Did you know that Michelangelo's David is one of a longer list of Davids made in Florence? The figure appears in famous versions by Donatello and Verrocchio and in paintings. But what is the story of David and how accurately do these statues reflect that story?
In the Middle Ages the favoured figure of David was the aged King David, usually shown with a harp as his symbol. In the Renaissance they preferred depictions of David before his rise to the throne as king, when he was a shepherd-boy, keeping his father’s flocks. The Catholic Encyclopedia is a great resource for reading on Saints, from which we learn:
"whilst his three elder brothers were in the field, fighting under [King] Saul against the Philistines, David was sent to the camp with some provisions and presents; there he heard the words in which the giant, Goliath of Geth, defied all Israel to single combat, and he volunteered with God’s help to slay the Giant. David’s victory over Goliath won for him the tender friendship of Jonathan, the son of Saul. He obtained a permanent position at court, but his great popularity and the imprudent songs of the women excited the jealousy of the king, who on two occasions attempted to kill him".
This is the only David depicted in painting in Florence. David is seated with other Biblical figures in the Triumph of St. Augustine in the Spanish Chapel of Santa Maria Novella. This fresco dates from 1366-8 and we get a rare glimpse of the Elderly King version of David.
David is a wiry youth in Donatello's marble David; created between 1408 and 1416 when the sculptor was young, it was one of his first works. The age of this David approximates the correct age of the boy in the bible. The clothing is executed in great detail and the decapitated head of Goliath lies at the statue's feet. This piece is on display at the National Museum of the Bargello.
David is an adolescent in this bronze version that dates from the 1440s. He is wearing a warrior-like helmet and boots as he stands on a large winged helmet attached to the head of Goliath. Due to David's adolescent partial nudity, a sense of intimacy is created and it's believed that the bronze was commissioned for a personal collecton. Read more about this David and the other statues on display in the top 5 things to see in the Bargello.
On the top floor of the Bargello Museum is another young David, this time executed by Verrocchio in around 1475. The artist is said to have known the Donatello version and has chosen to depict the same moment of the story but with some stylistic differences. The figure holds a short sword supposedly belonging to the 9-foot giant Goliath. His hip jutts out, creating a more open composition than the closed, finalized position of Donatello's David.
Dated 1501-4, this masterpiece can be visited at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, where it is enshrined in its own tribune. Unlike the other Davids, this is the first David to be completely nude. Michelangelo also picked a different moment of the story to depict with most scholars agreeing that this is the moment before the action, as the figure's brow is furrowed in contemplation of the task ahead. It's bigger than the preceding Davids as it was created to be placed at a height.