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24.3.04

Verrocchio in Washington

The victory of David over Goliath (1 Kings [1 Samuel] 17) resonates with underdogs, which is why David, the teenager who took on a brutish man 6 cubits (9 feet) tall and won, became a hero of the Florentine republic. Numerous depictions were created in sculpture, painting, and other media in Florence over the centuries, of which those of Donatello (bronze, c. 1430), Michelangelo (marble, c. 1502), and Bernini (marble, 1623) are the most famous. A fourth famous statue of David, by Andrea di Michele Cione (known by the nickname Verrocchio, c. 1435–1488), was cast in bronze around 1466. About 47-1/4 inches tall, this statue is now in the collection of the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, in Florence, but for the past several months it has made an unusual tour outside of Italy, for the first time since a trip to the United States in 1939 and 1940. It was on exhibit at the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, Georgia, from November 18, 2003, to February 8, 2004 (their Web feature on the sculpture is remarkably well done and very informative: if it is kept online, I will assign it to my Humanities students next year); and it was at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington from February 13 to March 21, where I went to see it recently.

Andrea Verrocchio, David (before restoration)Andrea Verrocchio, David (after restoration)Verrocchio's sculpture shows David at his most boyish. Although his age is not specified in the Bible, when David offers to fight Goliath, Saul scoffs at the idea, saying: "Thou art not able to withstand this Philistine, nor to fight against him: for thou art but a boy, but he is a warrior from his youth" (verse 33). He was just a rough-and-tumble shepherd, who was proud of having saved sheep of his flock from a lion and a bear. With a blessing, "Saul clothed David with his garments, and put a helmet of brass upon his head, and armed him with a coat of mail. And David having girded his sword upon his armor, began to try if he could walk in armour: for he was not accustomed to it. And David said to Saul: I cannot go thus, for I am not used to it. And he laid them off" (verses 38–39). And that is how Verrocchio shows him, with a fine under-armor tunic and stockings, worthy of a king, but not the brass helmet or coat of mail. With a single stone from his sling, David "struck the Philistine in the forehead" (verse 49): the nasty gash in the head of this sculpture is in the center of the forehead. David uses Goliath's sword to cut his enemy's head from his body, puts his armor in his tent, takes his head to Jerusalem and even carries it in for his audience before Saul.

You may have read that the sculpture has been restored. At some point during or just after the creation of the sculpture, the head of Goliath was placed in between David's feet, so that it would fit on a smaller pedestal for its new location inside the Palazzo Vecchio (the Medici family sold it to the government of Florence). As seen in the image on the left, this is how Verrocchio's David has been viewed for over five centuries. It has now been restored to reflect the sculptor's original vision, shown in the image on the right, with the head of Goliath off to David's swordhand side. When you compare the two versions, what Verrocchio originally planned makes so much more sense than what we were used to seeing: why would someone strike that pose and hold his sword in that way with an opponent's head right between his legs? Now, if you stand and look David directly in the face, his body points your eye toward the severed head, the source of his proud but ultimately rather nonchalant pose. The other result of the restoration is the removal of years of black varnish (which really changed the overall tone of the sculpture) and grime from the surface of the statue, giving us a better idea of what Verrocchio intended. David's skin now has a different quality than the sheer under-armor garment he wears, and traces of gold-leaf gilding adorn the border of that garment as well as his hair.

Verrocchio, David, detail of headMichelangelo, David, detail of headBernini, David, detailVerrocchio, David, detail
Two things stood out in my mind as I stood in front of this statue. The first is just how small Verrocchio's imagining of David is: at just under 4 feet tall, about the size of a sixth-grader, and a small one at that. By contrast, Donatello's David is 5 feet tall (158 cm); Bernini's David (5.5 feet [170 cm]) is the height of an average man, bent over in athletic movement; and Michelangelo's David is immense, at 13.5 feet (410 cm) tall. Again, Verrocchio seems to be the closest to the Old Testament account, having created a diminutive figure ("but a boy," as Saul scoffs) who captures the whimsically confident tone of the Biblical David. This may also explain the bizarrely seraphic expression on the face of Verrocchio's David (image at left), so different from the icy prebattle stare of Michelangelo (second image from left) and the lip-biting exertion of Bernini's Baroque statue (second image from right). Verrocchio best captures the contradiction of the Biblical David, showing the diminutive stature and apparent lack of seriousness that hardly could have inspired confidence, juxtaposed with the evidence of the miraculous accomplishment, Goliath's head.

On a completely different note, could the attire of Verrocchio's David (see detail at right) have been the inspiration for Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl?

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