Themes in Renaissance Art: David & Goliath, Equestrian & State Portraits

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  • 0:01 Renaissance Themes
  • 0:36 David and Goliath
  • 2:30 Equestrian Statues
  • 3:35 Wealthy Patrons and…
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore various common themes that appeared throughout Renaissance art in the 15th century. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Renaissance Themes

We are all about themes. Color themes, designs, a Caribbean-themed bathroom. My dog's kennel is themed 'Tuscan villa.' We like themes. Themes in art can be just as comforting. People learn to interpret a specific theme in certain ways, and the more that people use them, the more meaning they develop. During the Renaissance, the period of art from the late 14th to 16th centuries, themes emerged that reinforced ideas about European life and culture. And no, 'mountain lodge' was not one of them.

David and Goliath

The story of David and Goliath is one that we all know pretty well. The young shepherd David defeated the mightiest warrior of the region and by so doing saved the Hebrew people. We talk about a David and Goliath scenario being one where an underdog is victorious, and the people of the Renaissance used it in a very similar way.

statue of David by Donatello

This statue is David, cast by Donatello between 1440 and 1460. David here is a young boy, holding a sword and standing on the head of Goliath. So, he's already won the battle. The underdog is victorious. Donatello was working for the Medici family of Florence, an independent republic that faced larger, more powerful threats from kings and lords across Europe.

Florence informally adopted David as a symbol of their city, taking pride in their ability to survive in a world of major powers and upholding themselves as a virtuous leader. Like David, pure and innocent, they fought giants and monsters. The theme of David and Goliath was popular throughout the Renaissance, and Florence produced other statues of David as well.

State of David, by Andrea del Verrocchio

This one was cast for Florence by Andrea del Verrocchio around 1475. This David also poses as a proud victor, letting us know that a certain style was associated with this theme. However, perhaps the most famous of the Florentine Davids breaks from this tradition. Michelangelo completed an enormous marble David in 1504 that is preparing for battle, not yet having won.

Still, the theme of David, the theme of the underdog, remains. In this case, it represents a promise that Florence will defend itself and will be victorious no matter the odds. Instead of a symbol of past victories, Michelangelo focuses on the challenges that lie ahead. Through the shared use of this theme, artists in Florence engaged in a century-long conversation about the fate of their city, all through their statues.

Equestrian Statues

The David and Goliath theme was one from Christian heritage, which was one very important part of Renaissance life. The other side of Italian heritage came from the Classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, and so artists also began developing themes around those styles.

One very notable theme was the equestrian statue, a Classical style of a general or emperor on horseback. When the Venetian general Gattamelata passed away, his family and city decided to honor him with an equestrian statue and hired Donatello to create it. Renaissance equestrian statues strove to capture both the victorious heroism and the personality of the general.

Gattamelata, by Donatello
Gattamelata, by Donatello

Donatello's Gattamelata shows a confident, intelligent, determined, and calm commander. Compare that to Verrocchio's equestrian statue of another Venetian, Bartolommeo Colleoni. This general appears fierce, rigid, and ready for action. In both statues, the horse is as important as the general, reflecting the same sense of action.

Equestrian statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni

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