In this lesson, you will explore how Michelangelo's and Donatello's statues are similar, and how they are different. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.
We all know the story of David and Goliath. The young David, armed with only a peasant's sling, defeated the gigantic warrior, Goliath, and became the hero of the Hebrew people. It's a story from the Bible, and one that became very popular during the Italian Renaissance, the period of artistic and social innovation from the 14th-16th centuries.
Many Italian artists created images of David and Goliath. But how different can these images really be? I mean, the story of David and Goliath is pretty basic, right? Well, to the Italians of the Renaissance, this story became much more than just history of the Hebrews; it became a symbol of a weaker power triumphing over a mighty power. We still use the idea of a David and Goliath the same way when an underdog sports team or politician defeats the expected victor. In this use of the David and Goliath story, two artists stand out above the rest, Donatello and Michelangelo.
Donato di Niccolo Bardi, more commonly known as Donatello, was an Italian sculptor of the early 15th century in the early stages of the Renaissance. His bronze sculpture of David features a slender, nude youth standing on the head of the defeated giant. Rather than holding the sling, David is holding a sword, having just beheaded Goliath after the battle. But that is not what makes this statue so unique.
One of the main characteristics of the Renaissance was a return to Classical forms, or artistic styles of ancient Rome and Greece. For a long time, these had been abandoned, but Donatello reintroduced several Classical themes with his David. For one, the male nude had not been used for centuries, being deemed heretical by the Church. Additionally, sculpture was just re-emerging as a major art form, and this David was the first free-standing bronze statue in centuries. Also, see how David is resting all his weight on one leg, giving a slight angle to his hips? That's called contrapposto, and this realistic stance was a hallmark of Classical sculpture.
contrapposto was a stance emphasized in Classical sculpture
Donatello was commissioned to create this by the Medici family, the most prominent family in Florence. At this time, Florence was an independent republic and often clashing with major powers, like Rome. The city had somewhat adopted the image of David as the icon of their city, and the Medici were elevating themselves as the leaders and protectors of Florence. Their decision to commission this David reflects their pride in Florence and role as leaders of the city. Donatello's use of Classical styles created a strong parallel between the ancient Roman Republic and the Republic of Florence, two cities characterized by a system of government that protected the people from abuses of power.
Half a century later, in 1501, Florence commissioned another David, this time by sculptor Michelangelo Bounarroti. Same city, same subject; however, Michelangelo's marble David is strikingly different than Donatello's bronze. Granted, both are Classically inspired male nudes. However, whereas Donatello's figure is youthful, almost to the point of being sexually ambiguous, Michelangelo's David is older with prominent muscles and a clear sense of masculinity. Also, at 17 feet tall, Michelangelo's statue is much larger than Donatello's 5-foot tall David.
Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is in the moment being depicted. Donatello's David was victorious, standing on the head of the giant after the battle, indicating the rise of Florence to power against great opposition. Michelangelo's David has not yet won the battle. He is poised and attentive, with sling in hand, waiting for the enemy to arrive. This David represents a Florence that has grown up in the last 50 years and is ready to defend the people against any enemy. Since we all know how the David and Goliath story ends, this statue is also a promise that Florence will be victorious against any army, no matter how large or intimidating.
The Republic of Florence was an important city during an era of art and war known as the Italian Renaissance that greatly valued its independence. Seeing itself as the underdog, fighting for a just cause against much more powerful enemies, the city informally adopted for its icon, the Biblical hero David, the Hebrew youth who defeated the giant, Goliath. Florence commissioned several statues of David, but two stand out for their importance and mastery.
The first was the David of Donatello in the mid-15th century. Donatello's statue uses a youthful and victorious David to reintroduce many Classical elements, meaning artistic styles from ancient Greece and Rome. These include the use of a male nude and the contrapposto stance. This David represents a Florence that rose to power despite great opposition.
Half a century later, in 1501, Florence commissioned Michelangelo to create another David. This David is three times larger, features an older and much more masculine male nude, and shows David waiting for the impending battle. This represents a different Florence: older, wiser, and committed to protecting its independence as a republic against any threats to come.
Same subject, same city, same reason for commissioning art. These were very different statues.
Once the lesson draws to a conclusion, you can test your readiness to:
- Recount the story of David and Goliath and understand what David came to represent during the Italian Renaissance
- Compare the David statues of Donatelloa and Michelangelo
- Realize that the two statues represent the Florence of their time