Donatello
Other Famous Statues

Further Resources

How to Appreciate Sculpture
How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture

Donatello's Bronze Statue

Without doubt one of the greatest sculptures of the quattrocento, and an iconic work of Renaissance sculpture, the bronze statue of David, by Donatello (1386-1466), is one of the most daring interpretations of a Biblical theme in the history of sculpture. Credited with being the first free-standing male nude statue since the era of Greek sculpture, the sleek form and flowing naturalism of David's contrapposto pose, allied to his poised but provocative demeanor and the sensual surface sheen of the bronze, combine to bring the statue to life. This ability to inject human vitality into a standard image of Christian art, was Donatello's greatest skill. Indeed, the gratuitous nudity of the figure transforms it into a living work of classical beauty, exactly in line with the aesthetics of Classical Greek art. For a young city like Florence, threatened by rival city-states such as Siena and Milan, the feisty warrior boy David was an ideal emblem, and it seems likely that Donatello deliberately gave him a coquettish arrogance, to reflect the Florentine sense of cultural superiority over their rivals - a superiority which had been clearly demonstrated a decade earlier, at the Battle of Romano. Now in the Bargello Museum, Florence, the statue remains - along with David by Michelangelo (1504) - a defining work of Renaissance art by one of the most influential Renaissance sculptors of the age.




Most art scholars believe that the sculpture was commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), who had a particularly high opinion of Donatello, but exactly when it was made is not known. Majority opinion appears to favour the 1440s, when the new Medici Palace was designed and built by the Florentine architect Michelozzo di Bartolommeo (1396-1472). In any event, by the time of the wedding of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1469, the bronze stood in the centre of the courtyard of the Medici palace in Florence. Following the seizure of the Medici palace in 1495, and the expulsion of the Medici family from the city in 1496, the David was placed in the courtyard of the Palazzo della Signoria, where it was installed on a marble column. It was seen here during the mid-16th century by the Mannerist biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) who wrote: "This figure is so natural in its vivacity and softness that artists find it hardly possible to believe it was not moulded on the living form." During the 17th century it was moved to the Pitti Palace, from where it was taken in 1777 to the Uffizi Gallery. Finally, in 1865, it was transferred to the Bargello museum, where it can be seen today.


The statue, cast in bronze, stands a little over 5-feet in height (159 cm). An illustration of the Biblical story of how the young Jewish fighter David killed the armoured Philistine giant Goliath in single combat, armed only with a sling and a few pebbles, it shows David with an enigmatic smile, standing with his foot on Goliath's severed head. The young warrior is naked, except for hat and boots, and holds the sword of Goliath in his right hand. Allegedly inspired by classical depictions of the renowned young beauty Antinous, a favourite of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, Donatello's work was the first unsupported standing bronze statue cast during the Renaissance, and the first of three famous Davids: the other two being the more conventional bronze (1475) by Andrea del Verrochio (1436-88), and the famous marble statue of David (1501-4) by Michelangelo (1475-1564). Other versions include the bronze (1470s) by Bartolomeo Bellano (1440-97); and the marble (1623–24) by Bernini (1598-1680).




Donatello departed from more conventional "heroic" renderings of David by presenting him nude, in the manner of a slim, pre-pubescent boy. This depiction has baffled scholars for centuries. True, the Bible states that David was a beautiful youth, and he was supposed to have gone into battle without any clothes. But if this is true, why is he wearing a hat and boots? And why is he depicted in such an effeminate pose, with the emphasis on his lower stomach? These attributes are quite unnecessary either in terms of Biblical narrative or classical conventions. After all, Michelangelo, also depicted David without clothes, but his was a far more masculine figure.

Some art historians have suggested that Donatello was expressing a gay viewpoint through his sculpture, but this seems unlikely. At the time the statue was cast, this vice was illegal, and close to 15,000 people had been put on trial for it. To flaunt such deviancy would be extremely risky, both for the sculptor and patron. In contrast, other experts believe that Donatello was signalling that only with God's help could the diminutive boy have vanquished such a terrible foe as Goliath. Yet others believe the statue to be an allegory of civic virtues overcoming brutality and irrationality. The only thing that art critics agree on, is that Donatello created one of the most revolutionary male nudes in the history of art.

There is no record of any contemporary reaction to the statue, although the fact that it was not placed inside the civic town hall, after the banishment of the Medicis, suggests that it might have been considered controversial.

It is worth mentioning that some critics have interpreted certain elements of the statue (feather in Goliath's helmet, David's hat) to mean that the figure depicted is not David but the Greek God Hermes (the Roman Mercury). However, all references from the Early Renaissance (1400-90) clearly identify the sculpture as David.

Donatello's Marble Statue of David

One should note that in 1408-9, at the age of 23, Donatello carved a bland, conventional 6-foot tall marble sculpture of David for the cathedral of Florence. Part of a series of 12 statues of prophets, which were originally intended as decorations for the buttresses, this gothic-style piece of religious art ended up in the Palazzo della Signoria, and is now in the Bargello.

Sculpture by Donatello

Plastic art by Donatello can be seen in situ across Italy - see, for instance, his bronze Equestrian Statue of the Gattamelata (Condottiere Erasmo da Narni) (1444-53) in the Piazza del Santo, Siena - and in several of the world's best art museums, notably the Bargello Museum and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (both in Florence). There are several copies of Donatello's David: including a plaster replica at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; a white marble copy at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey; and a plaster copy at the Slater Museum in Norwich, Connecticut, United States.

Other Famous Statues

For reviews of other celebrated examples of statuary, by some of the world's best sculptors, see the following articles:

- Venus de Milo (c.100 BCE) Marble, Louvre, Paris.
- Laocoon and His Sons (c.42-20 BCE) Marble, Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican.
- David by Michelangelo (1501-4) Marble, Academy of Arts Gallery, Florence.
- Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna (1583) Marble, Florence.

• For more about celebrated Renaissance sculpture, see: Homepage.

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