Michelangelo’s David

It is almost seventeen feet (5.17 meters) tall.
It represents the David of the Bible, the shepherd who killed Goliath with a stone from his sling and afterwards became King of Israel.

David by Michelangelo.  It is the moment before the battle.

Michelangelo carved it out of a block of Carrara marble that was considered worthless. It had been sitting around in a courtyard for years. A bad sculptor had drilled a hole through it and then given up. Michelangelo planned a figure that would fit around the hole and planned it so precisely that he left some of the other sculptor’s chisel marks on the surface.
Michelangelo began to carve it in 1501 and, according to his first biographer, Giorgio Vasari, finished it in only eighteen months. If that’s true, it is almost a wizard’s work.
A conference of artists was held to decide where the finished statue should stand. Among them were Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and Filippino Lippi.

A Symbol of Freedom

They decided to place it at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, the palace and former city hall of  Florence.

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy

It was meant as a symbol of freedom. The people of Florence had bravely stood up to their tyrannical ruler, Perfrancesco d’ Medici, and driven him out. This new David would remind whoever governed Florence in the future that he should protect his people from injustice as King David had done.

In 1872 it was was removed to the Accademia (a museum) and, a few years later, this replica was set up in front of the Palazzo Vecchio .

Michelangelo’s David as a replica at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

How they transported it

Moving the huge figure from Michelangelo’s workshop to the town hall square posed a real problem. Two brothers (Sangallo) finally solved it. They constructed a wooden framework and hung the statue from it with thick ropes. That way it swayed while they transported it and so absorbed the vibrations without breaking. The rope it hung from had an ingenious slip-knot that tightened with the weight. The actual moving was done in the traditional way, that is, laying wooden planks down in a path in front of the statue, iron rollers on the planks under the block, and a winch with rope to pull it forward a little at a time.

Damage

The David was damaged in 1527 when the Medici were again driven out of the city. Someone threw a bench out of a palace window and broke the left arm. The pieces were collected and restored by Vasari. The joints are visible.

David‘s left arm, showing the joints where the broken pieces were attached.

Great praise and some objections

Vasari says that “anyone who has seen [the David] has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead.” That is how highly he and many of his contemporaries thought of it. It was THE statue. A modern critic, Justi, called it “Michelangelo’s most perfect statue of a nude man.”
But not everyone was unconditional. Some thought the David didn’t look young enough. The Bible calls him a boy and this is a nearly full-grown man. Others, like Jacob Burckhardt, thought Michelangelo had made a mistake in trying to represent the figure of an adolescent in colossal proportions. “Only grown persons can be conveniently enlarged,” he wrote.

And there are studies comparing Michelangelo’s David with those by other sculptors. Of these Donatello’s and Verrocchio’s are the most famous.

Donatello’s David

There were already some fine statues of David in Florence. Donatello, one of the first great Florentine sculptors, made this David around 1445, before Michelangelo was born. It is the figure of a boy—he holds the huge sword he has taken from Goliath—but his body is a curious mixture of boy and woman shapes. Like Michelangelo’s David, it had a political significance. It too celebrated the ridding of a tyrant.

David by Donatello

Verrocchio’s David

Verrocchio was Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher and a tradition says that Leonardo himself stood as the model for it. He steps lightly around the big obstacle of Goliath’s head. But his face is serious.

David by Verrocchio.

When comparing these figures of David you must remember that Michelangelo’s is seventeen feet tall, and in marble. The other two are smaller than life-size and in bronze—a very different technique.
In planning such a giant figure Michelangelo had to try to imagine how it would look from below and at a distance; and he adjusted certain details to “correct” it from those perspectives. The head, for example, is oversized. The right hand was probably kept large and low to emphasize the tilting of the torso, which gives life to the figure.
Unlike all the other Davids, Michelangelo’s has none of the emblems of the Biblical prophet. There is no Goliath sword, no severed head. The sling he holds in his left hand is not recognizable as a sling; and the stone (actually a small marble column) in his right hand is not even visible. In fact, the Florentines of his time never referred to the figure as David but simply as “The Giant”.

The man that could do anything

It was the first of the Titanic figures in stone and paint that Michelangelo created and it could as well stand for the proud, strong, beautiful man of the Humanist philosophers that Michelangelo had heard about as a boy. Or the man of the Renaissance who believed he could do anything.

The artist as a young man

Michelangelo was born in 1475. His apprenticeship began early in life and soon he was sponsored by a powerful aristocrat who had a school and gave his students a Humanist education. Just at that time the Italians started to re-discover and investigate old Roman and Greek culture and there was a lot to learn.

Michelangelo carved the famous Pietà when  was 23  and started his David three years later.

