“The greatest artist has no conception which a single block of marble does not potentially contain within its mass, but only a hand obedient to the mind can penetrate to this image.”
~ Michelangelo Buonarroti
Michelangelo describes in the above quote what it is like to carve a likeness of a person out of a large block of marble. As we know from seeing his work, he did an excellent job with this task. Bernini did just as fine a job on his, but in a much different way as you will see in the following pages.
Michelangelo was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy, a tiny village, owned by the nearby city-state of Florence. His father was the mayor. He attended school in Florence, but he was preoccupied by art. When he was 13, his father agreed to apprentice him to some well-known painters in Florence. Michelangelo was unsatisfied with these artists, because they would not teach him their artistic secrets. He went to work under another sculptor hired by Lorenzo de Medici.
When Michelangelo was 21, he went to Rome, where he was commissioned to carve a group of marble statues showing the Virgin Mary supporting the dead Christ on her knees. His sculpture was called Madonna Della Pieta, and it made Michelangelo famous. A few years later, in 1501, he accepted a commission for a statue of David. He took on the challenge of carving this beautiful work out of a “huge oblong chunk of pure white unflawed Carrara marble – some 18 feet high and weighing several tons – that had been badly block out and then abandoned by an earlier sculptor” (Coughlan 85). This piece had always fascinated Michelangelo, but neither he, nor anyone else, could think of what to carve from it, until now (Coughlan 85). Thus began a new era in art, the High Renaissance.
He began carving this statue for the city of Florence. It would become a symbol of this city, “a city willing to take on all comers in defense of its liberty” (Coughlan 91). The statue acquired this meaning by the way Michelangelo depicted this biblical character. Instead of presenting us with the winner of the battle, with the giant’s head at his feet and a sword in his hand like Donatello did many years before, he portrays David right before the battle begins. David is in the moment where his people are hesitating and Goliath is mocking him. He is placed in perfect contrapusto; in the same manner the Greeks represented their heroes (Heusinger 17). The right-hand side of the figure is composed, “while the left side, from the outstretched foot all the way up to the disheveled hair, is openly active and dynamic” (Heusinger 18). Frederick Hartt does an excellent job of describing the essence of the statue:
“Throughout the statue, but especially in the head, the conflict between line and form… …is intensified and deepened. The features are more deeply undercut than in any of the earlier works, possibly because of the height from which the statue was originally intended to be seen. …The enormous eyes …seem at once liquid and fiery. The flat planes joining at determined angles underlie all the construction of the David, not only in the squared-off masses of the features but throughout the knotty, bony, sinewy, half- developed, and unprecedentedly beautiful torso and legs. For the first time Michelangelo is able to embody in the quality of a single human body all the passionate drama of a man’s inner nature. The sinews of the neck seem to tense and relax, the veins of the neck, hands and wrists to fill, the nostrils to pinch, the belly muscles to contract and the chest to lift with the intake of breath, the nipples to shrink and erect, the whole proud being to quiver like a war horse that smells the battle. But the nature of the battle there is no indication whatever; it is eternal and in every man” (Hartt 112).
Once the statue was completed, a committee of citizens and artists convened to decide where the statue should be placed. Some thought it should go near the steps or the church of San Piero Scheraggio, others said it should not be outside at all because of the softness of the marble. Because of that fact, some said it should be placed under the Loggia dei Lanzi, under the central arch, but it was finally decided that it would be placed in the Palazzo Vecchio (Hartt 104). Luca Landucci, a spice dealer, made these notes in his journal after the statue was moved from Michelangelo’s workshop to the piazza:
made way very slowly, . . . suspended in the air with enormous beams and a complicated mechanism of ropes. It took four days to reach the piazza. . . . More than forty men were employed to make it go. One night during the move, vandals—thought by historians to have been Medici sympathizers—pelted it with stones; a guard was set to watch until the installation was complete.”
On September 8, the David was officially unveiled. Florence was very impressed. Michelangelo, who was already famous, became a sculptor who was incontestably the greatest in all of Italy (Coughlan 93).
Bernini also became famous in his own time for his rendition of David. He took a completely different view of the subject, as you will soon see.
