How much do you think you know about Michelangelo’s David? You’ve no doubt seen countless pictures of the famous naked statue on the internet, television or in books. You recognize the handsome, muscular nude male, standing with his feet apart, staring 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 years old 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 up-and-coming artist to create a statue of King David to stand atop the roof the famous 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 from the Carrara quary that two prior sculptures, including the famous Donatello, had rejected as too flawed to use. It sat untouched for over 10 years. Michelangelo however, saw beyond the flaws and took on the challenge. David would not be life-sized, but rather 17 feet (5.2 meters) tall!
It took him two painstaking years to complete what Firenze dubbed ‘il Gigante’ (the Giant).
1) The marble stone sat in a small courtyard behind the Duomo cathedral, so he worked year round, outside in the rain, heat and cold. Rarely stopping to eat, Michelangelo often slept on the spot, where he dropped from sheer exhaustion at day’s end. 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 when David was the only person 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.
2) Michelangelo dissected corpses to learn the intricacies of human muscles and put that knowledge to great use. David stands with his legs apart in a fencing-like (or baseball pitcher) 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 clenched right hand where he conceals the small yet deadly stone. 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. His right hand, gripping the stone, is also slightly larger – a nod to David’s nickname manu fortis.
When finally completed, the reviews in Tuscany were beyond positive, they were ecstatic!
3) 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 none other than an aging Leonardo da Vinci, to choose a ground level location somewhere in Florence. Oh to be a fly on the wall, overhearing those 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 slowly transport the 12,000 pound “Giant” through the narrow streets. Even the orientation was taken into account, with David facing Rome, as if the Medici Giant was staring down the Pope himself.
4) David’s exposed manhood caused quite a bit of consternation when Britain’s Queen Victoria was presented a replica in London in the 19th century by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. 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 in his naked masculine presence. It was an amusing bit of history mimicked in a Simpson’s TV show episode a century later. It’s also curious to note Michelangelo chose to not make David circumcised, which was of course the Jewish custom.
5) The perfect statue stood outdoors for over 350 years, exposed to the Italian elements – rain, sun, snow and pigeons. Only in 1873, over concerns that the weather was eroding the marble masterpiece, was it finally transferred indoors to the Galleria dell Accademia. David’s sling and the tree stump were originally gilded in gold, but has long since wore off over time. In the Galleria, one of the toes on his left foot was once hammered off in 1991 by a zealous Italian spectator! It was thankfully reattached. A bronze replica was put in the Palazzo Vecchio for the tourists (and Italian pigeons) to mark the spot it once stood.
The years have taken their toll on the great masterpiece, as micro-fractures have appeared from centuries of vibrations.
6) Unfortunately, David is actually oriented the wrong way in the Galleria dell Accademia for the best public viewing. As visitors approach down a long hallway, they see the often photographed angle facing his hips and chest. David almost looks relaxed. 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. If you visit him in the Galleria, step into the corridor on the right for the best view.
Michelangelo’s fame grew beyond David and the Pieta when was he was next commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the vaulted ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. That task, which is actually 52 separate frescoes, took him four long years to complete. Michelangelo never married or had any children, leading to theories he may have been secretly gay. He certainly had a keen appreciation for the male form. He lived a solitary life, well known for his short temper and lack of personal hygiene. Michelangelo lived to a ripe old age of 88, the aged and bearded figure often depicted in many of his portraits.
Such artist perfection as the masterpiece of David is not just a piece of sculpture for the Renaissance or even Italy, but Michelangelo’s eternal gift to the entire world and all its descendants. If you are ever in Italy, I highly recommend a trip to Florence/Firenzi. Endure the long tourist lines to the Galleria dell Accademia and see for yourself, THE GIANT.
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