132 – Giant, or Giant Slayer?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-4. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

I was blogging about Bernini two weeks ago, and I had meant to write a post about Caravaggio’s St Francis last week, as we still have one more talk about Caravaggio to go (this Monday at 2pm and 6pm), before I start a new series of four talks called The Raphaels in One Room. However, I moved house instead, so St Francis will have to wait. I’m currently surrounded by boxes, and piles of detritus, and it’s very hard to focus! I’ll get back to the early Caravaggio another day, although a ‘late’ work will make a guest appearance later on, much as a ‘mature’ painting did two weeks ago. That post covered a recently re-discovered work by Bernini (see 131 – Memento Mori), although I wrote about two of his most famous sculptures – The Ecstasy of St Theresa (Day 63) and Apollo and Daphne (Day 56) – way back in the days of Lockdown 1. Today I want to look at his David, which he carved at the same time as the Apollo – or rather, in a break in the latter’s execution (having said that, he didn’t carve all of the Apollo and Daphne himself, but I don’t often mention the fact: for some reason it tends to upset people). Today’s sculpture, like its contemporary, is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, so people naturally assume that it was commissioned by Cardinal Scipio Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. However, it seems likely that it was originally conceived for the garden of a villa at Montalto, on the edge of Rome, and for a different cardinal: Alessandro Peretti, nephew of Pope Sixtus V. Peretti had planned a theatrical setting for the work which might explain the composition of the David. However, the patron died in 1623, shortly after the sculpture had been commissioned, and Bernini was probably worried he that would not get paid. Nevertheless, there was apparently no difficulty in persuading Scipio Borghese to take on the commission. Although he already had Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone, and was looking forward to Apollo and Daphne – which was was already well underway – a biblical subject could have been enticing. If nothing else, it might help to allay any criticisms that the Cardinal was too caught up with pagan myth – and if so, then this subject was ideal, given that it celebrates the death of the infidel.

We see David in the act of throwing the stone that will slay Goliath. According to the biblical account, after he had taken up the Philistine’s challenge, Saul thought it wise that he should wear armour. But this is how David responded, according to 1 Samuel 17:38-39:

And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail.
And David girded his sword upon his armour, and he assayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them. And David put them off him.

The text basically says that David didn’t want to wear the armour because he wasn’t used to it, so he took it off. It does not say ‘and so David went to fight Goliath naked’ – which is how both Donatello and Michelangelo show him. Although David is not entirely naked here, there is only a swathe of drapery to preserve his dignity, and even that is a tease, coming so close to falling off his thigh, and revealing just enough to be provocative.  Entirely naked may well have been less sensual. Bernini’s predecessors make no reference to the rejected armour, but it sits here behind the figure of David at the back of the base. There is also a lyre lying on the ground, a reminder of David’s musicality (he has traditional been identified as the author of the Psalms).

The sculpture has no hint of the staff which is mentioned in 1 Samuel 17:40, but Bernini does include other details:

And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.

One of the five stones has been put into the sling, and David is holding it in his left hand, with the end of the sling is in his right. The shepherd’s bag,or scrip – apparently made from the skin of one of the flock – is slung over his right shoulder. He twists around to increase the momentum of the shot, concentrating so hard that he frowns, and bites his lip, as he looks up towards the giant, judging his aim. From the direction of his gaze we get a good sense of how tall Goliath must have been. His height is even mentioned in the biblical account: according to 1 Samuel 17:4 David’s foe was ‘a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.’ Or, to put in in other terms, just 3cm off 3m – or 9’9”. While we’re talking about height, it’s worthwhile pointing out that Michelangelo’s David measure 5.17m: 2.2m taller than the biblical Goliath – and has also been known as Il Gigante: ‘the Giant’.

The subject of David is familiar, and is one that sculptors – especially Florentine sculptors – had excelled at long before Bernini was born. You could even say that some of the giants of the field had created examples that Bernini would doubtless want to emulate and even surpass. Donatello created at least two, an early version in marble, and a mature – and rather bizarre – work in bronze. This was followed by Verrocchio’s bronze, which I happen to think is one of the best. Not only is it superb in terms of its execution, but it also fits the biblical description of the young shepherd boy more than any others. He shows David with the head of Goliath at his feet, as all other artists depicting the young man had done before. The boy’s challenge has been fulfilled successfully, and the young hero is at peace, with all the balance, and charm, that the Early Renaissance could muster. In all of the early images the head is vital as David’s attribute – the symbol which tells us who this young murderer is: God’s chosen victor.

Michelangelo’s innovation was to show David before he had slain Goliath – he was the first artist to do so. This introduces the psychological tension so typical of works of the Renaissance, not to mention the angst which Michelangelo loved to portray physically, although here it is limited to the strong turn of the head. David looks out for his enemy, anxious, his brow slightly furrowed, but calm in the knowledge that God is his strength. However, although this was new for a depiction of David, it did have a precedent: Donatello had earlier shown St George prior to slaying the dragon, alert, on the front foot, and seeking out his foe across the streets of Florence. HOwever brilliant it is, though, you could argue that there is a fundamental problem with the way in which Il Gigante is conceived – apart from the fact that it is, in itself, a giant: he appears to be looking for someone at the same level as himself, someone who must, therefore, be the same height. As a contrast, Bernini’s David looks up, and we can tell instantly that he is aiming at someone far taller than himself. Bernini also does that typically Baroque thing of showing us the moment of greatest drama. Not ‘it’s over, and we are at peace’ like Verrocchio, or ‘oh no, will he do it?’ like Michelangelo, but ‘IT’S HAPPENING NOW!’ – something he could easily have learnt this from the paintings of an artist of the previous generation: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The energy and drama he has depicted means that the sculpture looks good from almost every point of view.

