“I saw the angel in the stone and I carved until I set it free.” – Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)
The biblical David was no angel. He was a shepherd, poet, musician, giant-slayer, king of the Israelites, and the kind of man who arranged the murder of his lover’s husband. He was also the subject of one of the most beautiful and interesting sculptures in the world.
In 1464, Agostino di Duccio (1418 – 1481) was commissioned to create a statue of David to adorn the Florence Cathedral. Statues of Joshua and Hercules had already been carved as part of a plan to honor 12 Old Testament figures on the cathedral. A single, huge block of marble weighing over six tons was brought to Florence for the project, but after some preliminary work on the feet and legs, Agostino quit. Antonio Rossellino (1427 – 1479) was brought in by 1475, but also soon gave up on the project, deeming the rock too imperfect to work with.
For the next 26 years, the unmanageable block sat in the cathedral’s workshop with David’s exquisite form entombed inside of it. Finally, in 1500, the decision was made to find an artist who could free David from the marble. Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was brought in, as well as other leading Florentine figures, but the commission was ultimately given to the 26-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Michelangelo found a different David inside the stone than any artist before him. This David was no warrior that stood over the body of his slain enemy. This David still carried in his oversized hand the rock that would kill the giant - his posture coiled for the attack, torso twisted in anticipation of its impossible task. This David’s eyes glared at the target under his furrowed brow.
Every inch of Michelangelo’s towering 17-foot David is a mini-masterpiece, from the veins that bulge on his hand and neck, to the ornate curls of his pubic hair. It took four days to move the finished work from the sculptor’s workshop to the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio where it was installed in June of 1504. Michelangelo was already famous for his Pieta (1499), which he had completed five years earlier, but the David cemented his reputation as a master sculptor.
In the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574) wrote:
“When all was finished, it cannot be denied that this work has carried off the palm from all other statues, modern or ancient, Greek or Latin; no other artwork is equal to it in any respect, with such just proportion, beauty and excellence did Michelangelo finish it."