We deviate from the chronological story, which unfortunately is unavoidable and go back in time to the period before Michelangelo. This large room is located right above the room with statues from the sixteenth century where we just came from. Here we stand in the fifteenth century.
On the wall adjacent to the courtyard, you can see the two famous bronze reliefs by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti and judge for yourself whether you agree with the verdict of the jury that selected Ghiberti’s work as the best. This story was told before at the second pair of doors for the Baptistery (click here for the story about these reliefs). The same goes for the St. George whose replica we have already seen at the Orsanmichele (click here for Donatello’s St. George).
Two Davids of Donatello in the Bargello
One of marble and the other of bronze. The marble David is an early work by Donatello. The David was transported to the Palazzo della Signoria in August 1416 and set up. Donatello completed the David on the piazza. The statue was then erected in the Sala dell’Orologio. The wall behind the David was painted with lilies on a blue background, the coat of arms of Florence, with the text: ‘Dedicated to those who bravely fought for the fatherland The gods helped them against the most terrible enemy.’ The David has been in Bargello since 1874.
The face of the hero shows no emotion at all, the eyes are not elaborated, but rather sculpted smooth. The face has no individual features and looks lifeless. The body on the other hand seems to be alive, particularly the upper body that is clearly visible under the thin leather clothing. The wreath in the hair is an amaranth; a symbolic flower that stands for immortality. This statue of Donatello is far removed from the Bacchus of Michelangelo. Even the St. George of Donatello that you can see on the right side of the back wall is very different. It will be clear that this David of marble is an early work by Donatello: the work has many characteristics of the international style.
When you stand close to the statue, you can see that something strange has happened to it. A new piece has been added at the left elbow. The dowels used to hold this marble piece in place are clearly visible. Something unintended clearly happened during the carving. It is quite possible that Donatello in his speed or inattentiveness has not seen that this elbow fell just outside the marble block. So that there was nothing else left than to put a piece of marble on it. Vasari didn’t like these kinds of errors. He notes what happens when sculptors do not use the right technique: And this causes a lot of mistakes, which can be seen in statues. Because the artist wishes to carve a freestanding figure out of the block in one go, one often discovers a mistake that cannot be corrected without adding pieces to it – as we have seen that many modern artists do – and this patchwork is the habit of tinkerers and not of craftsmen or excellent masters.’
Speed was something Donatello was known for and not so much in a positive sense. No other fifteenth-century artist has been so often praised or vilified for this, his work is said to have been poorly executed. Vasari describes the sculpting process as the elimination of the traces of the chisels as: ‘after the chisel, the grater and pumice stone, Tripoli soil, and finally straw so that the completed and shiny statue appears before us.’ This is now certainly the case with this statue. Donatello has followed the advice of Vasari as you can see from the polished surface of the marble.
Donatello’s David of bronze in the Bargello
The bronze David is Donatello’s best-known statue and was probably made around 1440. The young David stands relaxed and contemplative, after he has just fought a life and death battle with the great Philistine Goliath and cut off his head. Nothing in his face indicates a state of mind you would expect after such a gruesome fight.
The statue originally stood in the courtyard of the Palazzo de Medici in the left-hand side next to the door leading to the staircase. In 1495, after the death of Lorenzo and the expulsion of his son Piero from Florence, the statue was moved to the Palazzo della Signoria. The statue (158 cm high) originally stood at a height between 1.8 and 2.4 metres on a column of coloured marble. Vasari describes in ‘The life of Desiderio da Settignano,’ that this artist made the pedestal for Donatello’s David in his youth. In any case, the current arrangement is clearly too low, so that the statue does not come across as it was intended. High on the original column, David’s face is clearly visible and David looks at the spectator below him.
A lightning strike in 1511 damaged a bronze belt and broke off one of the four leaves. The first finger of the right hand is broken off, as is part of the sword near this finger. Also part of the brim of the hat, on the right, has been hit by lightning and disappeared. In the base, which is surrounded by a wreath, there are three holes that probably served for another attribute, perhaps a pendulum or a stone that was cast separately. The statue is no longer complete, because the plume on the hat is gone, as is the feather on Goliath’s head. The relief on Goliath’s helmet is said to be based on a cameo owned by Pope Paul II and later by Lorenzo il Magnifico. However, this is not correct; this image is a free invention in the style of the antiquities and probably represents the triumph of pride, according to Pope-Hennessy.
