During the Renaissance, the city of Florence was infatuated with the biblical story of David and Goliath. Florentines liked to think of themselves as youthful and strong and ready to defend their home against the power of larger Italian city-states. Rich and prominent citizens decorated their palaces and public buildings with wonderful statues of David.
The most famous, of course, is Michelangelo’s colossal marble sculpture. But there were other great ones as well. One of the finest -- older, smaller and crafted in bronze -- was made by Andrea del Verrocchio in the late 1460s for the powerful Medici family. Americans have a rare chance to see this work in a restored state and an altered pose.
In exchange for financial help in restoring the statue, the National Museum of the Bargello in Florence has sent it on display. The small but informative show, which includes a few other allied pieces, moved from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to the National Gallery of Art in Washington this month; it will remain there through March 21.
The beauty and jaunty look of this special David have brought forth a host of unusual descriptions and imagery from art experts. To Nicholas Penny, the National Gallery’s senior curator of sculpture and decorative arts, the figure of David is “very alert, very young, very vulnerable.” In the exhibition catalog, Antonio Paolucci, the superintendent of Florentine Museums, calls the statue “a masterpiece of throbbing vitality” and writes, “There is something boldly sporty and also cheerfully ruffian-like in this victorious boy’s expression and posture.”
Verrocchio, who trained as a goldsmith before turning to sculpture and painting, succeeded Donatello as the leading sculptor of Florence after Donatello died in 1466. Verrocchio, then 31, became the favorite of Piero de’ Medici, the city’s ruler and leading patron of the arts. The studio of Verrocchio soon became a training school for some of Italy’s finest artists. The most notable pupil was Leonardo da Vinci.
Medici commissioned the bronze sculpture of David in the late 1460s, presumably for display in the family palace. But Medici died in 1469, and his two sons, Lorenzo (known as the Magnificent) and Giuliano sold the work seven years later to city officials for display in the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government. It is not known whether the statue ever stood in the Medici Palace.
This moment in history accounts for the most dramatic aspect of the present exhibition. Earlier Florentine sculptors usually placed the head of Goliath right between the feet of their Davids. In fact, the Goliath was sometimes used as a weight to anchor these statues, making them appear stolid and static. But Verrocchio cast the head of Goliath separately from the figure of David. According to Gary M. Radke, professor of art history at Syracuse University and guest curator of the High Museum exhibition, most American and Italian scholars now agree that Verrocchio intended the Goliath to be placed slightly behind and to the right of David.
That is the way Verrocchio’s David has been displayed in Atlanta and Washington. Without the weight of Goliath at the base, David is infused with a feeling of motion. He keeps one arm akimbo, the other holds a sword, his left leg rises on tiptoe. “Verrocchio’s original conception of the sculpture,” Radke writes in the catalog, “demands that we imagine the figure moving forward.” This conception, which broke with the Florentine tradition of a static David, eventually led to Michelangelo’s creation of a David pulsating with life, ready to throw his stone.
But Verrocchio’s David has usually not been shown the way he intended. The marble pedestal for it at the Palazzo Vecchio was too small to accommodate a Goliath head apart from the figure of David. According to some of the markings unearthed in the recent restoration, Verrocchio probably recast the head of Goliath so that it would fit between David’s feet. It remained that way in the Palazzo Vecchio for 125 years.
The statue then endured almost two centuries of obscurity. The David moved to the Uffizi art gallery, where it was separated from the head of Goliath and from the original marble pedestal. Officials even mislabeled the statue as a young Mars. David was not reunited with Goliath until the pieces were transferred to the Bargello art gallery in 1865. Nineteenth century photographs indicate that the head of Goliath was sometimes placed as Verrocchio intended, slightly away from David. In 1916, however, the Bargello obtained the old pedestal, and David was once again displayed with the head of Goliath between his feet.
Despite the agreement of scholars about Verrocchio’s intentions, Bargello director Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi plans to return the statue to its traditional display on the small, crowded pedestal in Florence because that stance is so familiar to Italians. Before doing so, she will exhibit the David beginning April 1 the way it has been shown in Atlanta and Washington. How long is that scheduled to last? “A month,” Radke replies and then shrugs with a smile, implying that the Italians may like Verrocchio’s original pose.
Renaissance bronze sculptures usually shine with a dark patina. This look was so desirable that museum keepers for centuries would darken their bronze statues with coats of charcoal or lampblack. The biggest surprise of the recent restoration of the Verrocchio David is the amount of gold found beneath the layers of black. Although not all the gilding has survived, it is clear, for example, that Verrocchio crafted a David with golden blond curls. He was evidently trying to remain true to the Old Testament, in which David is described as a youth “fair of countenance.”
Verrocchio’s David is a very handsome young man, and this has led to speculation by David Alan Brown, curator of Italian paintings at the National Gallery of Art, that the model for the statue may have been Verrocchio’s best-known pupil, the teenage Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s beauty, Brown writes in the catalog, “seemed no less striking to his contemporaries than his talents.” Apprentices often served as models in those days, and Brown notes that the statue’s features are very similar to those of a drawing of an older Leonardo.
Putting the David into context, the National Gallery exhibition also displays a small group of other Renaissance works, including other sculptures by Verrocchio or his workshop, marble and bronze sculptures of David by other artists and a painting of David by Andrea del Castagno. Among the works is one of the National Gallery’s most popular sculptures, a multicolored terracotta bust of Lorenzo the Magnificent that exudes cruelty, power and pensiveness. The statue is evidently a copy of a wax image made by Verrocchio and an associate.