Welcome to the Hall of Donatello in Florence’s Bargello Museum..! Now one of the most important museums in the world, it was once known as the starting point for Florentine political civilization and culture. Later, it would become the home to many significant works of Renaissance art, which are still preserved there today: including the three celebrated statues of David..!
Once known as the Palace of the Capitano del Popolo – the first-ever seat of Florence’s communal government – the building then became the Palace of the Chief Magistrate (or the Palazzo del Potestà). Today, the Bargello Museum is now named after its eponymous military captain. Part of this palace’s Hall of Council now forms the striking Hall of Donatello. During the 1700s, the Hall of Council was used as a detention facility with over thirty cells: prisoners were held here in incredibly harsh conditions..!
But today, the hall houses some of the most important statues and artworks from the 1400s. Primarily, it is home to the works of Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi. Also known as Donatello, this artist was considered the father of Renaissance sculpture. Working with a wide variety of materials, such as marble, bronze, terracotta, wood, glass, and even leather, Donatello was able to bring his statues to life, even when depicting the simplest of objects. Within the hall, there are three sculptures which represent a young David, so different from Michelangelo’s own renowned depiction. Two of these statues are by Donatello, with one by Andrea del Verrocchio. The latter was best known as the teacher of Leonardo Da Vinci.
The first of Donatello’s two sculptures is crafted from marble, the subject draped in robes. Dating back to the early days of the artist’s career, Gothic influences are apparent within the style of this statue. The anchement gives a sense of movement and realism to David, whilst his expressionless smile is also typical of Gothic artwork. This statue embodies David’s transition from the religious ‘David the Prophet’ to a more human subject: the boy who defeated the giant, Goliath. His story is often considered a symbol of the power and purity of the Florentine Republic’s ideals at this time. Because of this, Florence’s government transferred the statue from the master’s workshop in the Cathedral to the Sala dell’Orologio in the Palazzo della Signoria.
Commissioned by Cosimo the Elder of the Medici family, the world-famous bronze David statue was completed in the 1430s. It was designed to sit outdoors, in the courtyard of the Medici Palace, and boasts a scratched surface texture. This limits reflection from the statue, making it appear opaque. Donatello concentrated particularly on surface variations throughout his work, and was known for his use of ‘chasing’ and ‘partial gliding’. In fact, recent restoration work has revealed some of these details in their original splendour! This statue of David is also known to be the earliest surviving full-scale nude sculpture from the Renaissance period.
Standing on Goliath’s head, David looks incredulous, as if he can’t believe what he has just achieved. He also looks a little unstable. Donatello never made use of simple sculpted logs to physically support his statues, as was the norm in Classical sculpture. Instead, Donatello’s supports were better-concealed, more sophisticated, and relevant to the story itself. In this particular statue, Goliath’s helmet's wing brushes gently against David’s leg, acting as a support. In-keeping with Roman tradition, David almost seems to be standing triumphantly on a cart. Donatello was always able to evoke the stories behind his sculptures in just a few simple details and gestures. Some people believe that he wanted to challenge Polykleitos in this way, with his lifelike expressions and realistic proportions.
Verrocchio’s statue of David, which dates back to the late 1460s, depicts a youthful warrior. It is the artist’s first statue in bronze. Verrocchio’s young David, who stands triumphantly over Goliath, portrays the biblical hero. Often used as a symbol of political freedom, this image of David was a great inspiration to Florentine art in the late-15th and early-16th centuries. When the statue was restored in 2002, gilding was revealed on the edges of his tunic and shoes, as well as his eyes and hair.
In May 1476, the statue of David was sold to the Signoria of the Florentine Republic by Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. Originally, the statue was placed near the Porta della Catena in the Palazzo Vecchio, before it was then moved to the centre of the palace’s courtyard. There, it replaced Donatello’s statue of David. The statue only stayed in this position for a few years, from 1495 to around 1504, when a lively debate began over where to place the new marble statue of David by Michelangelo. From this, we can assume that Verrocchio’s statue was still in the courtyard at the time.
In 1643, the statue was moved again to the Palatine Gallery, where David became separated from the head of Goliath. Alone, the young prophet was sometimes mistaken for Mars, or for an unidentified warrior. Luckily, the two pieces were reunited in 1865, when they were placed in the Bargello Museum. The statue by Verrocchio is often compared to Donatello’s earlier bronze depiction of David, whose pose and youthful features were similar in both works. Donatello’s David is enigmatic and daring in its use of nudity, and in the way it dominates its surroundings. Verrocchio’s work is similarly powerful in its concreteness.
Although Verrocchio did eventually depict David in clothes, it is assumed that he was initially inspired by the nudity of Donatello’s statue. In fact, the Bible states that David stripped off his armour before facing Goliath in order to be more agile. The victorious stance of Verrocchio’s statue is undoubtedly inspired by Donatello’s David, who is portrayed to be resting after the fight. In both artists’ statues, his left hand rests on his side, as his swords points towards the ground. The friezes and borders Verrocchio used create an Arabic-style motif, similar to that which can be found on David’s bronze skirt.
Each of these three statues of David represents the range of artistic styles used throughout the Renaissance period. From the elegant marble of Donatello’s first sculpture to the striking realism of Verrocchio’s David, a visit to the Bargello Museum will leave you spellbound. Book a tour with me and discover the hidden secrets of Florence..!