Reni’s David with the Head of Goliath (1605)
An autograph copy of Guido Reni's David with the Head of Goliath, a well-known work in the Louvre, is up for sale at Sotheby's, London (July 2012). What the auction house and the purchaser will almost certainly not know is what you, as an interpreter of art, will. The image, now considered just an illustration of the David story, becomes far more interesting when seen through the poetic eye of the artist.
An androgynous-looking David, one breast bared as in many semi-nude paintings of women, leans against a column while contemplating Goliath's severed head. Why is he so calmly looking at his grisly handiwork? Here's why. David, as so often in poetic painting, is an alter ego of the artist who has just executed his painting. Keep a lookout for puns in art; they are very common. Indeed, here's another. The head (without the body) symbolizes not only David's painting but his masterpiece because, in Italian, masterpiece is capolavoro or literally head-work. David as the painter is contemplating his work of art. Does that make more sense of the scene?
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The sword, of course, is David's "paintbrush", facing into the image just as Reni's real paintbrush would have. We know it symbolizes his "brush" because its hilt spells G R for Guido Reni. In the diagram below the yellow indicates the G on the left-hand side, the red for R on the right. (It is not entirely clear whether the top of the G is hidden behind the blade or extends into the space on the right as indicated in the diagram.)
There is, of course, more to discuss here including the juxtaposition of circular column and rectangular cube but at least this brief description of the true scene provides a firmer foundation from which to dream.
More Works by Reni
Original Publication Date on EPPH: 09 May 2012. © 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.