The Biblical character of David has been the inspiration for many works of art throughout history. The young David, as Goliath’s adversary, has been sculpted by such artists as Verrocchio, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Bernini. Although all of these sculptures are comparable in some aspects, the ones by Donatello and Bernini present significant differences.
Donatello was an Italian sculptor of the Early Renaissance whose work is seen as a link from classic to modern art. He trained in Florence with Lorenzo Ghiberti and began working on his own in 1408. Donatello is considered one of the founders of modern sculpture because of he created realistic human expressions and stressed action and character. He is eminent for his use of perspectives, including physical distortions for dramatic effect, and was a master craftsman with a talent for innovation. Probably the most famous example of fifteenth-century sculpture is the bronze David by Donatello. Dates for the work vary from the 1430s to the 1460s. It is recorded as the centerpiece of the first courtyard in the Palazzo Medici during the wedding festivities of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Clarice Orsini in 1469. Some have argued that it was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici in the 1430s to be the centerpiece of the courtyard of the older Medici house on the Via Larga.
Another great creator of the sculpture of David was Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini was a sculptor, painter and architect and a shaping influence as an outstanding advocate of the Italian Baroque. He was an exceptional portrait artist and owes to his father his accomplished techniques in the handling of marble and also an impressive list of patrons that included the Borghese and the Barbarini families. Bernini originally worked in the Late Mannerist tradition but rejected the contrived tendencies of this style. By 1624 he had adopted an expression that was passionate and full of emotional and psychological energy. His figures are caught in a transient moment from a single viewpoint, bursting into the spectator’s space. Bernini created a life-size marble statue of David that was part of a commission to decorate the villa of Bernini’s patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Galleria Borghese where it still resides. It was completed in the course of seven months from 1623 to 1624.
One major variation between the statues of David is that Donatello’s is very early Renaissance, he is going towards more realistic features, whereas, Bernini is working in a more baroque style, combing action and attentiveness, for instance in David’s face, to achieve a vitality in the work that is not seen in Donatello’s David. Bernini’s David was created during the Baroque Period, a time of great liveliness when artists were captivated by movement and the activities of the human body. This sculpture implies action and captures David as he is actually throwing the stone at Goliath. David’s muscles are tense and contracted. His face is a grimace of concentration, somewhat contorted by the physical effort of his movements. His loosely flowing robe also adds to the idea of movement. Bernini’s sculpture of David was an innovative sculpture for its time, it represents the beginning of a new sculptural artistic.
Another major distinction between Donatello’s and Bernini’s sculpture is Bernini’s captures David during the fight with Goliath while Donatello’s portrays David after the fight. Bernini’s David depicts movement in a way not previously attempted in stone. The biblical youth is taut and poised to shoot his projectile. The twisted torso, furrowed forehead, and granite grimace of Bernini’s David epitomize Baroque fixation with dynamic movement and emotion over High Renaissance inaction and classical severity. The sculpture communicates to an unseen entity, in the form of Goliath, the object of David’s aggression, as well as to the observer, caught in the middle of the conflict. The warrior even literally oversteps the boundaries between life and art, putting his toes over the edge of the plinth. Bernini captures the moment when he becomes a hero. In the work of Donatello, the sculpture is portraying the scene after David has cut off the head of Goliath. His foot is raised on the severed head in a stance of contropposto. His sword is in the right hand with the stone in the left. Donatello has softened the static balance and firm stance of the traditional male figure. This softening is evident in the placement of the two hands as well as the way David’s free leg gently rests on the head of Goliath.
An additional differentiation between the sculptures is that Donatello’s David is nude whereas Bernini’s is semi-clothed. Donatello made history when he created this masterpiece, which became the first free-standing bronze sculpture that was completely unsupported and in nude form in the Renaissance period. The art work caused much controversy due to the depiction of the nude male body. There are a few symbolic elements to this David. The style of the figure refers to antiquity for the balance and composition of the nude. Energy in the sculpture animates the emotions and is a new technique used in this David, once again showing qualities from antiquity. This energy is not used in Bernini’s David.
Another differences between the sculptures is Bernini depict David as more of a man, while Donatello shows him as a young boy. Bernini’s David was an action man, determined by his great skill and his likewise great ego to create a new visual ideal, full of action and incredible determination and self-belief. His hero is full-grown and fully engaged both physically and psychologically, as he takes aim and twists his tensed, muscular body a split second before slinging the stone, grasped in his left hand. Although Donatello was inspired by Classical figures, he did not choose a Greek youth in his prime as a model for his David. Instead, he chooses a barely developed adolescent boy whose arms appeared weak due to the lack of muscles. After defeating Goliath, whose head lies at David’s feet, he rests his sword by his side, almost too heavy to handle. It seems almost impossible that a young boy like David could have accomplished such a task. David himself seems skeptical of his deed as he glances down towards his body. Apparently, David’s intellect, faith and courage made up for his lack of build.
The sculptures of the heroic David are significantly efficacious, Donatello shows David in a moment of thought and triumph, whereas Bernini shows David right in physical preparation for hurling the stone at his opponent. Donatello’s sculpture is iconic. It could be said that practically anyone in the world could recognize it, and when asked to name a sculpture would name it. Bernini’s is less known, but that doesn’t make it the lesser sculpture. Both men were achievers in the field of marble sculpture, the likes of which the art form may never see again, and both works can be considered masterpieces in their own right.