David and the Bad Block

Sometimes serious limitations lead an artist to produce his greatest work. Look at the David, which came from a ruined block no one else wanted.

David,  by Michelangelo     (1504 ) Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence ( a GNU Free Documentation License photo de Rico Heil (User:Silmaril), published here)

Michelangelo had heard about a big block of marble eighteen feet high that was sitting around in a yard. He went to the town hall to ask about it and was told that the mayor had promised it to a sculptor called Sansovino. Another official said he had heard it was meant for Leonardo da Vinci. In any case, the best thing would be for Michelangelo to forget about it because it was worthless.

“Didn’t they tell you?” said the official. “A fellow called Simone da Fiesole started to carve a statue years ago and the fool began by drilling a big hole right through the block. If it had been a clean hole maybe something could still be done; but then the guy goes and chips half the stone away from front and back of the hole too. A dozen sculptors have gone to look at it and they all come back here either angry or nearly crying. It was a beautiful block too, without any flaws. Da Fiesole ought to be hanged.”

Michelangelo knew the story and he had often wondered just how bad the botch was and whether he couldn’t cut a figure out of that block, hole and all. That a dozen other sculptors hadn’t been able to do that didn’t mean a thing to him. “Can I at least go and see it?” he asked.

In the yard of the Office of Works Michelangelo spent a long time at the stone. He walked around it, took measurements, stood in front of it in thought.
“Now you see for yourself why everyone else rejected the darn thing,” said the old caretaker with all the keys; but he got no answer from Michelangelo.

As soon as he was home Michelangelo started drawing and making a little wax model of a David, which had been da Fiesole’s subject. When he was sure he could carve his figure out of the botched block, he asked the mayor, Soderini, to give it to him.

He carved the David, according to Condivi, though few believe this, in eighteen months and “extracted the statue so exactly that the old rough surface of the marble [and da Fiesole's chisel marks] still appear on the top of the head and on the base.”

..

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23 Responses to David and the Bad Block

  1. erikatakacs says:

    I heard about this story. This demonstrates perfectly the genius at work. Carving out the most beautiful thing of something others think it’s worthless.

  2. Aryul says:

    Without a doubt one of the greatest pieces of art ever created. This sculpture alone solidfies Michelangelo as one of the true legends.

  3. 100swallows says:

    I’m right with you, Aryul.

  4. kimiam says:

    the head and neck are oversized. …but I love it anyway. Gorgeous work. Gentle, subtle and still expressive.

    • Anonymous says:

      oh you idiot…they have been left oversized for the right viewing from underneath…you know perspective??!! if he had not left them oversized the viewer in reality would have said the opposite of what you are saying

      • Calling kimiam an idiot is completely out of order!

        What ever the reason, the head and neck are oversized, that was the only observation she made and you have admitted it’s true. You claim it was so that the perspective would be correct when viewed from below…….. I wonder how you explain the grossly oversized right hand? I personally think the left hand is oversized too…… The genitals and torso on the other hand, are perfect!

  5. 100swallows says:

    Kimiam: And what about that enormous right hand?

  6. m6fan says:

    What an interesting story……..
    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Aryul says:

    I think the exaggeration on those specific parts help the sculpture. I assume that the master wanted to make his version of David larger then life, and most viewers tend to look at the eyes and hands first. It also makes David looks more imposing and looks like he could really kick Goliath’s ass.

  8. 100swallows says:

    I agree with you again, Aryul. I wouldn’t change a thing. I know kimiam wouldn’t either. I didn’t mean to point out the big hand as a defect. Michelangelo’s judgment is so sound, I just suspend my own and try to understand and learn when I look at his work. It is full of things another artist would amend to make them “right”, i.e. more in accordance with conventional taste or canons. “If his Giants stood up straight,” somebody said, “then you’d see what monsters they are.” The same goes for the women lying on the Medici tombs. But they are so damn beautiful I just don’t care anymore about “real” women’s proportions and build. Let these be a third kind of human!

  9. elementaryteacher says:

    Very impressive. A great story!

