Most people know that this work is a masterpiece by Michelangelo begun in the year 1501, that it’s sculpted in marble, it’s over life-size, and that it represents the biblical figure of David, who killed the giant Goliath with a stone from his slingshot.
Most people do not know all of the following other facts about this work…
Test yourself! Say yes or no, did you honestly know that…
To make this statue, Michelangelo was given a piece of flawed marble that another artist had started but given up. Indeed, he was asked to finish a sculpture of the David originally blocked out in 1464. It’s documented that on Sept 9, 1501, he apparently knocked off a “certain knot” that had been on the David’s chest. We believe this “knot” to be the flaw.
In 1527 during an uprising, someone threw a chair out of a window in Palazzo Vecchio. The chair broke David’s left arm in three places. Vasari claims that he personally picked up the pieces.
David is tall – exactly 14 feet and 3 inches high.
His right hand is disproportionately large compared to the body. Why? Because in the Middle Ages, David was commonly said to be of “manu fortis” – strong of hand.
David was left-handed. Yup, our hero’s a lefty.
The David was originally intended to be placed high up on the facade of Florence’s Duomo. But when people saw the final product, they realized it would be a waste to hide him up there. So, a commission made up of artists (including Botticelli and Leonardo) and leading citizens was formed to decide where to put it. The placement in front of the main entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio was favoured by members of the new Republican government, who transformed the David into a political statement. He was set up as an image of strong government as well as a warning to all who pass. The David displaced another statue, the Judith and Holofernes by Donatello, that previously stood in that location. The runner-up locations were in front of the Duomo or under the Loggia dei Lanzi.
The decision to move David to the Accademia for preservation was taken in 1872. The transportation of the colossal work took place in a cart laid on train tracks from Piazza della Signoria to the museum. It took three days.
There are many copies of the David. One was given to Queen Victoria, who had it shipped directly to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1857. Queen Victoria then visited the museum and was shocked by David’s nudity. A special fig leaf was cast by the London-based firm D. Brucciani & Co. It strategically hung on two hooks in front of David’s genitalia and was kept ready for visiting dignitaries.
For Michelangelo David proved to be a defining moment in his artistic career. The story begins with a commission for a statue of David dating as far back as 1466 when the artist Agostino di Duccio began work on the marble block. Agostino did not make much progress, only managing to mark out the shape of the legs, feet and drapery, his work on the project ceased for reasons that remain unclear. The project was resurrected some ten years later when the artist Antonio Rossellino worked on the statue but his contract was terminated with no real progression being made.
The marble block, purchased from the famous quarries at Carrara, remained in the courtyard workshop of Florence Cathedral and lay neglected for the next twenty five years.
After the success of the Rome Pieta of 1499-1500 Michelangelo was recognized as a genius, a master of his craft.
The Guild of Wool Merchants wanted to revive the abandoned project for David, Michelangelo was the artist who was offered, and accepted, this prestigious contract. Working with a second-hand piece of marble that had deteriorated during it's years of exposure to the elements did not please the artist, however the Guild of Wool Merchants did state in Michelangelo's contract that the stone was "badly roughed out". The wording is perhaps intended to make it clear to the artist that the aged marble block (too expensive a commodity to waste) was to be used for the statue.
Michelangelo was only twenty-six years old when he won the contract for David. He began work on Monday September 13th 1501 and it would take him two years to turn the marble block into the iconic image that we know and admire today.