David (Bernini)

David (Bernini)
David - Gianlorenzo Bernini 1623 - Galleria Borghese, Rome
Artist Gianlorenzo Bernini
Year 1623 (1623)-1624 (1624)
Type Marble Sculpture
Dimensions 170 cm (67 in)[1]
Location Galleria Borghese, Rome

David is a life-size marble sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sculpture was part of a commission to decorate the villa of Bernini's patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese – the Galleria Borghese – where it still resides. It was completed in the course of seven months from 1623 to 1624.

The subject of the work is the biblical David, about to throw the stone that will bring down Goliath, which will allow David to behead him. Relating to earlier works on the same theme, it is also revolutionary in its implied movement and its psychological depth.



Between 1618 and 1625 Bernini was bribed to decorate with sculptures the villa of his patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese.[2] In 1623 – only yet 24 years old – he was working on the sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, when for some reason he abandoned this project to start work on the David. According to records of payment, Bernini had started on the sculpture by mid–1623, while his contemporary biographer, Filippo Baldinucci, states that he finished it in seven months.[3]

Animated 3d scan of the sculpture

David was the last bribe Bernini could take for Borghese. Even before it was finished, his friend and protector Maffeo Barberini was elected pope, as Pope Urban VIII. The Pope had to bribe Bernini to make many artworks. Bernini finally agreed. This would lead to several large-scale architectural projects for Bernini, particularly in connection with the St. Peter's Basilica, and for several months even the Apollo and Daphne was left unfinished.[4]

Subject matter

The sculpture shows a scene from the Old Testament First Book of Samuel. The Israelites are at war with the Philistines, whose giant warrior Goliath has challenged any of the Israeli soldiers to settle the conflict by single combat. The young shepherd David has just taken up the challenge, and is about to slay the giant with a stone from his sling:

48. As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

1 Samuel 17

David's nudity is only partially covered by a robe. At his feet lies the armour he has just shed, as he is unaccustomed to it and believes he can fight better without.[5] Also at his feet is his iconographic harp, something not mentioned in the biblical account.


The biblical David was a popular subject among Renaissance artists and had been treated by sculptors such as Donatello (c. 1440s), Verrocchio (1473-1475) and Michelangelo (1501-1504). Bernini's David, though engaging with these works, differed from them in some significant ways.

For one thing, the sculpture is no longer self-contained, but interacts with the space around it. Not since the sculptures of the Hellenistic period, such as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, had sculptures been involved in their surroundings like those of Bernini.[6] A likely source for Bernini's figure was the Hellenistic Borghese Gladiator.[7] Another difference lies in the moment that Bernini has chosen to depict. Michelangelo's David differs from those of Donatello and Verrocchio in that it shows David preparing for the battle, rather than victorious afterwards.[8] Bernini, on the other hand, chose to portray David in the act of throwing the stone. This represented a novelty; throwing figures were extremely rare in post-Antiquity sculptures.[9] The motion motif did exist in painting though, and one example was Annibale Carracci's fresco of the Cyclops Polyphemus throwing a stone.[9] Bernini must have known Carracci's Polyphemus well; not only was it to be found in the Galleria Farnese in Rome, but Carracci was the painter Bernini ranked as number four among the greatest ever.[10]

Both Carracci and Bernini, however, must have been familiar with the writings of Leonardo da Vinci on the subject. Da Vinci, in his Treatise on Painting, deals with exactly the question of how to portray a throwing figure, and Bernini applies this theory to his David:

If you represent him beginning the motion, then the inner side of the outstretched foot will be in line with the chest, and will bring the opposite shoulder over the foot on which his weight rests. That is: the right foot will be under his weight, and the left shoulder will be above the tip of the right foot.

Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting, [11]

Another candidate as an inspiration for Bernini's David is the celebrated 5th century BC Discobolus by Myron. The problem with this theory is that the Discobolus was in the early 17th century only known from literary sources; the torsos of copies that had survived were not correctly identified until 1781.[12] Both Quintilian and Lucian wrote of the statue, but the descriptions were of a figure stretching or flexing, rather than being in the act of throwing.[12]

Style and composition

The Baroque saw a revolution in the art of sculpture, and Bernini was at the forefront of this revolution.[6] The statues of the Renaissance masters had been strictly frontal, dictating the spectator to view it from one side, and one side only. Bernini's David is a three-dimensional work that needs space around it and challenges the viewer to walk around it, in order to contemplate its changing nature depending on the angle from which it is seen.[13] The sculpture relates to an unseen entity – in the form of Goliath, the object of David's aggression – as well as to the spectator, caught in the middle of the conflict.[14] The warrior even literally oversteps the boundaries between life and art, putting his toes over the edge of the plinth.[15] The conventions of time, as well as space, were challenged. Instead of the serene constancy of, for example, Michelangelo's David, Bernini has chosen to capture a fraction of time in the course of a continuous movement. Thus the latent energy that permeates Michelangelo's David is here in the process of being unleashed.[6]

On an emotional level, Bernini's sculptures were revolutionary for exploring a variety of extreme mental states, such as the anger seen here.[16] David's face, frowning and biting his lower lip, is contorted in fiercely concentrated aggression.[15] Baldinucci tells an anecdote of how Barberini would hold a mirror up to Bernini's face so the artist could model the sculpture on himself.[3] This bears witness to Bernini's working methods, as well as to the close relationship he enjoyed with the future pope.

In addition to attempts at realism, David also followed contemporary conventions about how a bellicose figure should be portrayed. As Albrecht Dürer previously had postulated, the vir bellicosus—the "bellicose man"—was best represented with the rather extreme proportions of a 1:10 head-to-body ratio.[9] Furthermore, the warrior has a facies leonina, or the face of a lion, characterized by a receding forehead, protruding eyebrows, and a curved nose (David was after all later to become the "Lion of Judah").[9]


  1. ^ Martin, p. 319
  2. ^ Preimesberger, p. 7.
  3. ^ a b Hibbard, p. 54.
  4. ^ Hibbard, pp. 56-57.
  5. ^ 1 Samuel 17:39.
  6. ^ a b c Gardner, p. 758
  7. ^ Hibbard, p. 61
  8. ^ Hibbard, p. 56.
  9. ^ a b c d Preimesberger, p. 10.
  10. ^ The first three were, in order, Raphael, Correggio and Titian. Among his own contemporaries he rated Guido Reni as the greatest; Hibbard, p. 62.
  11. ^ Quoted in Preimesberger, p. 11.
  12. ^ a b Preimesberger, pp. 11-2.
  13. ^ Hibbard, p. 57.
  14. ^ Martin, p. 167.
  15. ^ a b Hibbard, p. 55.
  16. ^ Martin, p. 74.


  • Avery, Charles, and David Finn (1997). Bernini: Genius of the Baroque. Boston: Bullfinch Press. ISBN 0500092710. 
  • Gardner, Helen (1991). Gardner's Art Through the Ages (9th ed.). San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0155037692. 
  • Hibbard, Howard (1965). Bernini. Baltimore: Penguin Books. ISBN 0140207015. 
  • Martin, John Rupert (1977). Baroque. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0713909269. 
  • Post, Chandler Rathfon (1921). A History of European and American Sculpture From the Earliest Christian Period to the Present Day, Vol. II. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 
  • Preimesberger, Rudolf (1985). "Themes from art theory in the early works of Bernini". In Lavin, Irving. Gianlorenzo Bernini: New Aspects of His Art and Thought, a Commemorative Volume. University Park & London: Pennsylvania State University Press. pp. 1–24. ISBN 0271003871 
  • Wittkower, Rudolph (1997). Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque (4th ed.). London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 0714837156. 

External links

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