This statue is the first freestanding and almost life-size bronze naked statue in more than a thousand years, but there is nothing modest about David’s posture. David balances in a relaxed manner: one foot on Goliath’s severed head and the other on the wings of the helmet, his hips and belly sticking forward. Vasari found it so lively that he found it hard not to believe, just like other artists, that the statue was made after a mould of a living body.
David’s hat and boots reinforce his nudity, which looks sensual, among other things because of the dark finely finished bronze on which the light reflects. Donatello’s marble David wears clothing, but the bronze does not. Yet this nudity is indeed based on Samuel’s book from the Old Testament. David, who had first been helped by Saul, reacted as described in Samuel 17: 39-40 as follows: ‘Then David said to Saul: I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them. So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag […]’ One of these stones is in the bronze David’s left hand.
The marble David in the same room of the Bargello is dressed, he has his chin slightly up, the pendulum and the stone that drilled itself into Goliath’s head can also be seen at his feet. The curved head of the bronze David gives the impression of modesty. The marble David is also withdrawn, but the bronze David looks down as if he too is contemplating what happened.
The David is not so much a narrative figure, but above all a symbol with which Florence identified itself. David is seen as an instrument of God who resists the enemy of the Jewish people just as Florence will control its opponents. Something we will come across when we discuss Michelangelo’s equally famous David.
According to the writer, Phillip Fehl, Donatello not only depicted the young David here, but also the older David, who wrote poetry, music and psalms. This interpretation is based on the laurel wreath at his hat. Such a wreath was also given to poets. This thesis may well be true given the circles of the Medici for whom this sculpture was made.
David has distinctly feminine traits which gives him a somewhat androgynous and sensual impression. The sensuality is strengthened even more because David’s gaze says very little, so you are quick to look at his body. In order to understand the statue, you have to scout for other elements that can explain it. This inevitably leads to the naked body. Remarkable is the feather that can be seen along the right leg. The androgynous character of the statue is associated with the homosexual nature of the artist by some, including Janson, who wrote a monograph on Donatello. (The sexual orientation, according to Pope-Hennessy, says nothing about the intentions of the artist; Janson goes quite extensively into the alleged homosexuality of Donatello: Pope-Hennessy, J., ‘Italian Renaissance Sculpture’ volume II, Phaidon, London 1996 (2000 paperback edition) 354; Janson, H.W., ‘The Sculpture of Donatello’, Princeton University Press, Princeton/New Jersey 1963 85-86).
The statue has, besides a frontal view, three more sides on which you have a nice view when you walk around it. With all these facial angles (to the right of the statue, but also to the back) there is a central axis with arms protruding to the right and left of it, a leg or a sword that adds balance to the composition. This is exactly in line with the ideas Alberti later suggested in his book, ‘De Statua.’
The David is cast in parts and is quite thin, the statue has a lot of cracks and tears. The hat and the head are cast separately. The bronze is highly polished and as smooth as a mirror. If you look closely, you can see that mistakes are not only made when carving marble, but also when casting bronze. In his autobiography, the sculptor Cellini still writes critically about the work of Donatello because: “I knew that the famous Donatello had used Florentine clay in casting his sculptures in bronze, but I had the impression that he had experienced great difficulties with this and assuming that this was due to a defect in the clay, I wanted to do some tests before I started casting my Perseus [a statue we are yet to see]. It turned out to me that the clay was excellent and so the famous Donatello probably did not treat it well, as I could see that he had had the greatest trouble with the casting.” Translated from: Benvenuto Cellini, ‘Het leven van Benvenuto Cellini‘, Querido, Amsterdam 1969 (first published in 1728, written at the end of the 16th century) blz. 343.
Not only for a sixteenth-century sculptor like Cellini, but even for a layman, the casting errors in the bronze David are clearly recognisable. Under David’s chin there is a hole. Furthermore, there are repairs in the upper legs. The connection between Goliath’s base and head is far from perfect and inlay work is used in David’s hip. A bit more difficult to see is the casting fault in the hand that holds the sword. If you look closely at this hand, you will discover that there is no second knuckle under the right index finger.
