The Unveiling of Michelangelo’s David
- 8th September 1504 -
The Italian Renaissance painter and architect Giorgio Vasari said that once you had seen Michelangelo’s David there was no point in ever seeing another sculpture – such was its perfection. Standing at nearly seventeen feet tall and weighing in at 12,473 pounds, the statue, carved from a single block of marble from the Carrara quarry in Tuscany, should be one of the wonders of the world. The detail and emotion that are evident sets it apart from anything else.
Originally commissioned for the cathedral of Florence it was to be one of a series of sculptures to be positioned in the niches of the cathedral’s tribunes, platforms, eighty metres high. This was a commission that had been started by Agostino du Duccio but he had given up leaving this massive block of marble untouched for 25 years.
When he started in 1501 Michelangelo was just 26 years old and this work helped to mark him out as one of the greatest artists of all time. The commissioners, from the cathedral, never expected a work of such importance marked by a revolutionary interpretation of the biblical hero – David. Most other artists who had painted or sculptured David, such as Donatello or Verrocchio, had done so from the time after his fight with the Philistine giant, Goliath, showing him in triumphant pose, often with the defeated giant at his feet. Michelangelo portrayed him beforehand, tense and alert. You can see the bulging veins on the back of his hand and the flexing of the muscles in his right leg. He is resting in a pose known as a contrapposto. As the Galleria dell’ Accademia states, he “has one leg in front of the other, his hips and shoulders rest at opposite angles creating an s-curve to his torso.” He also has a slingshot over his shoulder that is nearly invisible. The idea behind this idea is that it is by his faith that he wins the day – not force.
Michelangelo worked on the piece in complete secrecy. Often he got soaking wet as he worked in a courtyard closed off to the outside world. First he created a wax model and submerged this in water. Gradually he drained the water out and as he did so he chiselled what he could see emerging, from the head down. In January 1504 it was unveiled to the members of the Vestry Board – from the cathedral. They all agreed that it was far too perfect to place so high up and so another location had to be found.
A town committee in Florence was set up to decide where this should be. This was thirty strong and included such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli. Eventually it was decided to put it at the political heart of the city – in the Piazza della Signoria – outside the Palazzo Vecchio. This was to symbolise freedom. In the way that the Israelites were free from the Philistines so Florentines were free from Medici rule. It replaced a bronze statue by the celebrated artist Donatello. It took four days and forty men to move the giant statue to the square where it was to stand. Michelangelo then put the finishing touches to it. The sling and supporting tree stump were then gilded – although over the years this has all washed away. The right hand and the head were over proportioned. Perhaps this was to compensate for the fact it was intended to be 80 metres high or perhaps to show the intense concentration on his face. The larger right hand is perhaps a reference to David’s nickname, ‘Manu Fortis’, meaning strong of hand.
The statue remained in this location until 1873 when it was moved the Accademia, to protect it from further weathering, where it remains to this day. On September 14th1991 the painter Piero Cannata smuggled a hammer into the museum and proceeded to hack off the second toe on his left foot. This allowed scientists to discover the type of marble used which was from the Frantiscritti quarry in the Carrara region. The marble here contains very small holes meaning that it is more susceptible to deterioration. In 2003-4 it was cleaned although many were against this due to its vulnerability. The constant footfall from tourists is also causing vibrations that could also be causing further damage.
Life-size replicas can be found at the exact spot where it once stood – outside the Palazzo Vecchio - and also in the Piazza Michelangelo that has stunning views overlooking Florence. There is also a copy in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that has a detachable fig leaf – some claim due to the shock that Victoria showed when she first saw the artwork.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece of the biblical hero is one of the most recognisable in the world – and with justification. It is not often something is perfect in the secular world but this is as close as it could come.