The 4 David Sculptures of the Renaissance: Donatello to Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s David sculpture is one of the world’s most iconic artworks. But what were the sculptures that paved the way for it? And what is the meaning behind them?

Jan 23, 2023By Eve Cobb, BA (Hons) History of Art (in progress)
david sculptures renaissance florence brunelleschi cathedral city scape
David by Donatello, c. 1440; with Florence cityscape featuring Brunelleschi’s Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio.


While Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century artwork is undoubtedly the most famous David sculpture, it certainly was not the first. It belongs to an artistic lineage of David sculptures in Renaissance Florence, with three significant versions produced in the century before. Each of these sculptures was notably used for political ends, a common function of art during the period. Their message was not stable, however. It changed depending on the patron, the iconography, and the physical location of the artworks. The fascinating history of Davids in Florence reached its zenith in Michelangelo’s monumental marble sculpture, known and loved today on a global scale.


What was the Meaning Behind the David Sculptures?

David by Michelangelo, 1504, via Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence


David was not the first biblical or mythological figure to have special significance to Florence. John the Baptist was the city’s patron saint and appeared on its coins. Saint Anne was seen as the city’s protector after the tyrant Walter of Brienne (1302 – 1356) was expelled from Florence on her feast day in 1343.


However, the figure that the David sculptures most functionally resembled was Hercules. The ancient Greco-roman figure appeared on the special seal of official documents in Florence from the fourteenth century. In 1405, a bronze relief of Hercules was installed on the doors of the Florence Cathedral. As a classical hero, he was depicted nude, with a strong build indicating his power. His mythological role as a defeater of tyrants was steeped with political meaning.


Florence saw itself as a strong state that held its own against neighboring threats. However, in the fifteenth century, the artistic focus of this political message shifted to the Old Testament figure of David. Over the years, he began to function as a primary symbol of Florence’s power. This meaning was not limited to iconography, however. It was also heavily dependent on the form and medium of each David sculpture. Most of all, it was dependent on their shifting locations.


1. Donatello’s Marble David, 1408-9

David by Donatello, 1408-09, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, via Financial Times

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The Florentine sculptor Donatello (1386 – 1466) produced the first of the David sculptures in marble at the start of the fifteenth century. Its iconography marked a radical departure from the traditional imagery of David. He was typically depicted in art as Christ’s ancestor or as the author of the Psalms, indicated by a lyre.


Instead, Donatello produced a new artistic iteration of David. The new iconography of David built on the well-known image of Hercules as a defeater of tyrants. Donatello chose as his subject David’s unexpected victory against the Philistine giant Goliath, an episode from David’s youth. David’s underdog defeat of Goliath made him a perfect allegory for Florence, a smaller Republic that succeeded against the larger states surrounding it. Moreover, he was a sacred figure and ancestor of Christ. This meant he was a more powerful and relevant symbol for Christian Florence in comparison to Hercules. The inscription paired with the sculpture made the political meaning explicit: “To those who bravely fight for the fatherland, God will offer victory even against the most terrible foes” (Crum, 2006). The fatherland was clearly Florence. The terrible foes were nearby powers threatening Florence, such as Milan, Venice, and the Holy Roman Empire.


Initially intended for the Florence Cathedral, this first David was never actually installed there. Instead, in 1416, it was placed in the Sala dei Gigli. This was a meeting room for members of the Signoria (the Florentine government) on the upper floor of the Palazzo della Signoria. Also known as the Palazzo Vecchio, this was the center of executive power. The sculpture’s originally intended location on the Cathedral would have primarily evoked its religious significance. However, in the Sala dei Gigli, it became explicitly political.


Detail of David by Donatello, 1408-09, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photograph by Roloff Beny, via National Gallery of Canada


Despite drawing on the Hercules tradition, David appears more beautiful than heroic. Depicted in his youth, he doesn’t have the muscular form traditionally seen in artworks of male heroes. Donatello doesn’t quite make use of classical contrapposto, but the form of David’s body nevertheless has an elegant curve. The tilt of his head, his elongated neck, and the careful fall of drapery in his clothes all give him a courtly air. In contrast to David’s youthful beauty, Goliath’s lifeless decapitated head rests at his feet. The strength of David does not come from brute force. Instead, it comes from the grace of God, who helped him defeat his powerful enemy. It is implied that all of God’s might is therefore also supporting the Florentine government.