We are still in the fifteenth century, albeit in the last quarter of it. We have already seen a work by the artist, Verrocchio, at the Orsanmichele. In the middle of the room you can see another young David. The Medici have commissioned Verrocchio to make a bronze David. In 1494, when the Medici were expelled from Florence, the David of Verrocchio is mentioned on an inventory list. The work still had to be paid for, while Lorenzo and Giuliano had sold the statue to the Signoria for 150 florins. This statue was likely made in this museum between 1469-1470. The porphyry column on which David is standing in this museum is the same column that the statue received when it was placed in Palazzo Vecchio by the stairs leading to the Sala dell’Orologio.
Verrocchio’s David is very different in style and size from the David by Donatello. The David you stand before now is neither life-size nor naked. Yet, despite the tunic David wears, the body underneath is still clearly visible. Donatello’s David is introverted and very different from the face that Verrocchio gave his David. Here we see a carefree, even relaxed expression, as his smile betrays. Goliath’s head is not as horrible as that of Donatello’s David. The way in which the young boy is portrayed here by Andrea is quite different from the Bacchus of Buonarroti. Verrocchio idealizes strongly and the young man looks graceful. As with the bronze David of Donatello we saw before, there is no battle for life and death. Only the severed head of Goliath makes it clear that we are dealing with David who has just defeated the great giant. The David by Verrocchio is different from the one by Donatello but is meant to be seen at eye level.
Walking around the David you will discover that the statue always comes across convincingly from whichever angle you look at it. Apparently Verrocchio was very well aware that the viewer could walk around this statue. This looks very different from what we found at the recesses of the Orsanmichele, the Campanile or the facade of the Duomo.
This David is less original than Donatello’s, but had considerably more influence. The elegant boy with his resolute look from under his hair almost became a prototype for the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Although there is still some work by Donatello to be seen in this room, we are now going to the top floor. After all, we cannot cover everything. When we climb the stairs, we first walk to Andrea del Verrocchio’s room.
We cast another glance at a bust of Andrea del Verrocchio called: portrait pose of a woman. Again, this statue likely comes from the Medici collection, although it does not appear on the inventory list from 1494. This list was drawn up when the Medici were expelled from Florence. The identity of the woman is not known. Her face resembles the painting Leonardo da Vinci made of Ginevra de’Benci. As a young artist in training, Leonardo worked in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio. The way the hands have been carved is so naturalistic that it is likely that Verrocchio has been influenced by Leonardo da Vinci.
We take a look at the portrait bust that Gianlorenzo Bernini made of his great love, Costanza Bonarelli. The pope, Urban VIII (Caravaggio), saw a new Michelangelo in Gian Lorenzo Bernini and wanted him to paint the narthex of St Peter’s. At the advice of the pope, Bernini painted no less than 150 paintings, some of which we saw at the Villa Borghese in Rome (Wikipedia). However, Gian Lorenzo did not think he was a good enough painter. Urban VIII was afraid that the unmarried Bernini would die from the number one disease of the time: the French disease. The pope therefore advised him to get married. Bernini replied that “my statues are my children”. He eventually did marry, with Caterina Tezio. They had 11 children. Before his marriage he had carved an intimate bust of his lover Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of one of his assistants.
He had used the face of Costanza more often. The way that Gian Lorenzo portrayed his lover was unique for the 17th century. Bernini carved the bust purely for his private enjoyment. This is not in any way a heroic or important face. A number of details were of a realism that was unheard of in those days. Her blouse is partly undone, and she looks at you like a common woman that you accidentally meet in the street. Her unwashed hair is combed back. Before Bernini moved to a big house facing the Piazza Spada, he quickly took Costanza’s bust to a friend for safekeeping. Today, this portrait sculpture can be seen at the Bargello in Florence.
On our way down we will have a look at a bronze model of Giambologna that he made for the marble statue: ‘The robbery of the Sabine Virgin’, but more about this statue when we go to the Loggia dei Lanzi to see the cave marble version. Of course we will also take a look at a clay model and a bronze model Cellini made for his Perseus and at the original sculptures that are placed in the recesses of the Perseus pedestal (Wikipedia). If we look at the statues at Piazza della Signoria, we will discuss them in more detail. We leave this museum and walk north to the Accademia.