The statue of David was Bernini’s first major work, which he completed at the age of only twenty-one over a period of only seven months. Bernini gave David his own face, by sculpturing it while his friend, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, was holding a mirror in front of him. He depicted David as an artist (of war), using his hands as the means of his art. Both Bernini and David (at the time of his fight with Goliath) are young, at the start of their careers, facing a giant challenge (Wallace 27).
The statue of David depicts him in a crucial moment in his life. The young man stands in front of Goliath, just before a battle for life and death. He has thrown down the armor the warriors gave him, since he is not used to wearing heavy armor, and is only using the slingshot to attempt to hit the giant. David gathered momentum, as he is taking aim, before throwing the stone at Goliath, who is at some distance from David at this moment of the fight, so his figure is not included in the statue. David’s body expresses the great physical strain he is under, and his face expresses his determination and concentration (“David”).
At David’s feet is a half-covered harp, which is not part of the biblical description of the fight. It is rather a symbolic representation of part of David’s life. As a young boy, David was a harp player and a shepherd. When his people asked him to fight Goliath, he was forced to throw down his music for a short time and pick up the armor of a warrior. However, he also threw down the armor, according to the Bible, to return to what he knew, using only his slingshot to win the battle. Following the battle, David was able to return to his music, using his harp to compose the psalms during the latter part of his life. The harp is half covered because his absence from his music was only brief, and Bernini wanted to show that. (“David”).
“One fact of Bernini’s great genius should be pointed out. Almost all statues, which preceded his, stood self contained, insulated, and apart from the spectator. Bernini causes the viewer to become a part of his David statue. He who looks at this giant slayer senses Goliath standing behind and above his shoulder. The viewer is almost prompted to move from the path of the projectile. The space in front of the statue becomes a part of the concept” (“238David”).
The tension of the twisted body shows the force that David is ready to release. His foot grips the base of the statue to withstand the strain in the body. The action has reached that moment when the stone is about to be released. It is a marvel of dramatic action frozen in stone. “The unruly hair, the knitted brow, and above all the clenched mouth indicate one of those moments when the complete physical and psychic resources of the will are summoned to extraordinary effort” (Stokstad 759).
The viewer becomes physically involved with the action of the statue. David’s eyes sight past us. The viewer’s space is his and will soon be the stone’s. The split second of time captured in the marble demands a single, clear point of view (Janson 556).
By the time the David was finished, early in 1624, Bernini no longer had time for private commissions. The David, consequently, marks a real break in Bernini’s life. “Bernini’s unification of real and artistic space stands at the center of most of the Baroque art in the following years. In some ways, the whole history of Bernini’s artistic journey can be seen as the unfolding of this idea, with ever-richer meanings and more powerful physical environments. A new unison of the arts emerged and the David stands at the beginning of this period” (“Berninidavid”).
Comparison of the Two Davids
Although both of the above artists chose the same subject matter, there are many differences between their sculptures. The first difference is the moment the artist chose to represent. Michelangelo chose the moment just before the start of the battle. His David is thinking about what he is about to do. Bernini on the other hand, chose the split second before David launches the stone from his sling. By choosing this moment, Bernini has created a dramatic representation of an event frozen in time, suggesting the next series of events, the release of the stone and the death of Goliath. His figure is bursting with the same energy that Michelangelo had stored in his figure.
Bernini’s figure implies another figure in our space, Goliath. David no longer a thing to look at in his own space, but is now in the viewer’s space. He has actively involved the viewer in the sculpture itself, like we have seen before in Hellenistic sculpture. Michelangelo introduced a new tension in his huge figure of David by showing him shortly before the battle, but no sculptor had ever tried to show the actual moment of the shot the way Bernini did.
Within two hundred years of each other, four completely different statues of David appeared in Italy and all are great works in their own way. Donatello’s came first, then Verrocchio’s, followed by Michelangelo’s, and finally that of Bernini. The four sculptors had completely different objectives. Only Bernini was interested in showing the actual action of the slaying of Goliath. Of the four statues, I think Bernini’s is the most dramatic and the most realistic. I think that is exactly what Bernini wanted to achieve.
I also love Michelangelo’s David for other reasons. It is perfect in form, as is was meant to be, which makes the viewer believe that this is just a boy, even though he is seventeen feet tall. I believe both artists got their point across very well in embodying the artistic ideals at the time of their work. I also think they each did a wonderful job of telling a story that will live on forever, just as their names and sculptures will.
Arts and Paintings