In the early 17th century, the famed Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini created his David, a marble sculpture of the legendary Biblical hero who felled Goliath in the war between the Israelites and Philistines, as recorded in the Old Testament. The sculpture was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in approximately 1623 as a decoration for his property and residence in Rome, where it has been on display to this day. Before Bernini, the story of David and Goliath had been rendered in sculpture several times, with the most notable example being, of course, Michelangelo's; however, while Bernini's work illustrates the same subject matter as these earlier works, it is unique in its appearance and style.
The narrative of the subject matter lends an insight into the sculpture's significance. As the legend describes, the massive Goliath is put forth by the Philistines as their best warrior, and the Israelites are required to do so as well; the outcome of the conflict is determined by the victor of this duel. The Israelites select David, a diminutive and relatively weak man in comparison to his counterpart, and all signs point toward a decisive Philistine victory. Nonetheless, through the deft use of a slingshot, David swiftly dispatches his opponent and the Israelites emerge victorious. This tale is often used as an inspiration in art for a population, as it reflects tenacity and resourcefulness, as well as the ability to prevail over seemingly insurmountable odds. In fact, Michelangelo's David was created specifically to reflect these values, as Florence commissioned the work as a symbol of its triumphs over far stronger and larger rivals. While it was not explicitly declared as such, one can infer that Bernini's David was most likely created with a similar purpose in mind.
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Even a passing glance at the statue reveals the fiery and forceful style of the work. David is clearly in the throes of battle-he squints, as if surveying his target and setting his aim. His hair is disheveled and appears to flutter in the wind, as if David is literally in the midst of releasing his sling and its missile toward the giant Goliath. One can see that the theme of the work is one of action, passion, and struggle. From head to toe, David is at the peak of exertion. His posture is of particular interest: he stands on his toes and leans into his throw with energy and purpose. As the viewer looks upward, David's straining leg muscles become evident: his calves and thighs are fully tensed and flexed, again lending the sculpture realism and an aura of intensity and exertion.
The theme of action continues throughout David's torso; in fact, much of his upper body is rotated as if he were about to uncoil and fire his sling, and his cloak flows about his body. Once again, Bernini has emphasized David's fervor anatomically, showing the taut musculature in and beneath his arms, on his torso, and on his back. The highly visible grooves and scores in the marble at his legs and chest also serve to impress the viewer with the gravity of the work and lend further life to the sculpture. David's effort is visible in his forearms, hands, and fingers, as every tendon is visible and appears to be tightened so as to grip the slingshot. His face has a distinctive and focused expression, a tense look that signals concentration and apprehension.
All of these elements lend the figure of David an air of force and belligerence, and the sculpture appears to be a snapshot of David right as he takes aim and hurls a stone at Goliath. As the narrative is one of combat, Bernini imparts the statue with ferocity, more effectively illustrating the story. Another source of the passion in the sculpture likely stems from the artistic era during which it was created: Bernini sculpted David during the Baroque period, a movement that focused heavily on emotion and ardor as opposed to the scientific and logical.
The intensity of Bernini's David is more apparent when compared to other depictions of the same subject, particularly Donatello's and Michelangelo's. Both of these works feature a David who is tranquil and almost posing for the sculptor; Michelangelo's work, while impressive, seems to favor anatomical detail and accuracy over a descriptive portrayal of the subject matter. His David reflects physical beauty and majesty, and appears to be more an image of the ideal man than that of a combatant fighting for his life. But for the sling, it is not immediately apparent that the subject of the sculpture is at all involved in warfare. In the same vein, Donatello's David has a leisurely, almost arrogant posture, and also appears effeminate, for he lacks male proportions, particularly at his shoulders and lower torso. By contrast, Bernini's David is a gritty, dogged warrior pushed to the limit of his ability and strength, and his labors are immediately apparent to the viewer.
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Though they do not portray the same subject, Bernini's David more closely resembles French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's Ugolino and His Sons, a sculpture currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work features the story of Ugolino in captivity in the afterlife, as he slowly starves to death alongside his sons and contemplates eating them as they implore him to do. Like Bernini, Carpeaux creates a work that conveys extreme sentiment, in this case agony. Ugolino's face is contorted with frustration, and he gnaws at his fingers as he contemplates making a terrible decision. At the same time, his sons wail at his feet, their emotion evident as well. Ugolino and His Sons features significant passion, pain, and intensity, mirroring some of the sculptural themes and techniques evident in Bernini's work.
On the whole, Bernini's David, while treating the same subject matter as several of his predecessors, conveys a sense of magnitude and gravity not found in its predecessors, and found only in later Baroque or Romantic works. The most significant feature of David is its immediacy in conveying the emotion and strain of battle to the viewer, a quality highlighted in the visual elements of the sculpture. Hence, it depicts an oft-described narrative, but with an entirely new approach for its time.