David with the head of GoliathCa. 1600. Oil on canvas, 110.4 x 91.3 cm.
The Bible story (Samuel 1:17) depicted here corresponds to the moment when, as a young shepherd, David kills Goliath, the giant, with his sling and cuts off his head to triumphantly exhibit it. The episode of tying the giant’s tresses to reveal his head has no iconographic precedent and is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, making this work yet another example of Caravaggio’s originality and independence.
This painting is first listed in an inventory of the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid in 1794. Its previous history is unknown but it is thought, with some reservation, to be from the collection of Juan Bautista Crescenzi. This collector with a known predilection for modern artists-that is, naturalists- arrived in Madrid in 1617 and died there in 1635. Alternatively, it may have been brought to Spain by the Count of Villamediana, who was in Italy between 1611 and 1615. According to Bellori, he owned a David by Caravaggio. Finally, though less likely, it could be the David of Caravaggio that Monsignor Galeotto Rospigliosi left in his will in 1643. The painting’s presence in Spain is borne out by some period copies, all of which were made in a Spanish context.
During the 19th century, this canvas was attributed to the school of Caravaggio, and while it was later included in that master’s catalog, some critics considered it an ancient copy of a lost original. Caravaggio’s authorship was finally demonstrated by Mina Gregori, who published an X-ray of it that shows the first version of the giant’s head, with a dramatic expression, bulging eyes and a gaping mouth whose terrifying appearance recalls Medusa (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi) and Holofernes (Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica), two paintings in which Caravaggio successfully expresses the horror of physical pain. This expression may have been changed because that painter’s client considered it excessively violent. In any case, the X-ray certifies that the canvas is an original Caravaggio. Attention has been drawn to the expressive containment of the head in the shadows, which contrasts with the customary image of David as winner, as well as the tight composition, which resembles no other work by this artist except for Narcissus (Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica), with its geometric scheme- based, here, on a rectangle.
As to this painting’s date: specialists agree that it is from the artist’s relatively youthful period, somewhere between 1596 and 1600 (Text drawn from Pérez Sánchez, A. E.: El Prado en el Ermitage, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2011, pp. 98-99).