How much do you think you know about Michelangelo’s David? Oh sure, you’ve seen countless pictures of the famous statue on the internet, TV or in books. You recognize the muscular nude male, standing with his feet apart, looking off into the distance. But did you know the statue was originally commissioned to sit atop the roof of an Italian cathedral? That the version standing outside Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio is actually just an inferior bronze replica? How about that Michelangelo was only 26 when he sculpted it?
The statue of David was commissioned in 1501 during the reign of the famous Medici ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent. The cathedral guild hired the young artist to create a statue of King David to stand atop the roof the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore in Firenze. Though quite young, Michelangelo was already famous for sculpting The Pieta in Rome – the famous statue of Mary cradling the body of a crucified Jesus in her lap. He was provided a 6 ton rectangle of white Tuscan marble that two prior sculptures had deemed too flawed to use. Michelangelo however, took on the challenge. David would not be life-sized, but rather 17 feet tall!
It took him two painstaking years to complete the statue.
The stone sat in a small courtyard behind the cathedral, so he worked year round, outside in rain, heat and cold. Rarely stopping to eat, Michelangelo often slept on the spot, where he dropped from sheer exhaustion. Rather than a robed & bearded King David, he chose instead a young man on the day that made him famous, the day in the Book of Samuel that David was the only one to step forward and accept King Saul’s challenge for anyone to face down the Philistine giant Goliath. A simple shepherd boy, naked yet toned, armed only with a rock, sling and fierce determination.
David stands with his legs apart in a fencing (or pitcher) like pose, left heel slightly raised, looking over his left shoulder at Goliath, the sling is draped over the same shoulder, across his back to his right hand where he conceals the deadly stone. Michelangelo dissected corpses to learn the intricacies of human muscles and put that knowledge to use. Though David at first appears relaxed, on closer examination one sees the tension in his legs, the glare in his eyes, the bulging veins in his hands. His head is slightly larger and out of proportion, so that when viewed from below it would appear a normal size. The sling and stump were originally gilded in gold, but has long since wore off.
When completed, the reviews were beyond positive, they were ecstatic!
His benefactors indeed proclaimed in ‘Perfect!” Too perfect in fact to sit so far away atop the Duomo roof. So a commission was formed, which included an aging Leonardo da Vinci, to choose a ground level location somewhere in Florence. Oh to be a fly on the wall, overhearing the conversations between Michelangelo and Leonardo. The chosen site was atop a pedestal outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria. It took 40 men, four nerve wracking days to transport “the Giant” through the narrow streets. Even the orientation was taken into account, with David facing Rome, as if the Medici were staring down the Pope himself.
Michelangelo’s fame grew beyond David and the Pieta when was he was next commissioned by the Pope to paint the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. He never married or had any children, leading to theories he may have been secretly gay. He lived to a ripe old age of 88, the aged and bearded figure depicted in many of his portraits.
David’s exposed manhood caused quite a bit of consternation when Queen Victoria was presented a replica in the 19th century. So much so that a plaster fig leaf was made and hung on his curly public hair so that the queen might not faint from the vapors. It was an amusing bit of history mimicked in a Simpson’s TV show episode. It’s also curious to note Michelangelo chose to not make him circumcised, which was of course the Jewish custom.
The perfect statue stood outdoors for over 350 years, exposed to the Italian elements. Only in 1873, over concerns that the weather was eroding the statue, was it finally transferred indoors to the Galleria dell Accademia. A bronze replica was put in the plaza for the pidgeons to mark the spot it once stood.
The years have taken their toll of the great masterpiece, as microfractures have appeared in his ankles from centuries of vibrations. One of his toes was once hammered off by a spectator. Unfortunately, David is actually oriented the wrong way for the best public viewing. As visitors approach, they see the often photographed angle facing his hips and chest. But the view Michelangelo intended was facing him from the right. There you see the brave David as Goliath would have – eyes glaring, muscles tense, ready to load his sling for that fateful throw.
Such a perfect masterpiece is not just a piece of art for Florence, but an eternal gift to the world and all its descendants.
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