David with the Head of Goliath
David with the Head of Goliath is a painting by Caravaggio, dated as early as 1605 and as late as 1609-1610. It was in the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1650.
According to Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1672), this artwork was executed for Scipione Borghese, and Goliath’s head was, in reality, Caravaggio’s self-portrait. Moreover, a document of 1613 connected to the payment for the frame of work having similar sizes. In addition, Scipione Francucci Imola’s poem, in a manuscript of 1613, included a description of this artwork, which was already in the Galleria Borghese.
More recently it has been hypothesized that David is a portrait of the painter rejuvenated, which makes this painting a double self-portrait.
Moreover, there is an assumption that the boy is the same model as the one who posed for St John the Baptist. Caravaggio also treated the subject of this painting as a work from 1607, located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and an earlier work from 1600, located in the Prado in Madrid.
A follower of Giorgione (1510) became an inspiration for the artist. However, Caravaggio captured the drama more effectively by depicting the head dangling from David’s gloved hand with blood rather than leaving it on a ledge. In addition, the subject has a sword in his hands with an inscription H-AS OS, which is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase “humilitas occidit superbiam” (“humility kills pride”).
David is concerned and turns between a feeling of disgust and pity. The decision to portray him as rather pensive rather than jubilant creates an unusual psychological connection between him and Goliath. This connection is further complicated because Caravaggio portrayed himself as Goliath. At the same time, the model for David is “il suo Caravaggino” (“his own little Caravaggio”) – possibly the painter Mao Salini.
Biographical interest in the artwork adds another meaning to the already complex work: David and Goliath stand for Christ and Satan and the triumph of good over evil in the orthodox Christian iconography of that period, as well as a cold-blooded lover who “kills” his lover according to modern literary vanity. An example of the genre can be seen in the modern Judith and Holofernes of Cristofano Allori in the Pitti Palace, where Allori portrays himself as Holofernes. However, Caravaggio portrayed David as not so cruel but as deeply touched by Goliath’s death.
If the artwork was a gift to Cardinal Borghese, the papal official who has the right to pardon Caravaggio for the murder, it can also be interpreted as a personal request for pardon.
The dating of a work of art has long been contested: if the hypothesis of a commission from Scipione Borghese, the end of its Roman period, can be assumed, in this case, the “endpoint” will be 1606. But the simplified forms of the laconic nature of the composition and the quick drawing suggest that it was performed in Naples. This is confirmed by external evidence and discovering a copy of Battistello (Florence, 1991). Of the various hypotheses put forward regarding the work date, the most likely seems to follow the murder of Tomassoni by Caravaggio, which occurred on May 29, 1606, possibly also because of the dramatic nature of this picture.