    Eileen
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas
    elementaryteacher.wordpress.com

  10. cameron says:

    I wish you hadn’t mentioned his hand because now I can’t take my eyes off it. I will always associate this sculpture with a large hand and 100swallows.

  11. 100swallows says:

    That serves me right, Cameron. I’m very sorry. If I can’t do better than point out “defects” in great works, then I’d better give up this blog. I can only say that you should trust Michelangelo and ignore 100swallows.

  12. hoh says:

    What A Wonderful Site To Find!
    i studied photography in Florence in the 60’s
    i had friends that lived on the other side of the road to the entrance to where David stands.
    i photographed his foot very close up! if i had a scanner i’d scan it and send it to you!
    i was told that when MA finished him he was paraded round Florence. someone i don’t recall who rushed up to the statue and nailed a peace of cardboard [did they really have cardboard then?!] just above his pubic bone as seeing his genitals was considered scandalous!
    is this an Michelangelo myth?
    or is it true?
    apparently you can still see the hole where the nail went.
    when i went to see him i didn’t know about the hole or i would have looked for it!
    goooooooooooorgoous body – the hands do seem a tad large viewed from below.
    thanx for the painstaking time it must have taken to put such a visually beautiful and informative site together

  13. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Hoh. How lucky you were to have been able to study in Florence!
    I never heard that story about Michelangelo being paraded around Florence. If they did do that, you can be sure he didn’t like it much. And that’s the first for the cardboard story too. A few years later the Church authorities objected to the nudes on the Sistine wall, but I don’t remember reading that anyone covered up David’s genitals. But some might well have been scandalized.
    As for the hole, who knows? If it was for the nail of that sign it would have had to be drilled. You can’t pound a nail into marble–it chips. So no one would have “rushed up and nailed” the sign there.

  14. hoh says:

    Yes – it does sound like a David urban myth.
    The museum would know for sure
    My written Italian is hopeless to motivate me to write to them to find out!
    maybe they have a blog?!
    I looked again at your picture and there is no hole to be seen – if there was they’ve poly filled it!
    By covering David’s genitals while it was being paraded in the streets, might have been a clever marketing ploy!
    Nothing like a mystery and censorship to mobilize interest
    Didn’t David end up in front of the council building of the day in Piazza Senoria? and now has a copy standing in it’s place due to traffic pollution damage?

  15. 100swallows says:

    Hoh: Right–and that replica in the piazza is the David most people see the first time. I for one thought it was the real thing until I went to the Accademia. Sitting in the piazza with a drink is a good way to study the statue.
    Write the museum but don’t expect them to know more than you can find out yourself. Neither of Michelangelo’s first biographers mentions the shoulder ride you say he got or the sign on the genitals. There WAS a problem with moving the big statue to the piazza and Vasari says an original contraption with a block and tackle and a slip-knot was invented just to do it.

  16. stu says:

    Most art historians believe that the head and neck are deliberately larger because Michelangelo knew that most people would be viewing the figure from 18 feet BELOW where the head is – therby making it appear smaller – so he enlarged the head slightly to make the entire body appear more proportional from street level. The statue was originally supposed to be placed by the cathedral with other statues – but when it was finished it was clear to everybody that this was a miracle of art — and so they decided to place it in the Piazza della Signoria. Moving the original inside meant that their magnificent ‘civic guardian’ became more narrowly viewed as simply a work of art – whereas before that, he truly meant something to the proud people of Florence – watching over their great city square – a symbol of strength, victory and protection.

  17. 100swallows says:

    Stu: see some of the comments about the large hand and head on this post (towards the bottom): http://100swallows.wordpress.com/2008/05/28/michelangelo-and-bernini/

  18. Rory Rowland says:

    Can I use this story in a book I am going to publish?

    Please let me know.

    Thanks

    Rory

  19. 100swallows says:

    Rory: If you take the story just as it is here you ought to say where you got it; but if you tell it in your own words, I have nothing to object. After all, the original comes from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Famous Painters and Sculptors.
    Good luck on that book.

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