Michelangelo's David Like You've Never Seen Him Before!
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
If you ever go to Florence, you HAVE to go and see this sculpture. The original is housed inside the Galleria dell'Accademia (the entrance ticket costs around 20 euro and there are so many other great works of art to see inside the gallery aside from Michelangelo's David).
However, the good news is that there is also a copy of the original sculpture outside in Piazza della Signoria, which is completely free to go and see. Go and see it! You will not be disappointed I promise.
Michelangelo's David is a monumental, nude, single-figure sculpture that was carved out of a single block of Carrara Marble, one of the purest and whitest forms of marble in the entire world.
The sculpture was commissioned in the 16th century, in January 1501 to be exact, and it was executed from 1501-1504. When he was commissioned to execute this sculpture, Michelangelo was just 26 years old, and he was only just starting to gain an established reputation as an artist, architect and sculptor in Florence, and elsewhere in Italy. This work really propelled him forward, and enhanced his reputation big time.
The David was commissioned by the wardens of Santa Maria del Fiore and the city government of Florence, and it was originally destined for the Cathedral of Florence. The sculpture was originally meant to be one of a series of statues that were to be placed along the roof-line of the Duomo (the main cathedral of Florence) about 80 metres above ground level.
However, at the time of the sculpture’s unveiling, the members of the Vestry Board and the gonfaloniere of the Republic at the time were so impressed by its perfection and beauty, that they decided it should be placed in a more visible position. After a meeting convened by the city council, which was attended by some of the most notorious artists of the time including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangallo, it was decided that it was best to place the David in Piazza della Signoria, in the city’s political core, for everyone to see up close. So the real David originally stood in Piazza della Signoria until 1873, when it was then moved inside to protect it from the elements, and the original was replaced with the copy that we now see in the piazza.
The David is colossal. You don’t realise how big it actually is until you visit it in person. It is just over 5 metres tall (about 17 feet), and that’s almost three times the size of a regular human being. Due to its sheer colossal size, the Florentines call this sculpture ‘Il Gigante’ (‘The Giant’) which is actually quite ironic once you know the biblical story of David and Goliath which this sculpture represents.
What am I talking about? Well, this figure represents David, the biblical hero who became the saviour of Israel when he defeated his giant enemy Goliath using a single slingshot and a rock.
The full account of this infamous battle between man and giant is recounted in the Old Testament, in Book 1 Samuel 17; so if you’re interested in learning more about the story, go straight to the primary source.
To sum it up, the story tells of the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. Goliath, a giant of the Philistines, armed with a sword and shield, challenged the Israelites to send out a certain someone to fight him, and determine the outcome of the battle. Amongst a crowd full of men, David, a teenage shepherd, was the only one to accept the challenge. He refused to wear any army. Instead, he approached Goliath armed with a single slingshot, a single rock, and faith that God would be on his side, and would assist him. When Goliath advanced towards him, David hurled the stone towards the giant. The stone hit Goliath bang in the middle of his forehead, and caused him to fall flat on his face. And then David cut off his head, and became the saviour of Israel.
So, it is essentially an underdog story that tells of the unassuming hero (in this case a teenage shepherd) who manages to defeat his adversary with mere courage and wit.
This story has been portrayed many times in the history of art, and in most cases, the artists have chosen to depict David after his victory, standing triumphant over the decapitated Goliath.
Here however, for the first time ever, David is depicted before going into to battle. So, Michelangelo is revolutionising the way in which the narrative is shown and told.
Michelangelo depicts David completely nude. This was perhaps to accentuate the fact that David defeated Goliath using only his wit and intelligence, and not physical strength. He is shown completely stripped of anything else, and although he does carry his weapons with him, they are rather inconspicuous, and you do have to actively look out for them.
He holds his slingshot in his left hand, and he cradles the single rock in his right palm.
This sculpture is what we call High Renaissance in style; actually it’s often labelled as a prime example of High Renaissance art. That essentially means that it draws on the aesthetics of classical antiquity.
The term Renaissance actually comes from the Italian word rinascimento, meaning rebirth, and it refers to the revival of classical and antique art in works of art produced in the 15th and 16th centuries.
So how does Michelangelo’s David draw on the ideals of classical sculpture? Well firstly, Michelangelo’s David stands in what we call: contrapposto, a pose that was typically used in antiquity to depict classical heroes at rest. As you can see, he has all his weight on one leg (his right leg), which causes a subsequent sway and tilt in his hips and shoulders, forcing his torso to exhibit a curved S-shape. His left heel is actually lifted off the ground, to show that it doesn’t carry much weight at all.
Also, David’s body is incredibly idealised. It seems at first glance, perfect. The anatomy of the sculpture is rendered in a very detailed and naturalistic fashion; you can see the hint of veins surfacing on David’s left forearm, and there is a hint of a rib cage under the skin of his chest.
This portrays Michelangelo’s obsession with human anatomy, and his deep knowledge of how the body works. He would spend hours studying muscles and tendons, and dissecting human bodies to understand how our bodies functioned. And I think his knowledge definitely shows in his execution of David.
You have to consider what an amazing achievement that actually is. At the time, they were only just starting to understand how the human body worked, they didn’t have the in-depth knowledge that we have all learnt at some stage in science classes. It is revolutionary, and Michelangelo, with this sculpture, was exhibiting his new-found knowledge.
Despite his idealised muscular and toned body, David is arguably portrayed as too thin. There is not an ounce of spare tissue on any of his muscles, and he appears vertically stretched, particularly when viewed from the side. This could be Michelangelo’s way of suggesting that David is still an awkward and gawky youth.
