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Bernini Gian Lorenzo

(Naples 1598 - Rome 1680)

This is the only sculpture with a Biblical subject executed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Scipione Borghese. It depicts David in the instant before he hurls the rock that will strike the giant Goliath, whom the Philistines called upon to fight the Israelite army of King Saul. The cuirass lent to him by Saul lies on the ground together with a cithara, the hero’s traditional attribute. Here the instrument terminates in an eagle’s head, a clear indication of the intention to celebrate the house of the Borghese.

Bernini envisioned that the David would be placed against a wall of the Seneca Room, today’s Room 1. This position would best enable the viewer to follow the development of the action, leading her eye from the torsion of the body and tense arms holding the sling to the face concentrating on the effort of the moment (Bernini’s own physiognomy is recognisable in that of David, according to our sources). The viewer’s involvement in the space of the dramatic action was further increased by the short base on which the sculpture originally rested. In the late 18th century the work was moved to Room 2: indeed the David shows unfinished areas on the back, given that the artist believed that they would not be visible. This detail is a sign of the extraordinary self-confidence with which the sculptor already approached his works in the early stages of his career.

Object details

white marble (from Carrara?)
height 170 cm

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1624; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 47, no. 87; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1998 Roma, Galleria Borghese
  • 2017-2018 Roma, Galleria Borghese
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1958 E. Pedrazzoni
  • 1997 C.B.C. Coop. a.r.l.


Bernini depicts David as he is about to hurl the rock that will strike and kill the giant Goliath, whom the Philistines engaged to fight against the Israelite army led by King Saul. The traditional attributes of the Biblical hero are visible on the ground between his legs: the cuirass given to him by Saul, which he did not wear so as not to impede his movement, and the cithara, on which David will later play a psalm to give thanks to God, after he slew Goliath. Significantly, the instrument here is capped by an eagle’s head, one of the heraldic devices of the Borghese family: this detail provides clear evidence that the work was commissioned to celebrate this illustrious house. In those years, the Borghese were indeed expecting a revival of their fortunes, following the end of the pontificate of Gregory XV in July 1623, as the former pope had not been sympathetic toward the family.

In March of that year, Cardinal Montalto had commissioned a work with the same subject to Bernini for his villa. The project, however, was suspended upon the cardinal’s unexpected death in June. Shortly thereafter, Scipione Borghese decided to take over the commission. To devote himself to this new sculpture, Bernini was forced to interrupt work on the Apollo and Daphne. He went on to complete the David in only seven months, as the artist Filippo Baldinucci tells us in one of the first biographies of the sculptor (1682, p. 8).

The work was originally placed against a wall, as we know from the later discovery that parts of the back of the sculpture were not finished and that David’s left heel was missing (it was added in 20th-century restoration operations). The work was in fact intended to be observed from a single viewpoint – in this case, frontally – a compositional principle followed by Bernini throughout his career. The observer’s involvement in the dramatic action was further enhanced by the short base that once supported it: indeed the viewer was meant to occupy the exact position of Goliath, such that she would be drawn into the work emotionally and clearly picture the imminent launch of the rock.

The viewer is enabled to perceive the development of the action thanks to the torsion of the body and the tense arms holding the sling, as well as to the concentrated look of the face, focused on the effort of the moment. According to our sources, Bernini’s own physiognomy is recognisable in David’s: Baldinucci narrated that Cardinal Maffeo Barberini – who would soon become Pope Urban VIII – amused himself by holding the mirror such that the artist could depict himself while he worked. The sculptor’s identification with the Biblical hero is significant on several levels: Bernini represents himself as the fighter who challenges the block of marble, which he transforms into flesh and tendons, skin and nerves. At the same time, he undertakes the challenge in the long shadow cast by Michelangelo’s David, with respect to which he hurls the full weight of his ambition and quest for innovation. The great Tuscan master had in fact represented David in his traditional pose: he stands firmly on his feet as he prepares to take on his enemy. Bernini changed the iconography, capturing the Biblical hero in action, with his tense body unbalanced. Indeed, he used the cuirass to perform the dual function of narrative element and a third point of support, which was required to sustain the sculpture’s audacious pose. The torsion of Bernini’s David shows clear similarities to the Polyphemus of Annibale Carracci’s fresco in Palazzo Farnese as well as to the so-called Borghese Gladiator, the famous 1st-century BC marble statue by Agasias; held today in the Louvre, at the time it was displayed in Room 6 of Villa Pinciana.

The David was originally placed in the Seneca Room – today’s Room 1 – where it remained until 1821, when it was moved to the Apollo and Daphne Room (Room 3). It was subsequently repositioned two more times – to the Loggia on the floor above and to the Entrance Hall – before being brought to its current location in Room 2.

A terracotta model for the David is held at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. This work is quite detailed and differs from the definitive marble in various ways. Some critics believe that Bernini created this model to present the work to the patron (Androsov, in Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1999, p. 316, cat. 29), while others maintain that it was sculpted by a different artist (Schütze 1998, p. 179 nos. 50, 53; Coliva 2002, pp. 15-17, Dickerson 2012, p. 373 n. 57).

Sonja Felici

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