Donatello’s First Statue of David: One of the Most Significant Sculptures of Renaissance Period
The story of David comes from the first book of Samuel chapter seventeen in the Old Testament of the Bible. It is about a young man named David, who is brave enough to take on this terrible giant, named Goliath. Goliath is a great Philistine warrior who comes out to the battle lines and challenges the armies of Israel to come and fight him. However, all of the men were too fearful of confronting this enemy. Meanwhile, young David is there to check on his older brothers and overhears this challenge from Goliath. It offends him that Goliath is challenging the people of Israel and God. As a result, David steps up to the challenge – all without any armor to protect him. The men who are present all think this to be a horrible idea. After all, Goliath is an experienced soldier, wearing strong armor and carrying a sword, spear, and javelin. However, there was one thing David had that Goliath did not – the living God on his side. David steps forward, takes his sling and hurtles a stone at Goliath’s head, causing him to fall.
To the Florentine people, this was not merely King David from the Bible. There was a wide range of affiliations. First of all, David in the scriptural story vanquishes his enemy – even though he is the underdog. He overcomes his enemy with God’s help. The Florentine people felt as though they related to David because, like David, they had defeated their adversary, the Duke of Milan, with the assistance of God. Thus, Goliath assumes the role of the Duke of Milan. Milan was altogether stronger than Florence, which was a trade culture, as opposed to military power. Florence was, of course, a republic whereas Milan was totalitarianism. That is, it had a single ruler. So David became a representation of the Florentine Republic. Anybody seeing this figure in the fifteenth century would have understood David as a reference to the freedoms and the liberties that were so cherished by the Florentine people. Donatello did the first statue of David that came onto the scene in the mid-1400s. Donatello’s David is oftentimes viewed as one of the most significant sculptures of the early Renaissance because it was the first free-standing nude sculpture since classical antiquity – a significant accomplishment.
In the Renaissance, the figure looked remarkably alive, given how medieval sculpture had looked for so long. It is disconnected from any figural group or architecture; thus, there is a sense of autonomy – as though this figure could move forward voluntarily. The figure is referencing the classical in another manner, as well as in its material nature. The statue is bronze, mostly copper with a bit of tin added to it to give it strength. David is youthful, and it is hard not to see a sort of sensuality in the manner that David puts his hand on his hip and looks down. What’s more, the way that he’s wearing boots and a hat, and is generally naked, there’s a sort of eroticism there. That is particularly clear if you look at the way that David is standing on the now severed head of Goliath. In fact, in his right hand, he’s holding Goliath’s very own sword which David has used. However, since he is standing on the head that pushes his leg up, one of the wings of the helmet is riding up the inner thigh, perhaps too high. So there is a sort of over-sexuality here. It is so interesting because it is at odds with the civic symbolism of this sculpture. This was a sculpture that was important to the city of Florence. And yet, it has this very intimate quality to it.
In this sculpture is this embodiment of the promise of a long rule. In the Bible, David grows up to be king and to be enormously wise. It was a perfect story for the people to put forward as a representation, not only of the city but specifically of their own rule within the city. In other words, they are identifying themselves as the city of Florence and identifying themselves with youthfulness, with King David, and with all that is great about the Florentine Republic. And although this is a sculpture that is about war, the symbols are clearly about David and peace. David wears a soft hat as opposed to the helmet of war that Goliath wears. David has severed Goliath’s head Goliath’s battle-hardened sword. And if the viewer is to look at that sword closely, they would be able to see that there are notches out of it – signifying that it has been in many, many battles. David needs to borrow it in order to sever the head. However, in David’s other hand, he holds a rock. Presumably, the rock that he used in the slingshot to take the giant down in the first place.
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