Giorgione’s Self-portrait as David

There has always been a violent streak to artistic creation, often expressed through military metaphor and in scenes of violence or its aftermath. You can see elsewhere on this site how swords have been used as symbols for paintbrushes. 

In this print after a lost but famous painting by Giorgione, a founding father of the High Renaissance portrayed himself in armor as the victorious David who had just cut off the head of Goliath. To find out what this means one must identify the discrepancies with the story of David and Goliath. Edgar Wind pointed out in the 1960’s that Giorgione had made the giant’s head no larger than his own as David, a clear discrepancy. He surmised that the artist was presenting himself as a creative giant because the artist’s professional name was ‘Big George’, Giorgione in Italian (fig. 1).1 He was right but there is also a second play on words. In the pictorial language explained here, Giorgione as David has killed Goliath and now presents his "mind" or literally "head" as an example of his painting. Goliath's head is David's capolavoro or "head-thoughts" and the ability of the young Giorgione to compose and paint Goliath’s head is metaphorically compared to the young David’s heroic efforts.2

See conclusion below.

Captions for image(s) above:

Giorgione, Self-portrait as David

Click image to enlarge.

The image’s underlying construction is similar to Rembrandt’s later Self-portrait with a Dead Bittern. Rembrandt, an artist who never visited Italy, may even have been inspired by it. 


1. Wind, 1969, p.11

2. Although the first known literary use of the Italian word for "masterpiece", capolavoro, dates from around 1700, the concept is likely to have been used in speech earlier. Yet, even without the current meaning of capolavoro, artists who thought of their art as a description of their own mind could have used an executed head as a metaphor for it. Put another way, given that every painter paints himself and thus that both executioner and victim represent the artist, the victim's executed head becomes a metaphor for the artist's own work, his head-work or thoughts.

For the first known use of capolavoro, see Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, v. II, ed. Salvatore Battaglia (Turin: Unione Tipografico) 1961, p.708  

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