From the side (on the left), the shoulders are turned towards us, and so this could arguably be considered the ‘front’ – even if the hero turns and looks away from us. His arms frame the body, and make the composition look ‘contained’, even if the angle of the right leg below the knee shows us how much David is leaning into his task. If we hadn’t understood this before, this lack of balance we see here should make us realise the extent to which the armour is there to anchor the body, and to support its weight. When seen from the front left corner (on the right), the drapery and the strap of the scrip are seen to be parallel, enhancing the harmony of the composition, and are counteracted by the line of the left arm. It is also clear from this angle that none of the weight of this block of marble can be supported by the left leg, as only the ball of the foot seems to be touching the ground.

The front view balances the extension of the left leg with the reach of the left arm – with the right leg halfway between the two. The armour reads as a separate unit, but is the only central element at ‘ground level’ – the extreme asymmetry of the composition is one of the things that generates the sense of energy, motion and momentum. Even viewed from behind the overlapping diagonals are interesting, even though, if you look at the armour itself, you can see that the sculpture was never meant to be seen from this side.

Some of the detailing has not been carved, and, like the base at the back, it is relatively un-worked. We can also see that the left foot, poised so delicately on the toes when seen from the front, is blockier than you would expect. This is a standard sculptors trick. In the setting for which the sculpture was originally intended – Cardinal Peretti’s garden – it was presumably meant to be set against some form of wall, with vegetation on either side to create an appropriately theatrical setting, and prevent us from going behind. In a domestic interior, which is what it was given – simply placing it against a wall would suffice.

The way in which Bernini imagines David is remarkable not only because it fits the story so well, but also because he was adapting a two-dimensional image, and one which, as he himself must have realised, subverted the idea of fighting a giant. The composition was based on a painting of the giant Polyphemus, by Caravaggio’s contemporary – and rival – Annibale Carracci, which was painted in fresco in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome in 1605.

Not only is Polyphemus a giant, but he is a giant throwing stones – at the fleeing Acis and Galatea. The choice of Polyphemus is not the only way that Bernini is playing with giants. I mentioned earlier that ‘some of the giants of the field’ had made sculptures of David. And Bernini – not yet 25 – was aiming to slay them. He particularly wanted to surpass Michelangelo himself, who completed his David at the age of 29. As a 19-year-old, Bernini had used Michelangelo’s Risen Christ – who is carrying the cross – as the model for his own Aeneas carrying Anchises. The intellectual leap required to replace the cross with the hero’s father is quite remarkable, I think. But apart from this, is there any reason why I should think that Bernini was putting himself in the position of David, wanting to slay the giant Michelangelo? Well, look at these two faces:

This is a self portrait, painted around 1623, when Bernini was carving this sculpture. David is Bernini, it’s that simple, it is another self portrait. And as a young man – not yet 25 – who else would be the one giant that he would want to overthrow, if not Michelangelo? All of this means that Bernini, at the beginning of his life, saw himself in a very different light to Caravaggio, at the end of his. I’ve always enjoyed the contrast between two Davids, both in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, one by Bernini (1623-24) and the other by Caravaggio (1610). This is the image I will end Monday’s lecture with. Although the focus of the talk will be the Salome in the National Gallery, if you are thinking about the last years of Caravaggio’s short life, the David says it all really.

Caravaggio, David with the head of Goliath, 1610. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

The regret in David’s eyes is astonishing: no triumph, no victory… The richly coloured palette of the youthful works has gradually faded away, and darkness seeps in from every shadow. David looks down at the conquered hero with compassion, while the severed head, which still seems to be conscious, appears to be confused, and tired, as much as anything. But compare these two faces:

Caravaggio is Goliath, it’s that simple. He seems to say, ‘I am a giant, and you have killed me’ to the public who failed to understand him. Of course, that was not the story at all. Caravaggio was a star, his works were popular, highly praised, and in demand, while he was famous across Europe. The was no problem with the art, it was the artist – the man himself, who was the problem. His behaviour was erratic and unpredictable, and he grew increasingly argumentative, and, it would seem, insecure. We will explore these final years, and the dark, evocative, profoundly moving works he produced this Monday, 21 June at 2pm or 6pm. And following Caravaggio, I will move on – if back in time – to another short-lived genius: Raphael. This series will include four talks inspired by the images in one room of the Pinacoteca Vatican – the Papal picture gallery – in a similar way to our exploration of the work of Caravaggio. You can find more details about this series, The Raphaels in One Room, on the diary page of my website. I look forward to speaking to you then, and even before, for the last of Caravaggio. And having renewed my admiration for this wonderful sculpture by Bernini, maybe I should do a series on him one day – although any other suggestions you have are always welcome.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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