One of the highlights of our recent trip to Italy was seeing three sculptures of David: Bernini’s, Michelangelo’s, and Donatello’s. So, I thought I would write about my impressions of these three works, individually and collectively.
The first of the three Davids we saw was in Rome: Bernini’s David at the Borghese Gallery. I’ve already blogged about my general impressions of this museum and sculpture here, so I’ll just sum up my response to this statue briefly.
I love this statue. In fact, it’s one of my favorite statues among the countless number of statues we saw on this trip. I love the intensity of this David, the concentration and strain. This version of the Biblical hero emphasizes that giant killing is hard work.
I also like the way in which Bernini borrows from Classical sculpture in idealizing David’s musculature and bone structure. He’s not an everyman who happens along and kills a giant. He’s a specimen of masculine beauty and perfection who is able to kill Goliath because of his perfection (bodily and spiritual).
This David doesn’t seem to be a specific age, though he’s clearly a man, not a boy. His “manliness” is almost revealed to the onlooker, but his clothing just barely covers it. Again, this reminds me of the Classical statues that surround him in Rome while maintaining the modesty of the Catholic Renaissance.
You can click on this link to the Borghese’s website for more information on Bernini’s David and for a few pictures that capture details from the statue.
For most people, I assume that there is really only one statue of David: Michelangelo’s. It’s certainly the most famous one, the one that everyone immediately knows when they see it.
Not surprisingly, then, one of the main reasons we stopped in Florence on this trip was to visit the Accademia and see Michelangelo’s David. We reserved our tickets in advance, as Rick Steve suggests, and planned our time in Florence around seeing this statue.
First a few words about the museum: the Accademia was originally a school of artists. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Florence’s municipal leaders knew that David needed to be moved out of the elements but couldn’t decide where to put him. Eventually, they decided to add on to the Accademia and put him there, where he could be displayed effectively and preserved for future generations. The museum also features paintings and other works from the artists who were trained here. It’s worth taking a look at the larger collection.
Pictures of David, it seems to me, often fail to show just how large this statue is. It’s almost twice as large as a typical person. Besides this, seeing the statue in person immediately impressed me with the fact that parts of it are out of proportion: the head, hands, and feet are too large for the torso. Michelangelo did this on purpose, since the statue was originally designed to be mounted on top of the Duomo. In order for it to appear correctly proportioned from far below, it had to be foreshortened in this way. Furthermore, the block of marble that Michelangelo was given for this commission was more shallow than other, more typical blocks. The result is a statue of great beauty, but also one that seems a little off when you see it.
David‘s body is the single most beautiful representation of the male torso I’ve ever seen. It’s even more beautiful than a Tom Bianchi model! Michelangelo’s devotion to masculine beauty has earned him a place as an icon in the gay community. Even if he had done nothing else but carve this statue, he would deserve such reference.
While his junk is a little small, his ass is perfection. This is another picture from wikipedia. This is the reproduction of David that stands in the Palazzo Vecchio, where the original David first stood. It’s really interesting to see the original statue in the museum space, perfectly presented for view, and the reproduction out in the palazzo, subject to the shadows and blazing light of sun’s movement, clouds, and changes in weather.
While we were at the Accademia, the museum had a featured exhibit on the works of Robert Mapplethorpe — none of the really outrageous ones, but good ones nevertheless. It was also interesting to compare Michelangelo’s art to Mapplethorpe’s. It made for a very interesting contrast, to say the least.
The final David that we saw was also in Florence: Donatello’s version of this figure. Donatello’s David is housed at the Bargello Palace, a fortress that has been converted into a sculpture museum. Unlike the previous two works, this one is a bronze.
If Bernini sculpted a man, I’d say that Michelangelo sculpted the perfect college jock and Donatello presented a child. His David is a young teenager, a kid who is infused with the power of God to slay the giant Goliath while managing to keep his jaunty hat on his head.
In that sense, Donatello’s statue is fascinating. It’s almost a cross between religious devotion and an inappropriate representation of an adolescent boy. It’s probably the most religiously accurate portrayal of this figure but it’s also potentially the most scandalous.
Donatello was apparently more obviously “homosexual,” and this work in particular is often cited as an explicitly “gay” work. It’s perhaps ironic, then, that of the three Davids we saw I found this one to be the least interesting. Partly, it’s the youthfulness of the subject — I obviously prefer nude statues of men. It’s also partly the fact that it’s a bronze work. I simply find this medium less compelling. But I’m glad I saw it. I’ve heard about it and heard about it. Now I’ve seen it.
So, those are my thoughts on the three Davids. It’s really ineresting to have the opportunity to see three different representations of the same figure in such a short space of time. It gives you the chance to compare and contrast in three dimensions. I loved it!