Donatello’s Davids and Goliaths (1410-1440’s)

In many important depictions of David and Goliath the artist uses David as his alter ego who, in killing Goliath, “paints” or “sculpts” the evil giant with his sling or sword. The violent act is a common visual metaphor for the creation of art just as weapons often symbolize an artist’s tools. However, since every painter paints himself, the dead Goliath must also be an "artist" as Caravaggio made clear in painting Goliath as a self-portrait. A similar process occurs in literature when the reader identifies with both the villain and the hero in a struggle between our primitive nature (chaos) and our civilized selves (order). Arthur Koestler observed that when Lord Krishna appears on the battlefield in the Bhagavid Gita he explains to a reluctant disciple 'that the slayer and the slain are One.’ He elaborated in reference to Shakespeare: ‘Thus the artist compels his audience to live on several planes at once. He identifies himself with several characters in turn – Caesar, Brutus, Anthony, projecting some aspect of himself into each of them, and speaking through their mouths…. Having acquired these multiple identities, the spectator is led to a powerful climax, where he is both murderer and victim; and thence to catharsis.’1

Several art historians have recognized that artists use David's struggle to overcome Goliath as a metaphor for their own struggle to create the work of art.2 None, though, has imagined Goliath’s decapitated head as David's masterpiece. The Italian for masterpiece is capolavoro which literally means head-work.3  

Knowing this I had long imagined that Donatello’s two sculptures in Florence of Goliath's head at David’s feet (left) might have one eye open and one closed to represent an artist's own dual perception (of exterior reality and insight.) If they had, it would prove that Goliath (narratively dead) was also an "artist" like David and that, at least in Donatello's art, every painter paints himself.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Donatello, David and Goliath (1408-10), Marble. Florence, Bargello
Right: Donatello, David and Goliath (c.1440's), Bronze. Florence, Bargello

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As support for this hypothesis there is an engraving after Giorgione's now-lost painting of David with the Head of Goliath (at left). In it the dead giant's head appears to inappropriately wink for the same reason. Goliath must therefore be an alter ego of Giorgione just as David is a known self-portrait of Giorgione.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Detail of Salome dansant...from Series 156, Plate 146 (1971)

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Existing images of Donatello’s sculptures were no help because they all obscured the giant’s eyes behind his helmet or were not detailed enough. Thus, on visiting Florence four years ago, I went straight to peek under the two helmets to confirm my theory. As I had imagined, each head, dead according to the narrative, has one eye open and one closed. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Goliath from Donatello's David and Goliath (bronze)

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The difference between the two eyes (the earlier sculpture in marble, the later in bronze) may seem slight at first but look closely. In each case one eyelid is firmly closed; the other is partly open revealing a pupil incised into the marble and bronze. Thus, there is now no doubt. With one eye open to exterior reality and the other closed for insight, both heads of Goliath represent the mind of a great poet, Donatello.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Goliath from Donatello's David and Goliath (marble)

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Picasso, of course, was fully aware of this and in an etching of Salome with John the Baptist's decapitated head, executed one year before his death, the head has one eye open, the other closed.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Detail of La Maison Tellier. Salome dansant...from Series 156, Plate 146 (1971)

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As for Donatello, the concision with which he expresses his thought in each sculpture is striking. Goliath’s decapitated head, its evil representing chaos, is a symbol of his own imagination. Creativity requires chaos to reconfigure and recombine existing forms in new ways. Thus, in Donatello's conception, “David-as-the-artist” has used his weapon to sculpt Goliath's head at his feet while “Goliath-as-the-artist” has imagined David sprouting from his mind as the young conqueror towers over his head. David-as-artist represents the craft of art; Goliath the conception. So, once again, no matter the medium, from painting to poetic prose to composition, all art is a mirror of the artist's mind and every painter paints himself

For Michelangelo's use of the same motif, see Michelangelo's Study for a bronze David.

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Notes:

1. Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (New York: Dell Publishing Co.) 1967, pp. 350-1

2. Joanna Woods-Marsden, Renaissance Self-portraiture (Yale University Press) 1998, p.118

3. Rembrandt used a similar method in Self-portrait with a Dead Bittern as many other artists have too.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 18 Feb 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.