The smooth and polished finish of David’s body accentuates his flawless and youthful skin. He is, after all, depicted as an adolescent at his absolute prime.
You may notice that David’s head and hand appear slightly too big for the rest of his body; they are somewhat out of proportion. It seems unlikely that this was a fault on the part of Michelangelo, and indeed there are several theories which attempt to explain the reason for the exaggerated size of the head and the hand.
1. It has been suggested that the large head and hand are meant to depict the fact that David is a youth experiencing a rapid growth spurt, which has not yet finished, and which has left his limbs slightly out of proportion.
2. Others have argued that Michelangelo enlarged his head and hand to accentuate the unparalleled role his own mind and hand played in carving this figure from marble, in releasing this figure from the marble block. Although he was also a painter and an architect, Michelangelo considered himself principally as a sculptor, and so the enlarged head and hand, could be read as a way of Michelangelo proclaiming his strongest assets as a sculptor: his mind and his hand.
3. This would have formed a rather poetic parallel with the fact that David also principally employed his mind and his hand when defeating Goliath, which is the third theory regarding his enlarged limbs.
4. And then there is one final interpretation, which I consider to be the most likely. As I mentioned before, this sculpture was actually originally meant to be placed on the roof of the Duomo. It has therefore been argued that Michelangelo enlarged his head and hand to compensate for the sculpture having to be seen from below. To viewers looking up to the sculpture from down below, David’s head and hand would have seemed more in proportion with the rest of his body.
Consider each of these interpretations, and side with whatever one you think is most likely. There is no way to know for certain what the true explanation was, which is actually the beauty of this discipline. I love art history for the enigmas that it probes open, and the fact that there is always room for interpretation.
David’s head is turned to the left, and his expression is rather ambiguous. I would like to label it as serene apprehension, if you will. His furrowed brow evokes a degree of calm concentration and determination as he stares at his adversary and plans his strategy. And his pose is relatively relaxed. His right wrist, is perhaps the only limb on his body which has started to tense up. Yet other than that he appears relaxed. Yet, you can also detect a slight tension and intensity in his eyes and flared nostrils. And yet again, his thick and pursed lips evoke a sense of calmness, and they give the impression that David is assured that God is on his side, and will lead him to victory.
Although David’s facial features are extremely classicised and idealised (in order to depict him as the classical hero) Michelangelo has not made them completely symmetrical. These very mild and hardly noticeable defects only serve to make David appear more accessible to the ordinary citizens of Florence. Michelangelo is implying that as well as being a heroic saviour, David is also a man of the people.
So, this sculpture represents an idea, a concept of heroism.
And the same goes for his nudity.
In antiquity, nudity was used almost as a costume. It came to encapsulate and evoke connotations of supernatural strength, heroism and achievement, and it was not always meant to be taken as literal nudity.
Michelangelo's David could be read in a similar light. After all, the Old Testament does not say anything about David being naked, so depicting him as nude was a very deliberate decision.
Rather than taking it literally, we could read his nudity as representing an idea, a concept of heroism. It both classifies David as the typical hero, and also strips him of a specific identity, thus making him accessible to the greater public. He can be seen as any man.
He of course does represent the biblical David who defeated Goliath, yet he ALSO represents an ordinary man of the people, a hero in a more general sense. And actually, this sculpture came to represent the power of Florence; it came to symbolise the strength of the Florentines, who, due to their intelligence, culture and art, were able to stand up to their adversaries.
What I personally love about this sculpture, is that David is depicted alone. Goliath is nowhere in sight. Yet, despite the physical absence of Goliath, we feel his presence through David, through his pose, expression, his attributes. David gazes to the left with intensity, and so we imagine his adversary standing to his left.
David thus recounts his own story, Michelangelo has relinquished the full narrative power to David, and that makes the sculpture rather powerful. And, this was no accident, as it also means that there is more room for freedom of interpretation. Since Goliath is nowhere in sight, the David can more easily stand for greater ideas. And, as I mentioned earlier, David, as the embodiment of the classical hero, became a metaphor for the power and resilience of the Florentine Republic. He came to stand for the ideals of the Republic.
I think we can all agree that he stands for universal courage, faith in God, and the power of intelligence and wit. Values which were praised in the Renaissance, and values which are certainly still praised today.
David’s pose and gaze are timeless and universal. They render him an immortal symbol of the power of the Florentine republic. He became the identity of Florence, and he still very much is the identity of this city.
FUN FACT: Michelangelo sculpted David by first creating a wax model for his design. He then submerged his model in water, and as he worked, he gradually let the level of the water drop, revealing what he needed to sculpt next.
For a full virtual tour on this sculpture, follow this link: https://youtu.be/xP4qeHk1iQ4
- Levine, Saul. “Michelangelo’s ‘David’: The Continuing Mythology.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 4, no. 4 (1985): 15-20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23202289
- Levine, Saul. “The Location of Michelangelo's David: The Meeting of January 25, 1504.” Art Bulletin, LVI (1974): 31-49.
- Parks, N. Randolph. “The Placement of Michelangelo's David: A Review of the Documents.” The Art Bulletin 57, no. 4 (1975): 560-70.
- Ray, Shreela. “Remembering Michelangelo's David.” Poetry 107, no. 6 (1966): 378. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20597624
- Seymour, C., Jr., Michelangelo's David, A Search for Identity, Pittsburg, 1967.