Fathering a Master: An Oedipal Interpretation of David
by Kaylah Rodriguez

Gianlorenzo Bernini’s sculpture of the Old Testament figure David (see fig. 15) was his last commission by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. This work is distinct in its psychological intensity and is widely understood to have been modeled in the likeness of its author, Gianlorenzo. His self-identification with this David provides an opportunity to understand something of his own psychology and his sense of identity. When considering this work in light of the Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, specifically the concept of the Oedipus complex, some interesting observations about Gianlorenzo’s relationship with his father can be made.

15. Gianlorenzo Bernini. “David,” ca. 1623-1624, Rome, Villa Borghese (source—artstor.org)

Fig. 15. Gianlorenzo Bernini. “David,” ca. 1623-1624, Rome, Villa Borghese (source—artstor.org)

The Oedipus complex is an element of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis that directly addresses a son’s perception of his father and his subsequent sense of identity in relation to him. According to Freud, there is a repressed desire for the parent of the opposite sex in each child, resulting in a fear related to the parent of the same sex. In the case of males, the son experiences a castration anxiety and a sense of inferiority and competition in relation to the father. As the son matures, these desires and fears are not conscious, but rather subconscious and infiltrate every level of the father-son relationship. Theoretically, the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex is the son’s identification with the father.

Although this is not an actual self-portrait, the David is arguably one of Gianlorenzo’s most autobiographic works. In an Art Quarterly article on identity formation and image reference, Seymour Howard says of the David that “previous identifications with his [Gianlorenzo’s] subjects had been neither so overt nor so self-assured.”[1] This work was completed when Gianlorenzo was around twenty-five years old, during an important and transitional time in his career and his development as an artist. The David marks a shift in Gianlorenzo’s stylistic maturation, and professional advancement. He chooses to depict David with a level of movement, force, and animation not before seen in the “Davids” of his predecessors. Gianlorenzo’s David is neither fearful nor unsure, but rather is confident and ready to act without hesitation. Bearing the countenance of Gianlorenzo himself, David provides the viewer with a sense of Gianlorenzo’s own autonomy and self-assurance—evidence of successful resolution of an Oedipal complex. Through a sort of retrospective psychoanalysis, one can gather evidence from the David that suggests Pietro’s utmost support and encouragement of Gianlorenzo’s artistic endeavors, resulting in his successful Oedipal resolution—identification with his father. In her book, The Methodologies of Art, Laurie Adams states that “His [Bernini’s ] father’s enlightened attitude minimized the inhibitory effects of oedipal conflict by allowing his son to ‘succeed’ without guilt and hence without fear of retaliation. The relationship between Pietro and Gian Lorenzo conforms to the psychologically ideal circumstance for a creative child—that his father work in the same field, be less gifted than he, and be willing to concede victory realistically”[2] This sort of positive experience and environment during his critical and developmental years enabled him to then excel far beyond the precedent and standards of his father’s art.

[1] Seymour Howard, “Identity Formation and Image Reference in the Narrative Sculpture of Bernini’s Early Maturity:  Hercules and Hydra and Eros Triumphant,” Art Quarterly 2 (1979):  140-157.

[2]Laure Schneider Adams, The Methodologies of Art, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996, 2010), 226.