Da Volterra - David & Goliath - Short abstract

Da Volterra

Daniele Ricciarelli, also known as da Volterra

Double-sided painting of David & Goliath
Oil on slate
133 X 172 cm
Chateau de Fontainebleau - France presumably dated from 1555.
Offered in 1715 to the Sun King Louis XIV.


The acute observation of this double-sided painting under the assumption that both sides are views of the same scene from two different angles reveals seeming inconsistencies either deliberate or unwanted.

Indeed, a further topological analysis shows that there is no inconsistency, rather two different sequences of the same event from two different angles.

The presumed inconsistencies are disconcerting coming from a close circle of Michelangelo, (Volterra met Michelangelo in the 1540s), whose influential works were studied and copied by artists of consequent stature.

However the usage of slate in the XVI and XVII centuries in Italy is not uncanny but its usage in various dimensions by painters required mastering its matter constraints. In order to be suitable for painting, the slate had to be homogeneous with perfect cleavage. But, slate had durability which organic materials like canvas or wood could not offer. The predilection for either slate or marble as support for portraits and religious themes are asserted together with semi precious stones such as lapis lazuli and amethyst.

Volterra was a sculptor as well as a painter, and formatted to think and model human forms in three dimensions. Like Giambologna who studied Michelangelo’s sculptures, Volterra bent the medium to create the desired contortions that would convey both motion and expressiveness of varying intensities. Starting with a lost clay three-dimensional model sculpture, his challenging endeavour was to sculpt in a compatible two-dimensional format, the upheaval of the scene.

Slate with a hardness of seven, is not a flexible medium and does not allow such performance, besides its present attractive dimensions for one sole board.The declared issue was to give an illusion of motion whilst framing the scene in a wide close-up, on a flat and linear medium, of high compactness but sensitive to abrasion.
The chosen medium required manipulating the perception of the viewer in moving around the same group of figures on both sides of the painting was widely used in marble and bronze sculptures favouring various viewing angles, reminiscent of Lysippos’ innovative principles on body proportions which were enunciated in the third century BC, introducing the display of complex postures.

Michelangelo’s revolutionary monumental and over four meters high David, was carved in one piece of Carrara marble, and finished in 1504; carrying political implications, it was designed for public space, and therefore was meant to be displayed and admired from different views which justifies the given proportions of the head and the right hand.

Volterra’ ability to depict various complex postures figures interacting in a dramatic scene with powerful expression, is spectacular in the painting The Descent from the Cross (circa 1545) inspired by Michelangelo’s drawings. The master allowed the consultation by other artists of his numerous drawings.

About ten years later, Volterra’s composition of David & Goliath goes a step further, in the complexity of forms albeit a spectacular reduction of the protagonists.

Painted on a sole board of slate it is presumably based on Michelangelo’s authoritative drawings of interlocked figures. Its spectacular dimensions infer that the composition intended to be read from a distance, as a sculpture within a painting.

The concordance with discernible influences impacting on the painting will underline our observation.

Indeed, single combat scenes of two-figures group entangled in suspended motion, such as Samson slaying the philistine and Samson and the Lion , were very popular and widely illustrated, both in sculpture and painting, and were a source of inspiration in Renaissance art, as were the multiple depictions of David & Goliath.

Single combat asserted the dominion of one protagonist over the other that was displayed, allowing no mistake about the identity of the characters in spite of the varying intricacy of bodies.

Sculptures were the ideal medium to show different angles of a scene enhancing the talent of the artist in representing violent movement. Different views provided a different understanding of the scene to the viewer, acknowledging ambivalent expressions of the protagonists.

The posture of one protagonist striding the other is accountable in the Roman marble sculpture, The Wrestlers (third century BC) from a lost Greek original, as well as in Giambologna’s sculpture Samson slaying a philistine , which shows a vertical hierarchy.

Volterra’s painting implies no hierarchy, but the swiftness of David over Goliath’s strength which is expressed by the motion of his hand and arm that shift position from one side to the other, thus disturbing the conventionality of the painted scene.

Michelangelo’s fresco of David & Goliath is constructed in a pyramidal frontal view with attention to scenery details with each side of he tent, an audience that differs from Volterra’s spatial arrangement of locked figures allowing no audience except the viewer of the painting.

Da Volterra

Michelangelo depicts David clearly astride Goliath in depth and positions the fallen giant facing the ground in conformity to the Biblical versions stating that Goliath fell on his face.

Volterra will add an interesting prowess in the position of Goliath who is neither on his back nor facing the ground. Goliath is reclining on his left side, then on his right side (or vice versa depending on the viewer’s reading of what he considers to be the prevailing side).

Michelangelo’s position of Goliath could not allow the giant to fight David’s grip nor express contortions that are clearly introduced in Volterra’s composition.

