Michelangelo’s David is one of the most inspirational and magnificent pieces of the Renaissance era. An examination of this marble statue is essential for every historian and artist. In order to truly appreciate David, one must analyze the life of Michelangelo, the history of the statue, and the statue itself.
The life of Michelangelo is a fascinating study. He is considered to have been the greatest artist of his lifetime; his accomplishments excel as a sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer. Michelangelo is also considered one of the greatest artists that has ever lived. His plethora of sketches and workbooks make him the best documented artist of the Renaissance.
Michelangelo’s birthplace was Caprese, Italy, but he grew up in Florence as the son of the local magistrate. His father wanted great things for his son, but Michelangelo had his heart set on being an artist. After much reluctance on the part of his father, he was finally apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, a local renowned painter (Michelangelo.com). Through the influence of the Medici household, Michelangelo learned the art of frescoes and sculptures. As a young teenager, he met Lorenzo de Medici and was accepted into the Medici court schools. While Michelangelo studied at the school, he created two marble reliefs: Madonna of the Steps and Battle of the Centaurs (The Artchive).
After Lorenzo de Medici died in 1492, Michelangelo transitioned to a local hospital in order to study anatomy (Michelangelo.com). He built several marble figures for local benefactors and his knowledge of the human body increased with each work. Michelangelo’s study during this time of his life paid off when he eventually was commissioned to sculpt David.
Once free of his apprenticeship and schooling, Michelangelo traveled to Rome to expand his reputation and credibility as an artist. He produced his first large-scale sculpture, choosing the pagan figure of Bacchus; many believed he was influenced by Rome’s classical statues and ruins (Michelangelo.com). By the time Michelangelo returned to Florence, he was a famous sculptor.
Michelangelo found Florence the center of political turmoil. A republic was finally reestablished and the people desired a symbol of liberty. The Wool Guild approached Michelangelo with the commission for a statue of David to adorn the cathedral (Michelangelo.com). The famous artist recorded in his diary:
When I returned to Florence, I found myself famous. The City Council asked me to carve a colossal David from a nineteen-foot block of marble – and damaged to boot! I locked myself away in a workshop behind the cathedral, hammered and chiseled at the towering block for three long years. In spite of the opposition of a committee of fellow artists, I insisted that the figure should stand before the Palazzo Vecchio, as a symbol of our Republic. I had my way. Archways were torn down, narrow streets widened…it took forty men five days to move it. Once in place, all Florence was astounded. A civic hero, he was a warning…whoever governed Florence should govern justly and defend it bravely. Eyes watchful…the neck of a bull…hands of a killer…the body, a reservoir of energy. He stands poised to strike (Michelangelo.com).
Michelangelo’s perceptions on the impact David would have over Florence and future generations was precise in every detail. One writer claimed that “with this statue Michelangelo proved to his contemporaries that he not only surpassed all modern artists, but also the Greeks and Romans, by infusing formal beauty with powerful expressiveness and meaning” (Michelangelo.com). This statement seems even more astounding when one considers that Michelangelo’s contemporaries were Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Vasari.
Analyzing the history of David is just as important as understanding the life of Michelangelo. David was supposed to be one of several Old Testament statues for the buttresses of the Cathedral of Florence (Smarthistory). Agostino, who had already sculpted several of the statues, was supposed to carve David, but his premature death brought a halt to the Cathedral’s plans. Upon Michelangelo’s return to Florence, the Arte della Lana commissioned him to sculpt David from marble. Michelangelo received the commission on August 16, 1501, and he completed the statue in 1504 (Michelangelo Gallery). The Arte della Lana realized upon statue’s completion that it was too heavy to be lifted to the Cathedral’s roof. Instead the enormous statue originally stood in the Palazzo Vecchio, but due to the natural damage from weather, it was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia where it currently stands (Michelangelo Gallery). A smaller plaster replica of David took his original’s place.
Over the years since its completion, the statue of David has been wounded several times by war and individuals. In 1527 during an internal civil war resulting from the expulsion of the Medici family, a rock flew through a window and smashed David’s left arm into three pieces (The Museums in Florence). Once the civil war calmed down, artisans entered the Accademia and restored the arm. For four hundred and fifty years, the statue remained at peace. However, in September 1991, a madman attacked David with his hammer, destroying one of the toes on the left foot (Cowell). The foot was quickly reconstructed. New protective measures have been implemented by the museum to protect the statue from further damage.
Although the history of the artist and the statue can be common knowledge, an analysis of David, his symbolism and his composition, can be harder to grasp by the common visitor. David is unique because of the symbolism for which he represents. Michelangelo sculpted David in response to the republican reaction against the power of the Medici family. To the Florentines, David symbolizes liberty and freedom for their republican ideals (Smarthistory).
Most artists until this time in history had depicted David as the young shepherd boy or as a triumphant king. Michelangelo, however, chose to show David as a young, athletic adult (Michelangelo Gallery). Michelangelo also portrayed David as possessing heroic courage. The statue stands tall as a manly warrior, ready for the upcoming battle. David gazes into the distance in preparation for his fight with Goliath, holding his sling and stone in his hands (Michelangelo.com).
The statue’s medium is a hard Carrara marble. The intricacy of the veins and curls of hair give testament to Michelangelo’s amazing ability as an artist. The statue of David stands approximately seventeen feet tall, although over the centuries it has been incorrectly labeled as being only fourteen feet (Michelangelo Gallery). At first glance, the proportions of David seem odd because his torso and head are much larger than his legs and feet, but visitors must remember that Michelangelo designed him for the rooftop of a Cathedral, not a museum gallery. This proportional view is a credit to Michelangelo since the Renaissance stressed the coherence of proportion and form (Tickitaly).
To this day, Michelangelo’s David remains one of the world’s most spectacular examples of Renaissance art. The statue’s symbolism, composition, and history continue to inspire modern artists. While Michelangelo’s other great works, such as the Sistine Chapel and the Pieta, often overshadow David, there is no doubt that the statue qualifies as one of his greatest masterpieces.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Cowell, Alan. “Michelangelo’s David is Damaged.” The New York Times, September 15, 1991. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/15/world/michelangelo-s-david-is-damaged.html (accessed February 6, 2012).
Michelangelo Gallery. “David.” http://www.michelangelo-gallery.com/david.aspx (accessed January 31, 2012).
Michelangelo.com. “Michelangelo.” http://www.michelangelo.com/buon/bio-index2.html (accessed January 31, 2012).
Smarthistory. “David”. http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/Michelangelo-David.html (accessed January 31, 2012).
The Artchive. “Michelangelo.” http://www.artchive.com/artchive/M/michelangelo.html (accessed January 31, 2012).
The Museums in Florence. “Michelangelo.” http://www.museumsinflorence.com/musei/David_by_michelangelo.html (accessed January 31, 2012).
Tickitaly. “The Accademia and Michelangelo’s David, Florence, Italy – visitor information.” 2012. http://www.tickitaly.com/galleries/accademia.php (accessed January 31, 2012).