The David of the Bible conquered Jerusalem, committed adultery, lost a son, and put down two rebellions. Most famously, he fought Goliath. The book of Samuel tells that David defeated Goliath, prize warrior of the Philistines, using only a slingshot and a staff. And this moment – not any other from his long and illustrious biography – captured the imagination of Renaissance artists.
Completed in 1504, Michelangelo’s marble David stands eleven feet taller than life. His hands are large and his arms are long; his head is heavy, though it does not hang. It is a classically muscled and attractive youth, not a historical vision of David, who lived around 1000 BCE. Also unrealistically, the sculpture appears very slender when viewed from the side – almost a flat vertical plane – because the artist worked from a block of marble already hacked by another.
Had the artist worked with a whole block, the stone would still have involved technical challenges. Marble is hard and fairly dense (around 2.7 metric tons per square meter), but brittle enough that marble figures can require special supports. The artists of antiquity used metal joins and dowels to hold limbs, heads, and accessories in place. Renaissance sculptors and their successors rejected that technique, relying instead on occasionally awkward landscape elements to keep sculptures standing. In keeping with this, a small tree trunk curves backward from David’s calf.
Michelangelo loved marble in spite of the struggle. He wrote sonnets honoring the stone. One especially famous piece from 1538-44 outlines his “subtractive” process of carving: “Not even the best of artists has any conception/that a single marble block does not contain/within its excess, and that is only attained/by the hand that obeys the intellect.” The figure already existed within the block; Michelangelo merely needed to uncover it.
There is more to that story. The paradigmatic master of marble (and paint, which he despised) also worked in bronze. Only sketches and partial works seemed to have survived – until this year, when researchers at the University of Cambridge identified “Nude Bacchants Riding Panthers” as likely products of Michelangelo. The anatomy of the two bacchants, each a meter-high, recalls nudes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which he painted between 1508 and 1512. Preparatory drawings for the sculptures and neutron x-ray imaging suggest that Michelangelo created them between 1500 and 1510.
Historical hints tantalize scholars all the more. Michelangelo sculpted a two-thirds-length bronze David, after a bronze version by Donatello from the 1440s. The earlier David has its own peculiarities. Deliberately androgynous, it can resemble a female form if viewed from its left. A feather brushes the leg; this is the attribute of the Greek god Hermes. Scholars have argued that Donatello intended this caressing, mythological feather and the androgyny to suggest his own sexuality
But the ambiguities served a political purpose. David’s Medici commissioners feared conservative Florentines, who might object to the nude depiction of a biblical figure (the city icon, no less). If the sculpture did not show David – or if anyone could believe that it did not show David – the problem would go away. Moreover, the figure appears as young and weak as he does suggestive. The left elbow and knee are akimbo; the right arm looks too skinny to wield the massive sword that it grasps.
Michelangelo, master of virile nudes, must have played on this subtext. He started his bronze David in 1502, on commission for French lord Pierre de Rohan-Gié. An extant sketch from this project shows a strap and pouch, as well as a hand curved to hold a stone. The completed work traveled to France and stayed there at least until the French Revolution, when it disappeared.
Researchers can only speculate about techniques that Michelangelo might have used to cast this David. Neutron scans of “Nude Bacchants Riding Panthers” reveal thick walls, which were typical of Renaissance bronzes. Donatello had invented new sculptural techniques for different media, including the use of clay-soaked cloth to create detailed molds and a method for very-low-relief carving. Michelangelo did not share Donatello’s mastery of both modeling and carving, focusing instead on the latter. His subtractive technique needed blocks, not molds, and the disegno (draftsmanship) of his designs emphasizes line and plane over shine and color.
Michelangelo’s disegno and use of marble came to define 16th-century Italian art, and for good reason. They were even newer than he realized. History knew the marbles of Classical Greece and Rome as testaments to line and form taken on their own terms – but the Parthenon and other works of the period were once polychromed. Other European traditions favored hue at least as much as form and material. Spanish sculptors – whether working in wood, marble, or terracotta – hired painters to color their works.
An expert on Classical sculpture as well as a conservator, Donatello incorporated explicitly antiquarian references. Some historians argue that bronze was for Renaissance and Baroque artists, the most antiquarian of media – and Donatello loved bronze. Goliath’s helmet in the bronze David includes a cameo copying a Roman sculpture from the Medici collection. Meanwhile, Donatello’s marble figures – notably, the Zuccone – wear the togas and drapery of Classical orators.
David danced across fault lines in Renaissance art: biblical vs. mythological, sacred vs. secular, contemporary vs. Classical, bronze vs. marble. But neither Donatello’s nor Michelangelo’s sculpture contains that tension. One flirts, one glares, and both map the geniuses who created them.
- ABK for MOBIA