2. Donatello’s Bronze David, 1440s

David by Donatello, c. 1440, in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, via The Art Newspaper


In the 1440s, Donatello once again tackled the subject of David. This time it was in the form of a bronze sculpture commissioned by the Medici family, whose political influence in Florence was increasing.


It is immediately apparent that Donatello approached his second David sculpture in a very different way from the first. While his previous artwork certainly presented David as beautiful, Donatello here took notions of ideal beauty to the realms of the erotic. He shaped David’s body to be especially lithe, to the point of almost feminizing him.


The bronze sculpture highlights David’s youth – highly questionable considering the implied eroticism of the work – by presenting him nude. In fact, this was the first free-standing nude sculpture produced in Europe since the classical period. David’s posture only adds to his feminization. With his left foot raised to step upon the decapitated head of Goliath, David’s hips are cocked to one side, giving the impression of feminine curves. Donatello goes even further in the details. The plume traveling from Goliath’s helmet up David’s bare leg functions almost like a hand that caresses the flesh (Randolph, 2002).


The sensuality of the sculpture is enhanced by its bronze medium. Bronze’s reflective quality accentuates the details and contours of the body, drawing the viewer’s eye towards the illusion of soft skin. This would be particularly evocative when seen in the early evening, with the flickering light of lanterns playing on the sculpture’s surface. It was also clearly made to be seen in the round, with each angle showing beautiful new details to fully engage the viewers.


David by Donatello, c. 1440, via Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence


The erotic elements are likely greater in Donatello’s bronze than in his marble because it is a private piece for the Palazzo Medici instead of a government commission. Its provenance is as interesting as its imagery, though; it did not stay a piece of private art. Arguably, it never was truly private. Its central position in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici meant it was directly in the line of sight of the Palazzo entrance. Passersby on the busy Via Larga could see this provocative sculpture whenever the gates were open. Ownership of a monumental bronze sculpture – far more expensive than stone or even marble – made a huge statement on Medici wealth and power. Usually, these types of commissions were associated with public monuments or royal patrons.


Most importantly, the Medici appropriated the figure of David to become a symbol of their own power. By commissioning the very same artist, they explicitly linked their David to the marble situated in the Palazzo della Signoria. Instead of a civic symbol used by the government, David was now representative of the wealthy family’s political hold on Florence. The wreath underneath Goliath’s helmeted head only emphasizes this victorious theme.


However, in 1495, following the fall of Piero de’ Medici (1472 – 1503) and the political rise of the Dominican friar Savonarola (1452 – 1498), the Florentine Signoria confiscated the David sculpture. It was reinstalled in the Palazzo della Signoria, home of Donatello’s first David. Here, the political iconography of the statue changed completely. The Medici were now the tyrannous giants defeated by the righteous underdogs, the Florentine government. Perhaps the political significance of this move outweighed the potentially controversial placement of such a homoerotic sculpture in a governmental building?


3. Verrocchio’s Bronze David, 1470s

David by Andrea del Verrocchio, in Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, via Patrons


Created by Andrea del Verrocchio (1435 – 1488) in the mid-1470s, this bronze David also had ties to both the Medici and the Signoria. However, it was not forcibly removed from Medici ownership. Instead, it was sold by the Medici family to the Florentine government to be displayed within – you guessed it – the Palazzo della Signoria.


It was placed at the top of the staircase leading to all the main rooms of the Palazzo. This was a clever move on the part of the Medici. Despite being situated in a public government building, the bronze David sculpture would have undoubtedly been associated with Medici power. It paralleled its bronze predecessor in its subject, medium, and patronage.


Donatello’s bronze was, as previously mentioned, publicly visible from the Via Larga. This was one of the busiest streets in Florence. As such, the Donatello sculpture would have been well-known. Visitors to the Palazzo della Signoria who saw Verrocchio’s bronze David would have immediately thought of the only other monumental bronze David in the city, owned by the Medici. Its presence therefore also implicitly brought with it the presence of the Medici.


