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Work: Donatello’s David

Copy of sculpture

David (cast in plaster)


158 cm high, 61 cm wide, 54 cm deep
cast from the original
alabaster plaster


1440 about
158 cm high
Bargello National Museum, FlorenceSi apre in una nuova finestra


The date of this famous bronze “David ” is uncertain – some experts consider it a work of Donatello’s youth (1438 – 42) while others have suggested 1452-3. It may have been created to decorate a fountain at the Villa Medici at Careggi. Cosimo de’ Medici placed the David in the courtyard of his Palazzo in Via Larga, Florence, on a multicolour marble column set on a plinth which Vasari says was made by the young Desiderio da Settignano, a pupil of Donatello. After the Medici were expelled from Florence, the work was placed in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio in 1495 and later replaced by a “Putto” by Verrocchio (in c. 1550).Even though the statue has been identified as David with the head of Goliath, some art historians have suggested that it might be a depiction of the victory of Mercury over Argus.

This is because of certain iconographical elements which do not fit with the Biblical hero: his hat appears to recall the “petasus” worn by the pagan god, the nudity is decidedly “classical”, then the sling is missing as is the fatal wound on the great cut-off head under David’s left foot. Many art historians, therefore, refer to the statue as “David-Mercury”. If we accept the earlier, traditional, theory, the David of Donatello was not conceived as a strong self-confident hero, but rather as a thoughtful adolescent, whose enigmatic face conveys elusiveness and melancholy, qualities that lend themselves to the artist’s desire to use a classicizing style to express the subject’s tendency to individualism while simultaneously enhancing an ideal spiritual and physical beauty. On the other hand, it is entirely through the posture of the body and the composition of the whole, that Donatello succeeds in creating a sense of instability. His left leg, bent slightly backwards, is resting unstably on Goliath’s cut-off head, while the weight of his body is supported by his right leg, in line with the axis of construction. The outline of his hip accentuates the resolute tilt of his pelvis. But even this leg conveys a powerful sense of instability as his foot hasn’t found a safe support and appears to be slipping.

The strong diagonal line of the sword, which finds parallels in the bent left arm, in the set-back right leg and in the diagonal line it makes relative to the torso, appears to accentuate the general sense of instability generated by the swaying of the body towards his right as if he were about to fall. The physical conformation of the figure with its insecure adolescent slenderness, also seems to have been chosen to emphasize the ambiguous, slippery, elusive sensation. This effect is increased by the ephebic sensuality of the nude and the play of light over the forms which makes the bronze of the original look almost colourful, while the garlanded, pointed hat frames a face which conveys both melancholy and self-satisfaction. While Donatello may have been inspired by Hellenistic sculpture for the adolescent body of the David, the head is certainly derived from the statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s beloved Antinous who was proclaimed a god after his death.