by Michelangelo, Marble, 1501-1504, Firenze


Michelangelo's David


by Matthew Holden Bates, Firenze, Italia September 2022

In 1501 a young man of twenty six years returned to Florence from Rome. Florence was the place to be for an up and coming artist, and it was Michelangelo’s hometown, and from what I know about Florentines, they love their city. I can imagine that young Michelangelo was happy to be home and ready for his next big project.

The Renaissance is the most important cultural advancement to our society than any other time in history, and it all started in Florence. Michelangelo grew up in the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Florence’s leader. When Michelangelo was a just a boy he lived in Palazzo Medici. He was invited to live there by Lorenzo the Magnificent himself after he had seen that young Michelangelo had incredible talents.

Lorenzo wanted to make Florence into to the new Athens, essentially igniting the Renaissance by exalting humanistic values instead of the centuries long Feudal system. He invited scholars from all over the world to come to Florence and study ancient texts and create a great society. Young Michelangelo learned from these men, and he learned his craft in the most exquisite of settings among the most informed people in the world. He learned that a man should be judged for his actual achievements, not his wealth or lineage. Michelangelo had one of the best educations of any living human at the time. His sensibility to aesthetics would have been unique because of his upbringing. He was not just a craftsman or a mason, he was an artist through and through.

Michelangelo had just completed the Pietà, a sculpture of unprecedented beauty, commissioned by French Cardinal Jean de Bilreres. Word of his Pietà had certainly gotten back to the rich and powerful men of Florence, and people were excited to see what the young genius would do next. Of course, that meant that he would have to receive a commission. I can see him walking around the Duomo workshop, which was around the base of the Brunelleschi’s Dome, (an awe inspiring feat of artistry and engineering in itself). There he would have found a giant block of marble that had been sitting in the courtyard for fifty years, unused because it had been considered an inferior piece of marble. Agostino di Duccio had started working on it only to stop almost immediately because of fears that the marble would crumble. Then in 1475 Antonio Rossellino tried his hand and also gave up, so there it remained, an eyesore for decades, until Michelangelo set his sights on it. Let’s remember just how hard it was for the Florentines of the 15th century to quarry, and then transport, from Carrara, 90 miles away from Florence, this enormous slab of marble. Somehow they got it down the mountain, onto a boat and then took it all the way up the Arno river to the city.

Michelangelo must have seen the marble and fell in love with it. Most likely it was the largest block he had ever seen in a workshop, and the artistic juices must have started to flow. It is even possible that he had seen the block as a child and had had it in his sights for years. Maybe after his triumph in Rome with the Pietà he had enough cache to promote his case that the block should be his to make into a massive giant sculpture.

So how does a young man of twenty six, with his notoriety for his belief that bathing was unhealthy, get to convincing people to give him such an important commission? I don’t know but I would guess that his enthusiasm was contagious.

Did he get to choose the theme, I don’t think so, in fact it may have been a practical joke to give him the David story since the boy David was not a giant, Goliath was the giant. In fact there were already two fantastic Davids made in Florence, one by Donatello and one by Verrochio, both depicting a young, diminutive and feminine looking David, triumphantly standing over the severed head of a defeated Goliath. David had been done, and I can only guess the laughter behind closed doors from older, more accomplished Florentine artists like Botticelli and Leonardo Da Vinci when it was announced that young Michelangelo had been given a commission to make the Duccio block into a frail young boy.

The finished statue was going to become a decoration of the Duomo, to be situated on the top of one of the buttresses under the dome. It may have been decided to put it there for logistical reasons since the Duccio block was actually right under the buttress in question.

After all of the discussions were finished and the contracts had been signed, Michelangelo was allowed to get to work. I am sure that he would have made models in clay, and he must have studied the block for a long time before deciding what he could cut out. After all, the block had already been worked on. His decision to make a free standing nude male must have also been looked upon with lots of doubt and trepidation since no one had made a free standing nude in marble since the ancient Greeks and Romans.

I imagine bets were made as to whether it was even possible. Maybe they were happy to be finally rid of the Duccio block, even if it was destroyed by Michelangelo. It had been taking up valuable space for generations.

Once the block was upright, Michelangelo built walls around it so that people would not be able to watch him while he worked. He was a private person, and he was also proud, wanting to get 100% credit for his work. So in late 1501, he closed himself off from the rest of the city and began his travails. He worked tirelessly, with no interest in food or comfort of any kind. While other famous artists wined and dined with the rich and royal, Michelangelo worked like a maniac. I am sure that he even slept on site, not wanting anyone to be able to come in and see what he was doing before the statue was finished.

