Francesco Pesellino, The Triumph of David
Story of David Panels from a Pair of Cassoni (?)
There’s so much going on in these pictures that it’s hard to make out the story. Battles and parades, knights and nobles, horses, hounds, lions, bears and giants are crammed in a flowery Tuscan landscape. Although it looks like a fairy tale set in medieval Italy, the story comes from the Bible and tells how a brave shepherd boy, David, married a princess after defeating a giant, Goliath.
The long shape of each painting is due to their original function. They would probably have been set into the panelling of a private room, possibly over a chest. We don't know exactly who they were made for, but emblems associated with the Medici, the ruling family of Florence in the fifteenth century, are shown on some of the clothing. They might have been made for a Medici marriage.
There’s so much going on in these unusually shaped panels that it’s hard to make out the story. Battles and parades, knights and nobles, horses, hounds, lions, bears and giants are crammed in a flowery Tuscan landscape, with roads and rivers winding through green hills and between medieval walled cities.
Although it looks like a fairy tale set in fifteenth-century Italy, the story comes from the Bible, and tells how a brave shepherd boy, David, married a princess after defeating the giant Goliath. This is what is known as cyclical narrative, where events which took place at different times are shown in a single setting. The narrative starts on the left of The Story of David and Goliath, with David guarding his flocks, and continues – more or less – from left to right, to his battle with Goliath. The Triumph of David shows the triumphal procession bringing the giant’s head to Jerusalem. On the far right there seems to be a betrothal scene: a group of richly dressed courtiers are gathered around a man and a woman who are being formally presented to each other. This could be David and Michal, daughter of the King of Israel whom David married, or the couple for whom the paintings were intended – or perhaps a conflation of both.
These paintings would doubtless have decorated a private room in fifteenth-century Florence and give us an idea just how sumptuous interiors in Renaissance Italy could be. They were probably spalliere, paintings set into the panelling, usually at shoulder height, above chests or seating. The detail, like the flowers in the grass at the front, was clearly meant to be examined close up. Although some of the materials have now darkened – the silver of the knights‘ armour, the green of the plants and the blue of the sky – and in places the surface of the paint is rather worn and some detail has been lost, they would originally have been brilliantly coloured and sparkling with gold and silver. The animals, in particular the bear, cheetah and lions, were beautifully painted and very naturalistic, and the punched and burnished gold must have shone in the candle light.
Their iconography suggests they were made to commemorate a marriage, probably for one of the Medici, whose emblems appear on some of the knight’s clothing. We know that Pesellino painted spalliere and cassoni for the family, and they were especially interested in the story of David: they commissioned several works showing the victorious David, including a bronze statue by Donatello that’s still in the Palazzo Medici. The atmosphere of these paintings is also very similar to that of Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Medici chapel.
Two of Cosimo de’ Medici’s sons, Piero and Giovanni, married in 1448 and 1453 respectively; his nephew Pierfranceso di Medici married in 1456. If the paintings were made for a Medici wedding, these three are all possible options. Whoever they were meant for, the joyful, romantic subject matter would have been especially suitable for a young couple’s bedroom.