Da Volterra

In 1599, Giambologna’ one-piece marble sculpture of Hercules killing the centaur Nessus will be based on the use of contortions in suspended motion. Similarities of motion segmentation are discernible between Volterra and Giambologna’ compositions although Giambologna has increased the contortion.

The left arm and hand of Hercules grasping the hair of the centaur’s reverted head, recalls David’s arm and hand of Volterra’ double sided painting.

The dramatic use of crossing diagonals rhythms the composition of Hercules killing the centaur Nessus with central points of contact positioned on the conflicting left arms of the protagonists.

Volterra focuses on one dramatic scene, which is the beheading about to occur and suspended in motion, reminiscent of the above- mentioned single combat scenes.

Why is it meaningful for the scene to be suspended in motion ?

The beheading of Goliath about to be performed, enables the artist to fully model motion with a tailored scale of intensity which is lacking in Donatello's celebrated David.
Furthermore the completeness of action would mean a return to standard verticality with Cellini's Perseus & Medusa or Donatello's bronze David.
The former depiction of David & Goliath by Donatello (circa 1440’s), depicted a naked David with his long hair gilded, holding the sword down with his foot crushing Goliath’ huge head, in a standing and static figure. David is posing victorious with his left arm on his waist in a graceful contrapposto. Although the figure is motionless, the artist plays with the contrasting display of proportions between Goliath’s head and David’s body. The two-figures group becomes one vertical figure centered on David.

Da Volterra

Donatello's David is a clear assertion of victory.

Volterra's David, does not boast in a triumphant posture, but shows tension and concentration together with forcefulness in motion. In reference to the previously cited painting The Descent from the Cross, we notice a likeness in the shape of the cape worn by one of the main figures; the artist, on the left side of the holy body, positions the male figure with his blowing and shiny cape. The movement of the cape intensifies the theatricality of the figure holding the dead body of Christ. The cape of David striding Goliath in our double-sided painting is a similar pictorial device informing the viewer that the scene is suspended in motion.

The viewer can read it and learn from it at leisure.
The single combat suspended in motion, is the perfect theme for modelling turmoil of feelings matching the manifestation of bodies'turmoil. The artist makes an intensive use of colluding sharp diagonals mainly on both sides of the painting, to illustrate the violence of the scene when antagonistic forces prevail.
The scene suspended in motion made possible the bending of bodies in consonance with sculpture. The extreme bending of Goliath marks the ascendency of David over him and the two-figures group illustrate the conflicting forces entangled with one another as mutually dependant.

According to Michael Cole, there is a direct correlation between the degree of contortion (bending) of a body and the feeling of the character. The folding suggests that the artist has the ability to extend or reduce (refold) the limbs according to the emotional climax desired.
The body being the vehicle of emotion, can be folded accordingly while expressing more emotion than the face.

The double-sided painting shows David’s body unfolded on one side and folded on the other side.
David’s right hand was a hunting weapon in Michelangelo standing marble sculpture.
Volterra turns David’s entire body into a hunting weapon.

The painting holds a distance between the viewer and the group; the given group of David & Goliath is reshaped in the drawing of the Galleria degli Uffizzi from 1550/56, hence clearly breaking up from the two preparatory drawings of the Louvre.

Da Volterra

The fine drawing is a highly precise black chalk study of a dramatic but incomplete side view from below involving the viewer emotionally, although it is a single view. David is a nude warrior, showing a feline and predatory attitude, suggesting he has captured his prey.

His legs trap Goliath and the folding of his tense body contrasts sharply with the density of the giant being held to the ground. The folding of David, who is reaching for the throat of Goliath, is achieved by a set of sharp diagonals. The sword becomes secondary to the reading of the scene although it remains relevant. David’s tense body is the main threat to Goliath who is vulnerable and helpless.

Such vulnerability is enhanced by the void and the absence of scenery, as well as Goliath’s head and arms that are missing. Goliath is nothing more than a truncated body.

David’s smooth and juvenile face is a codified personification of his heroic beauty, reminiscent of the Greek canon of Beauty as was Michelangelo’s marble David.

The present study of the double sided painting of David & Goliath aims to assess the degree of accuracy and the degree of presumed inconsistency of the same scene viewed from two angles. Volterra used body torsion in order to force the viewers to adapt to the space and the sculpted group of characters.
The assessment of wilful inconsistencies will reveal the handling of proportions by the artist, with the resulting perception of the viewer.
Our purpose is the pursue of the presumed inconsistencies which were deliberate in the context of each side of the painting being taken as a main view but happening one preceding the other.
A spatial elaborate construction, which implies that we are dealing with front sides only, requesting faces, of the characters to be seen.
The below protocol of observation defines the structure of visual aggregated data leading to the common false assumption that Volterra painted one front side and a back side.
Our observation will demonstrate that there is indeed a reading side prevalence implying a timing in the action despite the fact that both sides show David holding high the sword.

