The human body is a complex, beautiful work of art created in the image of God. An artist called Michelangelo believed in this idea so much to the point that he spoke to God through his artistic imitation of man. A man of Christian faith, Michelangelo felt closer to God by forming the beauty of the human body as God intended rather than by prayer or “moral attitude[i].” He was determined to “express the human body as it emerged from the hands of God[ii].” This attitude is evident in Michelangelo’s interpretation of David, from the biblical story of David and Goliath, as he took a more than imperfect stone and created a figure of near perfection. A colossal image of youth, David was created through faith and an unfathomable love of beauty.
Standing a massive seventeen feet tall, David was originally intended to sit atop Florence’s cathedral to watch over the city, symbolizing that the people were always ready for the fight against tyranny[iii]. Florence had just overthrown the Medici and had finally gained the freedom to become a republic. However, being a reborn, weak republic, Florence was at high risk for attack from its neighbors and needed a morale boost to raise courage and determination to hold on to freedom. As it happened, art was a major form of expression that reached many people on emotional levels, used as a political tool and propaganda[iv]. What better way to represent the small and weak fighting giants than the biblical image of David?
Donatello was the first to be commissioned for the statue. However, he handed the job over to his protégé Agostino di Duccio in 1466. The plan was to create the sculpture in the Roman fashion, carving multiple pieces and then putting them together to create a finished project, but somewhere along the way the plan changed to carving the image from a single block of marble[v]. Duccio picked the stone from the Roman quarry at Carrara’s marble basin[vi]. It was not exactly the ideal place to start, as the stone was overexposed to the elements, which made it too soft or “cooked.” It was very tall and too shallow, and to make matters worse, Duccio basically hacked into it until he either quit or was fired for his incompetence as a sculptor[vii].
Years later, around 1501, when Michelangelo took over, he had a few obstacles to overcome. First of all, this was his first attempt into the world of the colossal statue[viii], and he had a rough outline to work with; the head had been carved into a square, probably by Duccio, which completely limited Michelangelo and gives one explanation as to why the sculpture is so shallow; the width to depth ratio of the stone was about 7 to 4. Needless to say, Michelangelo did not have much room for creativity, and was forced to do what was necessary to make a tall, thin stone look human. Michelangelo had to turn the head on a diagonal, to use the maximum amount of space, explaining the unusual “bill-like” hairstyle, not customary for the day. David is also forced to lean slightly forward, over his left leg, in order to fit in the block[ix].
Instead of portraying the aftermath of the altercation between David and Goliath, Michelangelo chose to embody the moment before Goliath’s fall. “He abandoned the traditional image ofDavid as victor, inventing in its place a symbol that united strength and anger[x].” He depictsDavid bracing himself, building courage to face and, ultimately, defeat the giant[xi]. Michelangelo “creates a new view of human virtues[xii],” representing how an apparently normal, un-extraordinary person can prepare himself to overcome what seems to be an enormous obstacle and become a hero. This is exactly what the people of Florence needed: an inspirational story that they recognized.
Michelangelo’s style is evident when viewing David. Michelangelo enjoyed the image of youth and, as mentioned earlier, was in love with the beauty and what he believed was the divinity of the human body. David’s adolescence and nudity are keeping with Michelangelo’s views and passions. As you look at David, it is impossible to miss the naturalism of his musculature as he tenses himself with the anticipation of battle. David is the first creation by Michelangelo in which the “entire emotional charge” is conveyed by the sculpture’s body language, the “twist of the body and limbs against the head[xiii].” David has a sling over his left shoulder with a stone in his right hand as his body pulls to the left and his eyes stare right with a look of concentration and intensity under his burrowed brow. He does not carry a sword or the severed head of Goliath[xiv], a typical attribute when depicting the scene of David and Goliath. The details are so precise one can actually imagine the blood pulsing through the bulging veins so accurately carved along David’s hands and arms.
Another detail that is impossible to miss is David’s massive size. As stated before, David stands seventeen feet tall, originally destined to be placed on the high terrace of Florence’s cathedral and viewed from far below. Probably another reason for David’s great height is the work of the previous sculptor, Duccio, who unsuccessfully tried to complete the project and most likely hacked it so poorly that there was no other way to fit David in the block. Michelangelo successfully finished the enormous sculptor, which led to a debate of David’s final home.
It seemed an awful waste to place a piece of art created from such great talent on the high terrace of the Florence Cathedral where the incredible details would undoubtedly be missed[xv]. Also, even though David was considered a masterpiece, some had issues with a statue of such obvious masculine nudity being placed on such a religious site[xvi]. A committee was created of famous names, some rivals of Michelangelo such as Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli, who thought, because of David’s delicate condition, that he should be placed in a covered area such as the Loggia dei Lanzi. However, it was ultimately decided by the authorities that the sculpture would be placed in front of the Palazzo de Priori where it could be seen by all who entered the new Republic[xvii].
A few members of the public had some issues with the sculpture of David. In 1504, when the statue was to moved, a group of Medici supporters decided to rebel against the creation of the statue and throw rocks at it until an armed guard was brought in[xviii]. David, however, was relentless and stood in his open place through the years, weathering the elements of nature, all the way until the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth century brought along a new age of art restoration[xix]. Michelangelo’s marvelous sculptor had been beating by rain, sun and wind and was even struck by lightning. Needless to say, he was becoming quite worn down to the point that the fine surface on his head and shoulders deteriorated[xx]. Eventually, David underwent a $300,000 cleaning until he began to look as originally intended. He was then placed in a sky-lit rotunda especially built for his placement at the Accademia in Florence[xxi].
Michelangelo has always been remembered as one of the great masters. His creation of the colossal David was one of his masterpieces that placed him in such high regard and earned him a prominent place in art history. Because of Michelangelo’s enormous talent and his great love of youth and beauty, David will always be remembered as “the most beautiful man in the world.”
[i] Gilles Neret, Michelangelo, (Germany: Barnes & Noble Books, 2001), 15.
[ii] Neret, 8.
[iii] Frederick Hartt and David G. Wilkins, History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, (New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006), 476-477.
[iv] Eric Scigliano, Michelangelo’s Mountain: The Quest for Perfection in the Marble Quarries of Carrara, (New York: Free Press, 2005), 95.
[vi] Scigliano, 93-94.
[vii] Scigliano, 91-92.
[viii] Hartt and Wilkins, 477.
[ix] Scigliano, 99.
[x] Neret, 8.
[xi] Hartt and Wilkins, 477.
[xii] Rolf Toman, The Art of the Italian Renaissance:Architecture, Sculpure, Painting, Drawing,(Tandem Verlag GmbH: Ullman & Konneman, 2007), 220.
[xiii] Anthony Hughes and Carol Elam, “Michelangelo,” (In Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online,http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T057716, accessed September 15, 2009).
[xiv] Hughes and Elam, 2009.
[xv] Scigliano, 101.
[xvi] Toman, 220.
[xvii] Hartt and Wilkins, 477.
[xviii] Scigliano, 104.
[xix] Scigliano, 105.
[xx] Hartt and Wilkins, 477.
[xxi] Hartt and Wilkins, 477.
Figure 1: Michelangelo. David. 1504. Galleria dell’Accademia. Florence, Italy. Carrara Marble.
Figure 2: Michelangelo. David. 1504. Galleria dell’Accademia. Florence, Italy. Carrara Marble.