The sculpture of David by Michelangelo Buonarroti is one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world. David was in progress from 1501-1504, carved from a ginormous piece of ‘flawed’ Carrara marble. It weighed over 6,000 kilos! 2 other sculptors had previously attempted to use it, and there was a big gaping hole going right through it-between where the legs were going to go. It was nicknamed ‘Il Gigante’ and was sitting in the Opera del Duomo (the works yard of Santa Maria del Fiore) for over 30 years. Several other artists had been to see it, but it was considered useless; too tall and too thin on one side for a figure…and then there was that hole.
Michelangelo was already a bit of a minor celebrity, having just completed his first ‘capolavoro’ (masterpiece), La Pietá, in Roma at the age of 25. He convinced the Operai to let him have the marble. He decided to use it for the originally intended subject; David, the boy who killed the Philistine giant Goliath with his slingshot, 1 rock, and a lot of help from God. Michelangelo strategically planned his figure in contrapposto, with most of the weight on the right leg, so that it would fit precisely around the large hole in the marble. He even had to leave some of the chisel marks on the chest area made by Simone da Fiesole, one of the previous sculptors because it was such a tight fit. David was supposed to go on one of the pedestals at the end of the buttresses on the roofline of Santa Maria del Fiore (often referred to simply as Il Duomo) with 12 other Old Testament sculptures.
When David was completed in 1504, he was so big-9 arms lengths or 3 times human size, it became apparent they were not going to be able to hoist him up to the roofline of Il Duomo! He was so magnificent that it was also thought to be a waste to put him so high up where no one could see him. According to the original art historian, Giorgio Vasari, ‘To be sure, anyone who sees this statue need not be concerned with seeing any other piece of sculpture done in our times or in any period by any other artist’. Not everyone was a fan though-some said he didn’t look like a boy, he looked like a grown man, others thought he should be wearing armour-or at least something, and there was no head of Goliath at his feet. This David was captured in the moments before slaying Goliath. His right hand is starting to tense, and the contrapposto stance makes it seem like his body could twist to the left to be in line with his head.
A committee was formed to decide where David should live. Members included Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Filippino Lippi. They decided to place David on a pedestal outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Firenze in the Piazza della Signoria. This was partly a political statement. David was the ‘little guy’ who defeated the giant. He became of symbol of the new Republic of Firenze, democratic ideals, and a warning to enemies. It was not an accident that his eyes faced Roma. Moving ‘Il Gigante’ took 40 men 4 days to move the distance of less than 1 km from the studio. David was suspended in a sling in a tall cart and rolled over 14 greased logs. The men would take the back log and move it to the front as the cart moved along.
In 1527, during an anti-Medici protest, David’s left arm was broken in 3 pieces by a bench thrown out the window of the Palazzo Vecchio to ward off the protesters. The pieces were picked up by 2 boys who braved the mob. I’ve read in a few places that one of these boys was Giorgio Vasari, who would have been 16 at the time. He doesn’t mention this in his 1560’s bestseller ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’, which makes me think this might just be Renaissance urban legend. The 3 pieces were eventually reattached with copper nails, and the 2 joint lines are visible. In 1873, David was moved to his present home in the Galleria dell’Accademia to prevent further environmental damage.
In 1910, ‘Falso Davide’, as I like to call the replica, was installed outside the Palazzo Vecchio where the original stood for 369 years.