Michelangelo’s David – Private life of a Masterpiece


This was a great documentary about the history of the statue. It focused on how the David has become one of the most famous statues in the world, certainly to Westerners.

It was interesting to find out that the history of the piece began long before Michelangelo was even born. The sculpture had been tackled on the same block of marble by more than one artist but they were defeated by the massive dimensions including the shallowness of the block. He was the only one to devise a figure to fit into this block. He was very analytical in his preparation and examined different poses before he settled on the right one. Taking 2 years of tireless work to complete he created a masterpiece from a small and odd shaped block of marble.

Intended for the cathedral in Florence, the statue ended up outside the Palazzo Vecchio. The reason for this is a bit unclear. The documentary suggests that the Florentine Governer saw the statue and decided he wanted it for the city. A World History of Art indicates that after meeting of thirty Florentine artists they decided to place David in the Palazzo Vecchio because the imperfect condition of the marble was not suitable for the cathedral. Perhaps competing artists are not the best people to be making these decisions though!

David would become a symbol of the city itself. The story of David fighting Goliath and succeeding appealed to the Florentines who had expelled the Medici in 1494. David is said to have looked towards the south where the great Medici were now located.

This political context of this sculpture clearly influenced how the people of the time would look upon it. The documentary went on to examine how David has been seen in the intervening centuries. Neglected for years, subject to damage from riots and now leaning dangerously forward, in the 19th century David was eventually boxed and moved to the Academia. Here is was left outside for 10 years going mouldy before being moved inside.

In recent years however people flock to see this famous sculpture. It now means different things to different people. The last scenes of the documentary interviewed people visiting David and their varied opinions were interesting. One focused on Davids expression, how she felt it said “please I don’t want to suffer any more”. Another talked about the wonderful carving of muscles. The last, talked about how he felt that the constant comical portrayal had degraded the sculpture but despite this he felt the magnificence of the actual statue overrode these images. These comments are a perfect example of not only how art is viewed through the context of our society and age we live in but also by personal experiences and opinions.

Its been a while since I visited Florence and saw the sculpture of David but I remember being in awe of the sheer size. The smoothness of the finish and life-like nature that has been imbued in a piece of stone is quite incredible. I think the detail is what creates this effect, the hands and the feet are so accurately sculpted. The dip where the bones of the clavicle meet the neck muscles is beautiful and it details like this that give the statue is sense of tension and dynamism. At first glance David is standing at ease, but when you look properly you see the strain apparent in his muscles around the neck and the rigidity of his muscles. David has none of the softness seen in other sculptures like Michelangelo’s Dying Slave which although equally life-like and muscled, has been sculpted to show a more relaxed muscle tone. Its only when you see these images side by side, that’s its possible to really understand the intent of Michelangelo and his great skill in telling the story of David in the moment of concentration just before he fights Goliath.

dying slave michelangelo

Notes from the documentary

Represented in the moment before the struggle with Goliath. Concentrating – staring at giant.

Most famous statue in world to westerners.

3x height of a man and 200x weight.

3 years to complete in Cararra marble.

The marble block was actually worked on a decade before M was born. Di Duccio. 1st of that size since ancient history. Quality of marble – filled with impurities – not statuatio (pure white marble). Need to look for months to find such quality. Shallow block which caused problems for sculptors. Intended for cathedral.

Di Duccio worked on clothed David but was defeated by size block. 12 yrs later – Rosselino also failed. 11 yrs after block was brought to Florence Michelangelo was born. Family did not approve of his choice of painter or sculptor for career. Father was respected mayor of the village. Artist was a blue-collar job.

1501 – 35 yrs since marble block arrived. City decide to use the block. Block is in a bad state. M is in Siena. Comes to see block and sees potential.

M had knowledge of anatomy. He was analytical. Different from other artists because of this. Documented detailed analysis of muscles and poses for sketches. Considered  a variety of poses eg with Goliath head at his feet.

Needs to make a maquette – scale model wax. Contract 2 yrs 6 florins /month. Workshop air of mystery possibly wax model didn’t look like final. Or because he carved whole figure out of 1 piece of marble which was technically.

Used only 3 chisels, working constantly. Worked on upright. Shallowness means has to be worked on mathematically correctly. Dangerous work as marble flies off. He was very efficient in his use of marble. He also worked from a small model so its conversion to full size is incredible.

They asked M to do another 12 apostles. Virtually finished by summer 1503.

Articulations have received a lot of attentions. M exaggerates widths of the veins – infuse statue with life.

Governor of Florence took David from the cathedral for the city. Fight over where is should go. Political symbol so placed David facing South towards Medici.  Symbol of city itself. 1504 statue was placed in location in Palazzo vecchio. Stones were thrown while statue was being moved. 4 youths. Angry politically cos supported Medici or followers of Domenican monk so angry for theological reasons.

More Roman than Renaissance. Covered by figleaf.

Mentions the context of the time – how the viewer of the time would see the statue. We will never know. The critical analysis of whole periods of art changes throughout time. David was neglected for centuries. In 1529 a riot in Palazzo Vecchio resulted in Davids arm being broken off by flying furniture from a window. Vasari recovered the pieces int eh square days later and it was fixed back on. Also lost fingers ? at same time.

Other changes slow deterioration. In 19th century restoration with wire wool rubbed away detail and weakened surface. He leaned half metre forward – dangerous. He was virtually ignored though until 19th century until Renaissance became interesting rather than Roman. They made copies using plaster moulds (which further damaged the original). Marble copy left in his place. A bronze is across the river. Boxed and hidden for 2 yr before moving to Accademia. Then left outside for 10 yrs where fungal growth

David image is used now for many reasons, advertising to represent beauty, for tourists, comedy. Mussolini spoke with David under his balcony – even tho jewish hero. Not degenerate art. Icon now. embodies heroism – but has weapon. Hitler appropriated this icon. Idealism, beauty. More modern, in america a singer has 16 Davids in his garden which has caused great controversy. To him, now David is a symbol of freedom. The original meaning of David’s deed that saved the Israelites has been lost. We don’t think of Goliath, we look upon it more like medieval pilgrims visiting a shrine.

The last scenes of the documentary showed different peoples views on David. Each had their own personal take on it – one man mentioned how the statue had been degraded by the continual depictions in moderm media but despite this he felt the magnificence of the actual statue overrode these images. Another women commented on the amazing carving of the muscles and another focused on David’s stare and how she felt it said “please I dont want to suffer anymore”.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s