Verrocchio’s bronze David sculpture is a lot less ambiguous than Donatello’s, to say the least. Dressed in armor, unlike Donatello’s nude sculpture, this David’s pose is less provocative. The hip is still cocked, but only slightly, in keeping with classical contrapposto. While his armor is definitely form-fitting, it does not reveal nearly as much as the Donatello bronze. Instead of blatant eroticism, the focus appears to be simple ideal male beauty and harmonious proportions, as with Donatello’s marble David.


4. Michelangelo’s Marble David Sculpture, 1501-1504

David by Michelangelo, 1504, via Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence


Made almost a century after our first David sculpture, Michelangelo’s iconic David is likewise full of political and artistic meaning. Michelangelo completely departs from the iconography that the earlier David sculptures had established. His marble masterpiece lacks the inclusion of either a sword or a decapitated head. Instead, David simply holds a stone with one hand, ready to throw it at Goliath. This was an interesting choice, as the previous sculptures showed David after his triumphant victory. With less iconography to indicate David’s identity, Michelangelo’s sculpture is narratively ambiguous. This suggests that Michelangelo was primarily focused on depicting an ideal male nude. However, he went about this differently from either Donatello or Verrocchio.


Unlike his fifteenth-century predecessors, Michelangelo did not seem intent on creating a feminine male beauty. His David is depicted as a young man rather than an adolescent. His torso is broader, and while not exactly a Hercules, he does have some defined muscle mass. Visibly older and physically stronger, David as a powerful Old Testament king is foreshadowed. The nudity here is very different from that seen in Donatello’s bronze. It is inflected with a more masculine homoeroticism, in keeping with Michelangelo’s dedication to the classical male nude in his art.


The use of contrapposto, like in the two previous Davids, also evokes the Renaissance ideal of antique sculpture. Ideal beauty additionally affects the anatomical proportions of the artwork. They are unrealistic, with the hands and torso disproportionately large. Michelangelo did this intentionally to ensure that the colossus would seem more ideally proportioned when viewed from the ground level.


David by Michelangelo, 1504, in Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence. Photograph by Edizioni Brogi, about 1857, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Like Donatello’s first David sculpture, Michelangelo’s version was initially intended for Florence Cathedral and was instead placed in a government setting. In June 1504, it was installed at the ringhiera of the Palazzo della Signoria. This was a large platform outside the Palazzo where speakers and government officials made speeches to the Florentine public. As such, it was a politically charged and highly visible location for the David sculpture.


Positioned on a pedestal and measuring 17 feet tall, this colossal sculpture made a magnificent and imposing sight in the public space of Florence. At this point, the Medici had been in exile for only ten years. The political power of the Signoria was still precarious. The placement of Michelangelo’s David was therefore key in making a political statement. Facing the direction of Rome, where the Medici were spending their exile, the colossus acted as a symbol of triumph against them.


While each David sculpture was created in the same city within a hundred years of each other, depicting the same figure, they are each unique. Even the two by Donatello are starkly different. How the artists engage with the same subject in creative new ways makes this artistic lineage especially exciting. Furthermore, they brilliantly demonstrate the way the arts were used as a political tool in Florence. Their form, medium, iconography, location, and provenance tell a thrilling story about the Renaissance world. While the political tensions of the Renaissance are no longer relevant to us today, David continues to be a figure symbolic of Florence. Rather than politics, the David sculptures, especially Michelangelo’s gargantuan artwork, now act as icons of the city’s vibrant and exciting cultural history.

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By Eve CobbBA (Hons) History of Art (in progress)Eve is an art history student at the University of Cambridge, with wide interests ranging from the Medieval and Renaissance to the fin de siècle. She is a particular fan of Christian iconography and looks forward to pursuing this interest once she begins her MA in Medieval Studies. She is currently enjoying researching Anglo-Saxon art for her final year. Outside of her studies, Eve enjoys illustration, going to galleries, and reading essays and poetry.