Michelangelo’s David, an Enduring Symbol of Triumph
Today is Michelangelo’s birthday, so I’m posting this article I wrote about him for the newsletter for a local Italian Club last year. The photo below is from an event organized by the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. They raise funds for the restoration of art at the Uffizi and recently funded the new Michelangelo Room that opened at the Uffizi on Jan 29, 2013. You can read about that project here: http://bit.ly/Xqq8nE. The organization is led by President Contessa Maria Vittoria Colonna Rimbotti. You may recall that Vittoria Colonna was Michelangelo’s muse and descends from the same family! Please visit their website and consider joining their organization, or donating to their very worthy cause: www.FriendsoftheUffiziGallery.org.
Anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by another sculptor, living or dead.
~ Giorgio Vasari (Renaissance painter and writer, as well as Michelangelo’s biographer)
Michelangelo Buonarroti was twenty-six years old in 1501, the year he began working on David, the 17-foot-tall marble statue that would become one of Italy’s most iconic artworks. Of the work, he is often quoted as having said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Throughout history, people have acknowledged that quote as pertaining not just to art, but to human potential. Therefore, David also serves as a visual testimony to the important influence of Italy on the development of Western art, as well as to the many other important cultural contributions it has made in the world.
The biblical tale of the young David cleverly defeating the giant Goliath, which inspired the work, is also one of human potential. It’s likely that Michelangelo identified with David because he was also a young man with immense talent, which drove him forward in an indefatigable manner. He’d been born in Caprese near Arezzo in Tuscany. His father was a banker and government worker, who eventually, albeit reluctantly, supported his son’s artistic aspirations. By the time Michelangelo was thirteen he was apprenticed to a painter, and when he turned fourteen his father persuaded a sculptor to pay the teen as a working artist, which was as unusual then as it would be today.
The monumental David was completed in 1504. This was after Michelangelo created the hauntingly beautiful sculpture, the Pietà, which was finished in 1499, but before he began working on the intricately-detailed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508, which he completed in 1512. This means that all three masterpieces were completed before he turned 40. Mistakenly, it’s been reported at times that Michelangelo lost his eyesight while working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but the condition was only temporary and the artist continued to work until he died at the age of 88.
What many don’t know about David is that the statue had already been started by two other artists before Michelangelo was commissioned to finish it. The expensive block of Carrara marble had lain abandoned for twenty-five years in the yard of the cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore. The Overseers of the Office of Works of the Duomo, known as the Operai had wanted to commission a series of twelve large Old Testament sculptures to sit at the top of the cathedral, but the two artists that they’d contracted for the David, one working under the tutelage of Donatello, had both failed to complete the work.
Michelangelo was chosen from a group of artists, which included Leonardo da Vinci, to finish the work because he made the most persuasive case to the Operai as to why he should get the commission. Da Vinci later remarked dismissively, perhaps from jealousy, about Michelangelo working on David “He looks like a baker. The marble dust ﬂour all over him and his back is covered with a snowstorm of chips.”
However, Michelangelo triumphed where previous artists had failed. He completed the magnificent work in 1504. When he revealed the six-ton David to the Operai and other Florentine dignitaries, they immediately realized that the plans to erect the statue atop the cathedral were flawed. Not only was it extremely heavy and large, but it was so magnificent that they decided, instead, to give it a more prestigious location. Even da Vinci conceded that David deserved a more prominent location. Ultimately, the statue was placed in the Piazza della Signoria near the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio where an exact replica now stands today. The original has remained in the nearby Accademia di Belle Arti since 1873.
Michelangelo never married, nor had children. He remarked, “My sculptures are my children. And they will live for much longer.” His biographers note that he was often disheveled, frenzied. Though he was paid well for his art, he lived like a peasant. He did not accept apprentices, nor would any have lasted with him. His artistic talent created a fire inside of him that raged deeply and made him difficult to endure. Though he was widely admired, he had few close friends.
Perhaps Michelangelo’s isolation was a blessing in disguise because it enabled him to channel his passion and talent entirely into his work. As such, he made a significant contribution to both the artistic achievements of Italy and to the creation of Western art as a whole. His works, such as David, and just like the biblical story that inspired it, continue to endure, inspire and triumph.