Thematic Accuracy

Theme (single combat)
Discernible Influences (sculpture & painting)
Source (interpretation)
Viewpoints (angle of rotation: 120°)
Reading (side prevalence)

Temporal Accuracy

Event (the beheading)
Incompleteness of action (purpose significance)
Two sequences: two sides

Spatial Consistency

Composition (the void and the characters)
Focal centre (shift between the sides)
Layout set up (background & foreground versus the characters)
Posture (intricacy of the two-figures group)
Convergence (of confronting lines & main diagonals)

Logical Consistency

Spatial objects (The sling, the sword, the sheath)
Mutual liability (of objects)
Permutability (of objects around characters)
Scale (of objects versus characters)
Void (shift between the sides)

Axis & points of contact

Tent aperture
Axis (points of contact)
Hands & arms (position)
Character’s gazes
Faces rotation

Motion Segmentation & Degree of Accuracy

Apparent proportions of body & face (size scaling)
Contortions (suggesting struggle before final defeat
Swiftness of motion (expression of tension & violence)


Canon of Beauty (idealized features & anatomical realis
Density of forms (sculptural, elongated)
Palette (contiguity of colours)
Light & shade (contrasts)


Besides contextual considerations of the two Biblical versions the MT & the LXX, the iconic narrative of David & Goliath collective memory, whether it is represented once the killing is completed or about to be performed.

The story is articulated with two main sequences, which are the striking, and the killing with beheading of Goliath’s head in the valley of Elah.


In both sides of the painting Goliath is modelled according to proportions defined by Praxiteles, dividing the body into seven equal parts, with legs and forelegs representing each 2/7 as well as the total length of the arm, representing each 2/7.

However, with the exception of Goliath’s torso that is increased (extended) by a factor of 40 to 50%, thus conveying the appearance of a giant.

Goliath’s torso is the spatial location where David strides Goliath.

David’s proportions are following Lysippos’ recommended proportions with extended forelegs of 3/8 of the total length of the body, with the exception of his arms that are extended with a factor of 30 to 40% to allow David to grab the giant’s hair while being striding Goliath’s torso.
The contortions of both figures are exaggerated in order to allow the two faces to be seen by the viewer.
In order to allow the viewer to see both faces, Volterra changes the points of contact (gazes & grabbing of hair).
In Michelangelo’s fresco composition, David is positioned closer to Goliath’s hair without having to extend the length of David’s arm.
The observation of axis on both sides provides interesting information as to the presumed inconsistencies.

Da Volterra Da Volterra

In red are shown David’s position axes. In blue, are shown Goliath ‘axes position.

On the first observed side, we notice the following axes:

The axis of David’s shoulders from the right elbow to the left hand,
The axis of David’s head to his hips,
The axis from his hips to his legs,
The alignment axis of David’s both hands.

We notice that his face stands right between the alignment axis of his hands and the one of his shoulders.
These two axes form a triangle with the right forearm holding the sword.

As to Goliath’s observed axes, his right axis linking his right elbow to his right knee is parallel to the axis linking his left hand to his left knee, also in parallel with the middle axis of his body, hence demonstrating that there is no specific contortion of his body.
Therefore the two faces look at each other and the gazes (represented by a yellow line) is vertical.

Such observation of axis position shows the dominion posture of David over Goliath, with almost no resistance from Goliath.

The observed points of contact are:

•  The left hand of David,
•  The left hand of Goliath,
•  The Gazes.

The same observation conducted on the other side of the painting, with the same axes, shows the following:

•  The rotation of his torso,
•  The rotation of his face to the left.

Such observation demonstrates that the side of the painting appears more conventional with almost no contortion, with merely a strong emphasis on David’s dominion.
The second side of the painting reveals a stronger motion from Goliath, with his head positioned at a higher height from the ground (see the green arrow), suggesting that this side illustrates a sequence of the killing preceding the sequence of the other side, where Goliath shows no contortions, as he is defeated.
Therefore, the depiction of the sling on the ground becomes irrelevant.


Hellenistic sculptures

The lost Greek original of the wrestlers - Galleria degli Uffizi- Florence.
Hercules wrestling Antaeus.
Hercules wrestling Nessus
- Galleria degli Uffizi- Florence.

Michelangelo’ marble sculpture of David - Galleria dell’ Academia -Florence- 1501-1504.
Michelangelo ‘fresco of David & Goliath - Sistine Chapel - Vatican - 1508/1512.
Michelangelo’ bronze sculptures, drawings & paintings of Samson killing the philistines (circa1550).
Michelangelo’ sketches of David & Goliath - Pierpont Morgan library& museum (circa 1550).

Giambologna’ marble sculpture of Samson killing a philistine - 1560/62.

Michael Cole - The Figura Sforzata: modelling, power and the Mannerist body. September 2001.