When I took my first art history class, which was more or less an accident because I needed something to fill a gap in my schedule, what really intrigued me wasn’t the art itself but the stories behind the art. Art history is a lot like regular history which is also full of stories—and is basically one big story—but art history doesn’t just deal with the stories of the artists and their times but can also be about the stories art tells. Those stories can be historical, mythological, purely personal fantasies, or a combination. It was also the beginning of my awareness that art critics’ opinions may be better informed but that doesn’t make their opinions better, but that’s another story.
What really got me thinking about the stories was Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David. Well, really it was another sculpture that got me thinking about Michelangelo’s, but I’ll come back to that in a minute. First, Michelangelo’s work is an epic portrait of a hero, or at least a guy who spends way too much time in the gym. And it’s even more extraordinary that it’s carved from stone, which is probably the most unforgiving way of creating art there is. There are no do-overs when you’re hammering away at a big chunk of marble. One too many taps in the wrong place and David would have been singing soprano. Michelangelo was an intense student of human anatomy and this sculpture shows it.
It also represents the Biblical hero David, who slew Goliath, something I didn’t really think about until I saw Donatello’s earlier and less well-known sculpture of David.
Yeah, Donny had a very different take on what David looked like, and while Michelangelo’s sculpture may be widely thought of being closer to some classical ideal my own opinion—one that I think is fairly well-informed even if it is just an opinion—is that Donatello’s David is more heroic.
Michelangelo’s David looks strong, powerful, defiant, and confident. He may be made of marble but he’s built like a brick shithouse. Donatello’s David, on the other hand, looks like a 98-pound weakling. He barely looks big enough to lift the sword in his right hand, and even with his foot on Goliath’s severed head he seems surprised by what he just did, or maybe I’m just projecting that because he looks kind of like Gene Wilder. When I was a kid in Sunday school David’s defeat of Goliath was taught to us as the ultimate underdog story, the triumph of the little guy over the giant. Donatello’s David is the little guy while Michelangelo’s David could be the giant, and together they look like before and after pictures in a Charles Atlas ad.
I’m not saying one is better than the other, especially since Donatello’s work was cast in bronze, probably from a sculpted clay figure, although he did do an earlier marble carving of David. It’s just an idea I’m throwing out there for consideration. If you want to tell the story of the little guy defeating the giant who’s your hero?