It took him almost three years to finish the sculpture. Years of hot Florentine summers, and wet dreary winters. He must have been a tough guy, with hands like stone and skin as thick as tree bark. I see him as a bit scary looking, his nose bent from being bashed in as a teenager, his shoulders strong from wielding a hammer and chisel day and night. He was decidedly blue collar, while other Florentine artists were dainty. It is a well known fact that Leonardo Da Vinci was a rival of Michelangelo’s and that they did not get along at all. Da Vinci was a generation older and liked fine clothes and the company of the Florentine elite. Da Vinci was not inspired by Michelangelo, he was repelled by him. I am sure you would be too. He must have had an odor that was evident whenever he walked into a room, while Leonardo must have always smelled of roses. These two men could not have been more different. While Michelangelo was busy finishing the David, Leonardo was painting the Mona Lisa.

When the David was finally finished it was obvious to all from its magnificence that it could not be placed on the buttress up in the sky where no one would be able to admire it up close. After lots of debate it was decided to place the statue in front of the Palazzo Vecchio which is the city hall of Florence, a civic setting, not the religious one that the cathedral would have been!

This meant that they had to transport the finished statue from under the Duomo to Piazza Signoria not a far distance, but not that close either. They built an enormous wooden contraption to encapsulate the statue and rolled it slowly for several days until they finally got it into position. This is when the people of Florence would have seen the statue for the first time. Seeing the David, in all of its glory standing in front of the city hall, must have been an experience that no one alive had ever had, not since the Caesars ruled Rome.

Standing before them was a marble white giant, nude and exposed. A masterpiece of sculpture, carved to absolute perfection out of a block of marble that was considered unsafe to use. When you look at his torso, it seems to be breathing. His face, a worried expression, fierce, yet calm, ready for action, yet in repose.

It wasn’t until I made a painting of a detail of the David’s face that I began to truly understand what Michelangelo had sculpted. He had made the David unlike any other. No longer do we have a frail young boy standing over a defeated Goliath, in fact Goliath is nowhere to be seen. We have a giant young man, nude and exposed to all, in the moment before his triumph. In his right hand he holds a stone, hidden from sight by his fingers, and in his left hand a sling that wraps behind his back to his right hand, all of this hidden by design. Once we realize that David is about to throw his stone at unseen Goliath, we know that he will win, and that he will go on to be king etc. but this is before all of that, the moment before his triumph.

When I painted David’s face, I focused on the left eye, so intensely looking at his foe. If David is seventeen feet tall then how big was Goliath, twenty five feet tall? Who knows, the fact is that David is scared, terrified really, he is hiding his sling and stone from Goliath. He is standing there as if nothing is afoot. He knows that this is his moment, he must strike now or surely he himself will be slaughtered. It is in this moment that I believe that Michelangelo made his David give into God. He let God see through his eyes to make sure that his aim would be true, and in this moment we see the eyes of God ourselves on the face of the David.

From a block of marble that had been sitting in the Duomo workshop for decades, out came a miraculous symbol that would represent a city in perpetuity. Florence, is a small city, confined by its geography to never expand past its actual borders, on a narrow river, in a tranquil land, which unfortunately is on the way from everywhere in Europe to Rome. Every invading army on its way to Rome had to pass through Florence. Florence had survived being sacked by its cunning and its wealth, but it was always a close call. Everyone in Florence knew that they were vulnerable to the next attack. They knew that they were minuscule compared to powerful forces that existed in the world. So to see the David, seventeen feet tall! It was as if Michelangelo had turned the tables on the biblical story: now it is David who is the giant, and instead of an unseen Goliath to defeat, it is the world itself that waits for his stone to be slung, using the eyes of God himself to defeat the invaders. And just like in the story from the Bible, David will be triumphant. David is Florence, Florence is the Giant, Florence will be victorious!

"La Pietà"

by Michelangelo, Marble,1498-1499, Vatican


by Donatello, Bronze, 1430-1440, Firenze


by Verrocchio, Bronze, 1473-1475, Firenze

David by Matthew Holden Bates buy limited edition prints at Curioos!


by Matthew Holden Bates

Oil on Canvas, 2016, Firenze

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