Michelangelo’s homage to his hometown, Florence
Every year or so the art world panics. Michelangelo's David 'at risk of falling over' — the headlines scream. No need to panic, art fans. David won't fall over anytime soon. At least that's what the experts say. But, Michelangelo's David (now in Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia) has always had a bit of a problem.
The block of marble from which David was carved had been quarried nearly half a century before Michelangelo received the commission to work on it. Two other artists had attempted to work with the block, but it was huge and flawed, so when Michelangelo started, it had been abandoned for a decade.
Donatello’s David (now in the Museo del Bargello in Florence) set a precedent, invoking David as a symbol of civic and religious might. Over the next two hundred years, artists in various media would depict David, attempting to capture the power of a young man who slew a giant and invoking the story as a testament to the power of Italy’s city-states.
Michelangelo’s David, nearly 17 feet tall, dominated them all. He depicted David as Apollo, the powerful, muscled young man, gazing intently at his target – just before loading his slingshot. Vasari quotes Michelangelo as saying “One should have a compass not in his hand but in his eye, for the hand works, but the eye judges.” Manipulating the figure's proportion and anatomy, Michelangelo made David’s hands large and powerful. He stands, firmly planted on one leg, about to move. The sculpture, destined for Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, was as much a confirmation of Michelangelo’s love for the city as a testament to his skill as a sculptor. The public work cemented his fame throughout Italy – he had created an enormous work out of an impossible stone. Vasari wrote, “And Michelangelo certainly performed a miracle in restoring to life a block of marble left for dead.”
As they moved and raised the sculpture, Piero Sodierini stood in the crowd watching. He had been elected Gonfaloniere of Florence and had favored Leonardo da Vinci to complete the sculpture. Watching Michelangelo install “the giant,” however, Sodierini found only one flaw in the sculpture: his nose was too large. Vasari recounts, “Michelangelo, realizing that the Gonfaloniere was standing under the giant and that his viewpoint did not allow him to see it properly, climbed up the scaffolding to satisfy Soderini (who was behind him nearby), and having quickly grabbed his chisel in his left hand along with a little marble dust that he found on the planks in the scaffolding, Michelangelo began to tap lightly with the chisel, allowing the dust to fall.”
Soderini said, “I like it better… you’ve made it come alive.” And Michelangelo went away having satisfied the man by doing nothing to his work.
Now 500 years later David has some structural issues -- in part because we love him so. All of the traffic through the Academy each day seems to have exacerbated the problems with vibrations deepening cracks in the marble. It will be interesting to see how the Florentines decide to care for one of their most beloved treasures.
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