Shortly after finishing the Pieta, the young Michelangelo returned to his hometown of Florence and began work on a commissioned statue of David. The stone was an enormous piece of white Carerra marble that Michelangelo would turn into one of the world’s great sculptures. It took him 2 years to complete and would become the symbol of Florence. “David” is huge at over 17′ high, and weighs 6 tons. Originally the statue was designed to go on top of a ledge high on the Florence Duomo, the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. For this reason, Michelangelo masterfully altered David with a larger upper body and enormous hands so that when viewed from below looking upward, it would appear perfectly proportional. Still, these adjustments are so perfectly made that you almost would not notice in looking at the statue strait on. When it was done, it was far too heavy (and impressive) to be lifted high up onto the Cathedral, so it was placed in the Piazza Della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the city center. It immediately became a smash hit and a symbol of Florence.
There’s a greater political message behind the statue as well. When Michelangelo returned from Rome, Florence was an uneasy place to be, still reeling from a uprising that sent the ruling Medici family into exile. A radical monk name Savonarola had come to Florence as the Renaissance was in full swing, and he was horrified with what he saw. The strict morals and rules of the middle ages where gone, and humanism was all the rage. Savonarola was a fierce preacher and he began his work of returning Florence to God. He also turned out to be quite convincing, as he gained a lot of followers. Long story short, Florence was thrown into chaos as more and more people rejected the Medici and ideas of humanism before starting a huge bonfire in the Piazza Della Signoria and burning gambling tables, humanistic books/literature, statues, paintings, anything considered pagan. Not long after, the Florentines revolted against Savonarola and burnt him on the same spot and the Medici returned. It was a sad episode that challenged the city to it’s core. David represents a new attitude. He is huge, muscular, confident and obviously quite unashamed. He is a biblical character but also the embodiment of the classical greek idealized nude figure, a strong symbol of humanism and independence. In short, he represented everything Florence wanted to be in a time of turmoil.
Today, a copy stands in the Piazza to take on acid rain and pigeon poo while the original is in the Academia Gallery down the street. We’ll see at least 2 copies of the David in Florence alone, and maybe a few others elsewhere. Last year, a lightweight plaster copy was temporarily placed on top of the cathedral to see Michelangelo’s original intent. Here’s a picture of that:
Much more on Michelangel0, Florence, and Savonarola to come-