See David and the Bad Block

Credits

Michelangelo’s David, in the Accademia Museum in Florence, Italy. A Wikimedia Commons photo by David Gaya under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy . A Wikimedia photo by Georges Jansoone , under the  GNU Free Documentation License

The replica of Michelangelo’s David at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy:. Photo by Massimo Catarinella, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

David’s left arm, showing the joints where the broken pieces were attached: a segment of a photo from Michelangelo: Paintings,Sculptures, Architecture by Ludwig Goldscheider, Phaidon, 1957

Donatello’s David photographed by Patrick A. Rodgers under a CC license at

The photo of Verrocchio’s David is in public domain at

The best general sources are
Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari, first published in 1555.
Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, Architecture by Ludwig Goldscheider, Phaidon,
1957

This entry was posted in art, art history, David, great artists, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Renaissance. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Michelangelo’s David

  1. wrjones says:

    I really like the way you present these works of art. You should be an art history teacher as you bring the time of creation to life. Your classes would be full. Do you ever give verbal presentations?

    • 100swallows says:

      Bill, I once got a standing ovation at the corner bar but no one bought me a drink (and I heard afterwards they thought I was talking about their buddy Leonardo the winch operator). I’d be glad to meet you somewhere over a beer and lecture until it’s your turn.

  2. erikatakacs says:

    I looked at a lot of Davids. I like this David’s head, it has that timelessness we appreciate about Greek sculptures, though his expression is contemplative, more of a philosopher’s, then a simple shepherd boy’s. But why did Michelangelo have to go with a men’s body? His humanist ideals, I get that.

    Verrocchio’s David has a boy’s body, very beautiful lines, but his face has this cockiness I really don’t like. I love his Goliath head a lot.

    Bernini’s version is caught in action, good idea, and I like the determination on his face. But he used his own face, not a boy’s.

    Caravaggio painted quite a few Davids, I really like this one:

    I think it best represents the story itself. The boy’s face and body language says he did what he needed to do. He’s not overjoyed, he just did what he felt was his responsibility, with the help of God. He’s my favourite David.

    I don’t think the perfect David statue has been carved yet. Sorry. Not to my taste.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the good reading. I’ve been enjoying the lessons (which I was forced to learn in college – through 300 slides per day and endless reading, and then forgot). They interest me now that I want to know! Florence is one of my favorite cities. There is nothing like seeing it in person.

  4. wpm1955 says:

    Amazing what a gifted artist can see in something that someone else thinks is “ruined!”

  5. erikatakacs says:

    I guess the easy way out would have been silence. Don’t take me wrong: I do like the Davids. How can anyone not like Michelangelo’s? However, if I try to analyze it with a critical mindset, my brain gains more than by plain agreement. For my own development, this way I got to look at other Davids and play around with the idea of a perfect David. My perfect David would have Michelangelo’s beutiful classical lines, Bernini’s pose, Verrocchio’s body and Caravaggio’s face. But…Once I saw a dgital image of the ideal woman composed from body parts of the most beautiful Hollywood actresses. Let me tell you, the result was quite boring. My perfect David would be the same.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: But I’m glad you didn’t take the easy way out. That’s a funny idea to piece together all the Davids. There’s a funny self-portrait of Norman Rockwell where you see him at his easel from behind (a big can) and tacked onto the easel are the photos of famous self-portraits he likes, to remind him of this or that wonderful color or style. Of course he does his own very original version–fortunately–he is not Van Gogh or Rembrandt or any of them. Your version would have the very great advantage that it would be YOURS and not even Michelangelo could match it. Maybe you should consider making four Davids, four tries. One would come out better than the others.

  6. erikatakacs says:

    All the things one can learn from you! Rockwell rocks. :) I can’t remember when did I see something so funny and original. His self-portrait in the mirror, on the canvas, from the back, all on one canvas, and all those famous artists’ self-portraits as a bonus. It made my day.
    Wouldn’t David look deplorable in my present all skin and bone style?

  7. Chuck says:

    Has anyone found a translation of David’s measurements to a 6-foot male. I think David is indeed a representation of the ideal male, and he is my fitness goals. I’d just like to know what exactly my goals are!

  8. Chuck says:

    OK, I did find the golden mean: 1.618 shoulders to waist. However I am still unable to find more specific measurements, like arms, thighs, etc.

  9. Magnificent statue, thanks for the story

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  13. Molly says:

    Apparently David actually took Michelangelo three years to finish starting in 1501 and finishing in 1504. But thank you very much for this website as it was very informative and had good information.

    • 100swallows says:

      Molly: Thanks. I don’t know your source. But, yes, according to Michael Hirst’s The Achievement of Fame, in which he includes what has been learned by scholars since Vasari’s book, Michelangelo signed a contract with the Opera and began to work on the David in September 1501. Five months later, by February 1502, the work was well-along (“iam semi-factum”). And by midsummer, 1503, it was so far completed that the protective structure which had housed it was taken down and there was a public showing. Vasari’s “eighteen months”, especially if there were interruptions and if Michelangelo did not work exclusively on the figure, may still not have been far off.

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