David

In 1501 the republic of Florence hired Michelangelo to sculpt a figure of David for the facade of its cathedral. The Old Testament king—a heroic warrior who had vanquished the giant Goliath in his youth—was commonly regarded as the protector of the Tuscan city. The commission had initially been granted to another artist who died shortly after blocking out a huge piece of expensive marble.

According to legend, Michelangelo received the job because he was the only one willing to work with the “spoiled” stone. When Michelangelo completed the figure in 1504, it was considered too extraordinary to be placed high up on the church. Instead, it was placed before the Palazzo Vecchio on the Piazza della Signoria in the very center of Florence.

The sculpture, one of the superb masterpieces of the High Renaissance, captures a tense David right before he attacks Goliath. This is not the victorious youth of Donatello’s famous rendering, but an adolescent poised for action. Inspired by classical models, Michelangelo carved a beautiful, athletic body standing with his weight on one leg and his noble head turned to the left. David’s muscles bulge with gathering power as he prepares to slay the giant. His oversize hands and feet suggest both the distorted proportions typical of adolescents and the promise of future strength.

According to an anecdote published by Michelangelo’s biographer Giorgio Vasari, a Florentine citizen, Pietro Soderini, complained that David’s nose was too large. Responding to the critique, Michelangelo pretended to chipaway at the nose. When the sculptor was done, Soderini exclaimed, “Now you have given it life!” The sculpture was pelted with stones when it was first erected on the Piazza della Signoria, probably by supporters of the exiled Medici clan who saw the figure as a symbol of the republic. In 1527, its left arm was broken during a riot.

 The statue was removed from the Piazza in 1873 in order to rescue it from damage caused by the elements and pollution. Once it was safely enclosed in the Academy of Fine Arts, a copy was installed in its place. In 1991, a deranged Italian painter attacked the original with a hammer, smashing one of its toes. The statue was cleaned with distilled water in anticipation of its 500th birthday. Plans for installing a permanent jet stream to prevent further dirt buildup are currently being discussed.

Today David can be seen in the Galleria dell’Accademia along with other sculptures by Michelangelo, such as the four unfinished slaves that he designed for the tomb of Julius II

 
 
 

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