The Secondhand Origins of Michelangelo’s David

It is said that there is nothing new under the sun and that all ideas have been formulated, and reformulated, countless times. It’s interesting that in this age of constant content, we find ourselves drawn to the ‘classics. This is a more pure form of engagement with art. We look for recognizable paintings, sculptures, and buildings from past times. We tend to believe that masterpieces were created from the minds of their creators. We don’t realize that their ideas went through the same process of development, refinement, and change as ours. Renaissance was a time of great creation and re-creation.

Although it may be the most well-known sculpture in the world, Michelangelo’s iconic statue of David is far less famous.

Michelangelo’s David – From broken marble to flawless masterpiece

The odds against Michelangelo were already against him when he began to build what would be one of the most famous statues in the world. The idea of a massive sculpture to guard the Florence Cathedral was first conceived in 1464. The Opera del Duomo was formed by members of The Wool Guild of Florence, who were a major player at the time. They selected Agostino Di Duccio as the sculptor to complete this monumental task.

The project was not easy from the beginning. Agostino was a skilled chisel operator, but he wasn’t as proficient when it came down to choosing materials. He chose the block of marble from Carrara, which had been honed from a mountainside. It was already damaged when he started the project. It was also so big that it took two years to transport the stone to Florence.

Although the marble was marvellous once it arrived, it soon encountered problems that led to its demise. The sculptor of the marble was not used to working on such large scales and abandoned the project. However, he did make some irreparable modifications to the block of marble and began carving the legs and feet. Next was Antonio Rossellino, but he was also forced to concede defeat due to the fragility of the marble.

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David in his current residence in the Accademia Gallery, Florence

The marble sat unutilized for 25 years, which was both impressive and frustrating. To tackle a project this large, it would require a combination of skill, impetuousness, and daring.

Michelangelo Buonarroti Sini, who was 26 years old in 1501, was already a well-respected and highly-paid sculptor. He had completed the Pieta for French Cardinal Jean de Bilheres two years earlier and was instantly recognized by Florence’s elite.

He was a good candidate for the David commission. The Wool Guild soon offered him the job, but with the condition that he use the original marble block, which even they acknowledged had been ‘roughly cut’. Michelangelo accepted the commission, despite the fact that it was a marble that was not suitable for his purpose and that two other artists had left it. Michelangelo continued to work for two years despite the damage done to marble by his predecessors and created a work that was instantly recognized as a masterpiece.

Quick Facts

  • The current display of Michelangelo’s David in Florence’s Accademia Gallery is viewed by more than a million people each year.
  • The Overseers of Florence Cathedral’s Office of Works (or Opera del Dumo) commissioned the statue and served Michelangelo with the official contract on 16 August 1501.
  • David is a remarkable 17 feet tall (5.16m) – three times as large as the average man.
  • There are many versions of Michelangelo’s David, including Donatello’s and Bernini’s. However, there are some key differences. Bernini’s David, which is in the middle and part of the Italian Baroque period is lifesize. Donatello’s bronze statue depicts the moments following David’s battle against Goliath.

For a peaceful experience at one of Florence’s most popular museums, take our Florence Tours or VIP After Hours tour to see the David statue.

What’s in the name?

The area where David originally stood The Palazzo Vecchio, where David stood originally

David’s origins correspond to the statue’s inspiration, the biblical story of David & Goliath. According to legend, the Israelite armies and the Philistine armies agreed to trial by single combat in order to end their long-standing conflict. The Philistines had their warriors in place and were ready to go, but no one was willing to stand for the Israelites. It was no surprise, considering the champion the Philistines had fighting on their side. For forty days, the giant Goliath of the Philistines paraded across the battlefield mocking the Israelites as well as their king Saul, who was too scared to confront the warrior.

The Israelites finally found their champion when David, the younger brother to one of the soldiers, visited the front line. David, the younger brother of one of the soldiers, bravely accepted to fight Goliath single combat using his weapon choice, a slingshot. Instead of seeing the giant’s enormous size as a problem, he saw it simply as an opportunity. Goliath was huge, but he was slow and he was heavily armored. David, an unarmored man, met Goliath on the battlefield. David, just like Michelangelo, was determined to complete the task that other sculptors abandoned. David shot one well-aimed shot and won the battle against Goliath.

The Renaissance saw the story of David become a popular theme. It represents all the most valuable qualities such as youth and daring, energy, victory over insurmountable odds, and perseverance. Many statues were made during this time to depict the story. Perhaps the most well-known is Donatello’s David. His project was enormous, and it would have been enough for him to be distinguished. Michelangelo strayed from the norm in another important aspect of his design. David is often depicted after his victory in glory, with his head on top of Goliath’s severed head. Michelangelo instead of showing David after his battle with Goliath depicted his David moments earlier, as the young man was ready to face his adversary. His slingshot is almost concealed in his hand, and he stands alert but relaxed. This depicts the virtues of rational thought, deliberation, and a move from excess that were highly valued in the Renaissance school.

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The Florence Duomo is the ideal location for David

Interpreting David

The story of David and Goliath is relevant to Michelangelo’s task of carving a block from marble that other artists could not. However, it could also be applied to Florence in the 16th century. The independent Republic of Florence was viewed as the “David of Italy”, fighting against the dominating influence of the Pope in Rome, and sometimes prominent families, who attempted to take control of the city. The Medicis were one such family, ruling Florence in the Renaissance’s heights with a few notable exceptions. One of these exceptions was in 1504, when exiled Medici from Florence.

Although the original plan was to have the statue of David stand proudly on top of the Florence Cathedral, because it is so large and impressive, officials from the government decided it should be in an area more appropriate for such a monumental work. Instead, they installed it outside Florence’s town hall (the Palazzo Vecchio). Despite the fact Michelangelo having received patronage from Medici in his previous career, including being an apprentice at the Medici school for artists, the image of David standing defiantly toward Rome was instantly seen as a symbol against exiled Medici families. This was not Michelangelo’s intent. It was clear that art takes on its own life and there was a strong backlash against the statue.

What was the result? The result?

A legacy written in stone

The statue of David has remained a symbol of David’s political connections. It is now visited by more than one million people each year. Thirty-three full-scale replicas of the statue have been created worldwide. Moreover, while Michelangelo’s Pieta work may have made him a celebrity among the Florence elite, his legacy would be based on his work with David.

It’s not bad for a statue that has such a rough start.

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