Michelangelo’s David

Florence Travel Blog

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David (at least, the copy of David on the Piazza)
Michelangelo’s David was not created in a vacuum, it was a sculpture of an age and a place. Born any other time or place than 15th centry Florence and Michelangelo could not have created David. After a thousand years of medieval art, heavy on symbolism and light on artistic flair, the Renaissance blossomed in the 15th century in the relatively democratic and secular society of Florence, fueled by the wealth and artistic inclination of the Medici family, the bankers of the Pope.

Some scholars date the Renaissance precisely to 1401, when Lorenzo Ghiberti won a commisson to scuplt the doors to the baptistery of the Florence Duomo. These doors where the first to try to incorporate realism, through mathematical perspective, rather than than simple single dimension story-telling of medieval art.
The gilded eastern doors sculpted in 1425 took this a step further, adding depth to art for the first time since ancient Rome - such that Michelangelo named these the ‚ÄúGates of Paradise‚ÄĚ, calling their art perfect. This initiated an explosion of Florentine art incorporating mathematics and realism - especially the dome of the Duomo by Filippo Bruelleschi and the statues of Donatello.

Donatello’s statues were of particular importance in influencing Michelangelo’s sculpture. Since the fall of ancient Rome, the art of sculpting the human body had regressed. Unable to sculpt a body, for a thousand years statues were always heavily dressed in elaborate robes, allowing sculptors to concentrate on the fall of fabric and ignore the human image underneath. This first changed in 1417 when Donatello was commissioned to create a sculpture of St George for the Orsanmichele church, a granery converted to a church after the city was devastated by the 14th century black plague pandemic (the old function is still clearly visible, with bricked up arches and grain chutes).
. The church was owned by the guilds, with each guild competing for the most beautiful and novel icon sculpture. Donatello’s St George broke through by imaging St George in light armour, showing just a little skin on the arms and legs - but in doing so demonstrating a greater understanding of human anatomy than any sculptor since ancient Rome. Inside Orsanmichele the statue of St Mark by Donatello also influenced Michelangelo - initially rejected for its mishappen dimensions, the statue looks perfect when placed up high in a niche, rediscovering the art of modifying a statue’s dimensions with consideration of the perspective of the audience. In the painted form, Leonardo da Vinci, also working in Florence, took both perspective and the reality of human form a step further, going so far as to break Church law and dissect human corpses in order to accurately portray the human form.

Raised in Florence, cultivated by the Medici family and inspired by the burgeoning Renaissance art of Ghiberti, Bruelleschi, Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo learned to sculpt. Michelangelo was already an accomplished young sculptor by 1501, but craving fame and a challenge he lept on the chance to carve a statue of David for the Duomo dome. The commission had been lying dormant for forty years, the inferior block of marble, porous and fragile, already hacked into and abandoned by less talented artists. Michelangelo saw this challenge as a way to make his mark, and spent the next three years sculpting David. Unlike other sculptors of the time, Michelangelo worked alone, without a workshop. He was also unique in working without a plaster model, instead preferring to develop his image in the stone, believing that the art was already inside the block and he was only releasing it.
Michelangelo characteristically attacked the stone from the front, carving from the angle the statue would be viewed from and working around to the back. These idiosyncracies are best shown in his unfinished works, with his unfinished pieta in Milan demonstrating creative changes during the sculpting process and his unfinished ‚Äúprisoners‚ÄĚ in Galleria dell‚Äô Accademia demonstrating his ‚Äúfront first‚ÄĚ approach, with the head and chest unlocked from the rock while the back is locked in solid rock.

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo studied anatomy on illicit cadavers, allowing him to sculpt a nude David, with defined muscles, veins and tendons (although perhaps he should have looked at a few Jewish cadavers, as he sculpted David as uncircumcised).
Like Bruelleschi, Michelangelo incorporated mathematics into the sculpture, balancing the weight of the statue down through the legs, achieving the unusual achievement of balancing a 5.17 metre tall statue weighin 5.6 tonnes through the support of David’s legs alone. Like Donatello, Michelangelo built in a distorted perspective, giving David an enlarged head and hands to ensure they looked proportional when placed up high (which is why they look peculiar at eye level).

Built for Duomo dome, when Michelangelo finished ‚ÄúDavid‚ÄĚ in 1504 it was immediately hailed as masterpiece. A committee of artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, decided that rather than sit the sculpture on the Duomo, it should be placed in the prominent position of the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, on Piazza della Signoria.
While a religious man, in David Michelangelo had created a secular rather than religious masterpiece for Florence‚Äės cathedral. The David he sculpted was not a young Jewish boy fighting a giant with faith alone, but rather a towering muscled man, with rock and sling barely evident, reflecting the power of human ability rather than faith. While the move from Duomo to public square did not fit the perspective built into the statue, proud Michelangelo would no doubt have been delighted to have his fame  and the message of David‚Äôs humanity so obviously broadcast.

It is remarkable that David has survived for over 500 years. If David had been sculpted just a few years earlier it would have surely been destroyed by the anti-Renaissance Priest Girolamo Savonarola, who whipped Florentines up into a religious frenzy and used the Palazzo della Signoria to destroy wealth and art in his bonfires of the vanities.
Savonarola finally went too far, accusing a corrupt Pope of corruption, and he himself was burnt on the Palazzo in 1498, just metres from the place David would be placed six years later. David stood at Palazzo della Signoria for 350 years, and was struck by lightning and damaged in a riot in 1527, when a bench thrown from a window broke his arm into seven pieces. Finally in 1873 David was moved from the Palazzo into Galleria dell’ Accademia, in a room dedicated to the masterpiece, but even here he was not completely safe, being attacked by a man with a hammer who fortunately only succeeded in breaking David’s little toe.

In the true sense of the term, Michelangelo’s David is a Renaissance masterpiece. It was the first large nude sculpted for a thousand years, requiring the rediscovery of anatomy, mathematics and artistic techniques lost since the Roman period.
After a thousand years art had finally recaptured the skill and grace of the ancient Romans, so for the first time in an age human knowledge had to progress by looking forward rather than looking back into antiquity.  David is a symbol for the contribution Renaissance Florenace made to modern society. The accomplishment of Michelangelo‚Äôs David, Bruelleschi‚Äôs Dome and other Renaissance masterpieces was in bringing humanity back to the previous heights of civilisation and inspiring people to push further forward, elevating science over literature as the mode for new discovery, driving the scientific revolution and starting the enlightenment.

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David (at least, the copy of David…
David (at least, the copy of Davi…
photo by: spocklogic