Every time Bernini looked at Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza di Signoria it struck him as a bit static. It also seemed that more could be done in the way of realism.
David, by Michelangelo, in the Accademia, Florence (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported photo by Rico Heil, published here)
He had heard Michelangelo praised for bringing life to his figures and Bernini considered that it would be easy to give his own David more life. He read the Bible story and he could just see the young David in action. Michelangelo had a great imagination—everyone said so—but maybe he, Gianlorenzo Bernini, had a greater one. Michelangelo´s figure, when you came right down to it, didn´t really illustrate the story very well. You couldn´t actually picture any action. You only saw a handsome young man shifting his weight from one leg to the other. And who could guess, unless he knew the story, what the youth was doing with that strap over his shoulder. It looked more like he was carrying his jacket. It was bad illustration, if you could forget your piety for the Master and say so. And who knew that there was a stone in his big right hand or what it was for?
The longer Bernini thought about it the more excited he got. Of course he could do it better! He was going to carve a David that would make Michelangelo´s look sick. To start with he would take the shepherd boy at a better moment—a moment later than the one Michelangelo had chosen. He would do his David just when he was loading his sling and winding up to hurl the stone. That was another flaw in the Master´s figure: it was no good from the back and, truthfully, no good from at least one of the sides either. Bernini would twist his David so that you discovered wonderful things no matter where you stood to take it in.
And the face! Michelangelo´s David looked as though he were posing for his picture—so relaxed in spite of the frown. A man who was fighting for his life would be focused on his weapon and his adversary—there would be time to be indignant later. Bernini would follow nature—wasn´t that the rule?—and have his David strain and grimace—grunt—with the effort, the way he really would have! Bernini worked frantically on little models until he had the pose. He knew it would be the greatest David ever carved. People would gaze at it and know the Bible story. He would have brought it to life for them. And they would praise him for his intelligence as well as his artistry.
See a larger version here
A 3-D view of Bernini’s David by the Universität Siegen and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.
They did praise him and they still do. That´s a real David, all right—believable, realistic. Does it rank even with the Laocoön? Did he beat Michelangelo?
Here are the two Davids, side by side:
Photo published at Wikispaces
I am adding this reply to a comment by Rafaela made below:
Thank you for this interesting comment. It has made me think about the Davids again. Two years ago I published a post here called He tried to Beat Michelangelo. My purpose was to make students look at the differences between the two Davids—Bernini’s and Michelangelo’s. Now I want to add here and to that post that Bernini was no American frontier sculptor who sat alone and figured things out himself, as one might gather from my staging of his thoughts: he is challenged by Michelangelo’s David alone, as though there were nothing else in the world to beat.
But as you say, he was surrounded by older artists and intellectuals who gave him a different direction already from the time he was a child.
He almost certainly did NOT have Michelangelo’s David in mind when he designed his own. Rather, he was much more impressed by the Hellenistic statue of the Gladiator, which had been recently unearthed and stood in his patron’s private collection, where it was much praised;
and by figures like this one by Annibal Carracci, who at the time was also working for Cardinal Borghese
And as you also say, a new David wasn’t even Bernini’s idea but was a commission. And this was not the first figure where he experimented with a new dynamism. It was preceded by at least three real masterpieces: the Neptune and Triton, the Pluto and Proserpine, and the Daphne and Chloe—all astonishing works, not only because of their originality but because Bernini was yet in his mid-twenties when he sculpted them.