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Verrocchio, David with the Head of Goliath

Andrea del Verrocchio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1465, bronze with gilding, 126 cm high (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence) A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker at the Bargello. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) - [Steven] We're in the Bargello in Florence, looking at Verrocchio's "David." Now, this was sculpted probably two decades or so after the David that was created also in bronze by Donatello. - [Beth] There are a lot of Davids in Renaissance Florence. - [Steven] And David was a popular subject, both because David is an important biblical figure that slays Goliath and then goes on to become king, but also because of the symbolism that it holds for the city of Florence. - [Beth] David was an underdog who defeated his enemy because of God's favor, and for this reason, both the wealthy banking family of the Medici and the government of Florence identified with David. And this particular David was commissioned by the Medici family. - [Steven] Now this was made by Verrocchio, who is both a sculptor and a painter, and is perhaps most famous because he had a large workshop in Florence that included among other students, the young Leonardo da Vinci, who learned to paint under Verrocchio's tutelage. Verrocchio represents the moment immediately after the battle. This young shepherd boy has decided to take on a cause that none of the older men among the Israelites are willing to take on, that is to do battle with the giant, Goliath. - [Beth] So the odds are completely against David and it is God's favor that makes him victorious, but you wouldn't know that from looking at this sculpture because Verrochio gives us a very self-assured young man. - [Steven] David has struck Goliath with a stone between his eyes. His foe falls and the young David takes the giant's sword and severs his neck, and we see that head functioning as a trophy just beside his ankles. But what strikes me most about this sculpture is how different it is from Donatello's earlier version, which is just about the same scale. Here, Verrocchio's figure seems wiry and bony and much more realistic. Donatello's figure, for all of its naturalism, was idealized. It recalls a classical beauty, and it seems as if Verrocchio is almost throwing that classicism out the window, as if he's found a 14-year-old boy on the streets of Florence and has brought him into the studio. There is a kind of veracity here that is lacking in the more classicized work of the earlier artist, Donatello. - [Beth] They both stand in contrapposto, that pose borrowed from ancient Greek and Roman art that is putting the weight on one leg, relaxing the other leg, the movement of the hips and shoulders that happens as a result. So both figures recall classical antiquity. Both have a sense of naturalistic movement. Both artists are thinking about human anatomy and representing that naturalistically, like a real adolescent boy. - [Steven] But there's still beauty here. Look at the contrast that Verrocchio draws between the beautiful face of David and the gnarled wounded face of Goliath. - [Beth] If you just just look at the boniness of that left elbow, you can see the interest is in capturing that the specificity of that adolescent boy's arm. And that's more important to him than a beautiful sinuous line that could have been created from that arm. - [Steven] After the sculpture was delivered to the Medici, it would eventually be sold to the Signoria, that is sold to the city of Florence and placed in the Signoria in the town hall. - [Beth] A reminder of the importance of David for both private and government patronage in Florence. (jazzy music)