Iconic Artwork: David by Michelangelo

David by Michelangelo
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Poster of David by Michelangelo. Image by Vicki Hamilton from Pixabay

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The subject of today’s article is one of the most famous works of art and sculpture in history, made by one of the greatest artists of all time, Michelangelo.

The sculpture I am talking about is of course the great marble statue of David, sculpted by Michelangelo and widely regarded as a masterpiece of Renaissance art and one of the greatest sculptures in history.

Let us discuss the statue of David with the help of a few questions.

What is the sculpture of David?

The sculpture of David is a giant marble statue of the biblical figure, David, a young shepherd, and harpist who killed the giant Goliath. Due to what David and his story represented, the figure of David was a popular subject in Florentine art.

Standing at 5.17 meters (that is, 17 feet) and weighing over 6 tons, Michelangelo’s David was the first giant marble statue after classical antiquity.

Michelangelo worked on the statue for almost 3 years, from 1501 to 1504. It was finally unveiled to the public on 8th September 1504.

The statue was admired and revered not only by the public but also by Michelangelo’s contemporaries, who were in awe of Michelangelo’s work.

Due to what the biblical figure of David represented, that is the victory of the small and weak over the mighty and strong, the statue came to symbolize the independence of the Republic of Florence, a city-state surrounded on all sides by powerful rival states.

How did Michelangelo land the commission for the statue?

Well, the answer to this question isn’t as straightforward as one would imagine. Michelangelo was never the first choice for carving the sculpture of David. In fact, in truth, the idea for the project came into existence way before Michelangelo was even born.

Allow me to give some more background on this.

Sometime during the first decade of the 1400s, the Overseers of the Office of Works of Florence Cathedral, which primarily consisted of members of the influential woolen cloth guild, the Arte della Lana, had decided to commission a series of 12 large sculptures to be positioned along the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral.

Sculptor Donatello made the first of these statues in 1410, the biblical figure of Joshua, 65 years before Michelangelo was born. In 1463, sculptor Agostino di Duccio was commissioned to make a statue of Hercules under Donatello’s direction.

The following year, Agostino was commissioned to make a statue of David, and a block of marble was brought in from a quarry in the town of Carrara in the Apuan Alps in Northern Tuscany for him to begin working on it.

However, Agostino did not get very far with the statue. He only managed to begin shaping the torso, legs, and feet and roughed out some drapery, before he ceased work on it by 1466, around the time Donatello died.

Ten years later, in 1476, barely a year after Michelangelo was born, Antonio Rossellino was commissioned to continue Agostino’s work. However, his contract was terminated shortly thereafter without any substantial progress on the project.

For the next 26 years, the marble block was left neglected and untouched in the Cathedral workshop yard, exposed to the elements. More importantly, the large expensive marble was left without an artist to work on it.

By the year 1500, the members of the guild were fed up with looking at the giant abandoned block of marble, which was badly blocked out. They resolved to find an artist who was skillful and capable enough to turn the marble block into the figure of David.

Prominent Florentine artists of the time such as Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea Sansovino were considered for the commission, but it was a young 26-year-old Michelangelo, fresh off completing the Pietà, who managed to convince the guild that he was the right artist for the job.

On 16th August 1501, Michelangelo was given the official contract for the project. Early in the morning of 13th September, he began carving the marble.

And on 8th September 1504, almost 3 years after he began working on the project, the giant statue of David was unveiled to the public. In 3 years, Michelangelo had turned an imperfect block of marble into a beautiful masterpiece.

Since Michelangelo preferred to work privately and in solitude, few know the process that went into carving out David from that marble block. But the result was astonishing and awe-inspiring and immediately turned a 29-year-old Michelangelo into one of the most sought-after artists of his time.

Where was the giant statue placed?

Well, initially the statue was intended to be positioned along the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral, however, things grew complicated when it was discovered that the statue stood at 5.17 meters and weighed over 6 tons.

The authorities declared that it would be extremely difficult to raise the statue to the roof of the Cathedral. And so, a committee, which included artists such as da Vinci and Botticelli, was organized to decide where the statue should be placed.

Nine different locations were discussed for the statue, but it was finally decided that the statue would be placed next to the entrance to the city’s town hall, now known as Palazzo Vecchio.

Although the distance to the decided spot was only half a mile from the Cathedral’s workshop, it took four days to move the statue to the spot.

What did the statue represent and stand for?

Upon its unveiling, Michelangelo’s David soon came to represent strength and youthful beauty. Famous for killing the giant Goliath, the statue was seen as a political symbol in Florence, representing the defense of civil liberties of independent Florence, which was then surrounded by powerful rival states.

In short, the statue represented the victory of the weak over the strong and powerful.

What makes the statue unique?

The image and symbolism of David were fairly common in Renaissance Florence, with several sculptures and paintings dedicated to the figure. Therefore, the subject of Michelangelo’s statue was nothing new or different.

So what then makes Michelangelo’s David so unique? Well, let’s try to figure that out.

David by Michelangelo
The Statue of David by Michelangelo. Image by davidwtc from Pixabay

The most obvious difference historians have observed is the pose of David in Michelangelo’s sculpture. The pose Michelangelo gave David is quite unlike any earlier Renaissance depictions of David.

Usually, David was depicted as a hero standing victorious over the giant Goliath, or over Goliath’s head. Almost all earlier depictions include Goliath in the narrative, and this is exactly where Michelangelo’s David differs.

As one can see in the above picture, Michelangelo’s David makes no reference to Goliath at all.

David is instead depicted before his battle with Goliath could take place, not during or after it. Upon close observation, it can be seen that the figure looks tense but ready for battle. David’s neck is tense, his brow is drawn, and his veins bulge out. David is also shown holding a sling in his left hand, which is draped over his shoulder, and goes down to his right hand which holds the handle of the sling.

The pose also gives the impression that the figure is about to move. And the stark nakedness of David reflects a story of David as given in the Bible, which states: And Saul armed David with his armor, and he put a helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword upon his armor, and he assayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them. And David put them off him.

What is the legacy of Michelangelo’s David today?

In 1873, Michelangelo’s David was moved to the Gallery of the Academy of Florence to protect it from damage. In 1910, a replica of the statue was placed in its original spot.

Today, Michelangelo’s David is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most iconic sculptures and artworks in art history. It is one of the most recognized and popular works of Renaissance art, one that attracts millions of visitors every year to this day.

Giorgio Vasari went as far as to declare that Michelangelo’s David surpassed all ancient and modern statues that ever existed.

But most importantly, Michelangelo’s David established and cemented Michelangelo’s influence and legacy for eternity.