Michelangelo, David

Where’s Goliath? David scans for his enemy. This colossal sculpture is itself a giant of 16th-century Renaissance art.

Michelangelo, David, 1501–04, marble, 517 cm high (17 feet) (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Accademia in Florence, surrounded by lots of people who have come to see the sculpture by Michelangelo of “David.” People love this sculpture. People have always loved this sculpture.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:16] We’re seeing it in a place that it was never intended to be seen, inside a museum. This sculpture was commissioned to decorate the outside of the cathedral.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] Which, for such a young sculptor, was an enormous honor.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] He was 26 years old.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] This sculpture is so big because it was meant to be placed high up on the cathedral, 40 feet above street level. In order for it to be visible, it had to be big. Michelangelo was given the commission just on the heels of his success in Rome, the “Pietà.”

[0:48] It was such an outstanding success that the Florentines decided to give him an opportunity to carve an abandoned piece of marble, a huge block that had once been part of an earlier commission.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] For decades, it had laid beside the cathedral. But in the early years of the 1500s, the government of Florence decided to look back a hundred years, to what had been considered the golden age of the Florentine Republic, and commissioned sculptures once again for the cathedral.

Dr. Zucker: [1:19] A lot had happened in those intervening years. Florence was a republic. But one family in particular, the Medici, a banking family, took more and more control over the course of the 15th century, until they were really sole rulers of the city, but still under the guise of the Republic. Late in the 15th century, they were run out of town.

Dr. Harris: [1:37] And a republic was reestablished. This happened right at the time of the ascendancy of a very charismatic monk named Savonarola, who essentially began to turn the newly reconstituted Republic of Florence into a theocratic state.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] Savonarola believed that Florence had gone astray in part because of its wealth. An expression of that wealth was its interest in humanism, its interest in the arts. He’s probably most famous for the bonfire of the vanities. That is, his effort to rid the city of what he saw as the corruption of wealth [by] burning manuscripts, burning paintings.

[2:14] Savonarola’s rule of Florence does not continue. He’s excommunicated by the Pope, put under arrest, and ultimately, he’s executed and then his body is burned.

Dr. Harris: [2:24] The Florentine government defeats two tyrants. They defeat first the Medici and then Savonarola. It’s critical to see the sculpture of David against that background, especially because the biblical figure of David meant something very special to the Florentine people.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] The Bible tells us that David was a young shepherd. His people were being attacked by the Philistines. It seems certain that the Israelites will be defeated, especially since none of their warriors are willing to go up against this giant of a man, Goliath.

[2:55] David, this young shepherd, is willing to. He takes off his armor before he goes into battle. He picks up a stone, places it in his sling, hits Goliath between the eyes, fells the giant, and then cuts off his head with the giant’s own sword.

Dr. Harris: [3:10] It’s a story of good overcoming evil through God’s favor. The people of Florence identified with David. They saw themselves as an underdog like David, who had consistently defeated their enemy because of God’s favor.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] Because this story was so potent to the thinking of the citizens of Florence, Michelangelo’s sculpture was not the first to embody these ideas. Donatello, Verrocchio, had both produced sculptures of the young David that spoke to the virtues of the city of Florence.

Dr. Harris: [3:43] Donatello’s “David” had, in fact, been commissioned by the Medici and had stood in their garden. Now, as soon as the Medici were ousted, the government of Florence went into the Medici palace, took “David,” and appropriated him as a symbol for the Republic.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] The subject of David could not have been more potent when he sets out to carve this piece of abandoned stone.

Dr. Harris: [4:05] The other important piece to this is the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture that happened, especially under the patronage of the Medici, and especially for Michelangelo. This love of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, and competing with those ancient models.

Dr. Zucker: [4:23] Florence wanted to see itself as the inheritor of the great humanist traditions of ancient Rome. The very stance of the sculpture, with his weight on the right leg, is taken directly from classical antiquity. This is a stance that we call contrapposto.

Dr. Harris: [4:37] Now in the earlier versions, we’re looking at David after the fight. We’re looking at the moment of victory. He looks youthful and confident.

Dr. Zucker: [4:47] And contemplative, introspective. It’s a moment of rest after the act.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] But here, the moment when David looks across space, and readies himself for the fight ahead.

Dr. Zucker: [4:58] Sometimes this is described as a pregnant moment, as this moment in immediate anticipation of action, a moment that signals what’s about to happen. When I look at this sculpture, I see his hips forward, his shoulders are forward, but his head is at three quarters. It’s turned. And if you look closely, his eyes are turned even further.

[5:17] If I do this, it’s only comfortable for a second. He’s just caught his first glance of his enemy.

Dr. Harris: [5:23] Although the face has this very powerful sense of the uncertainty of the future, the pose itself of contrapposto is a relaxed one.

Dr. Zucker: [5:32] It’s almost as if he had been at rest. And now his body is just being filled with the tension that is required for the coming battle.

Dr. Harris: [5:40] We don’t really sense David’s confidence in God. We sense him as a human being facing his enemy.

Dr. Zucker: [5:46] Therefore, this must have been so reassuring, because we all know the end of the story. David defeats Goliath. Florence will defeat its enemies.

Dr. Harris: [5:54] When the Florentine people finally saw David, it was clear that it was too fabulous to place high up on the cathedral. And so a new location had to be found for it. Ultimately, it was decided to place the sculpture on a platform in front of the seat of government in Florence.

Dr. Zucker: [6:11] Taking it from its original religious context and placing it into a political context.

Dr. Harris: [6:17] This sculpture became a symbol of the newly reconstituted Republic of Florence.

Dr. Zucker: [6:24] Florence had run the Medici out, Florence had gotten rid of Savonarola, and was trying to reestablish itself as a republic.

Dr. Harris: [6:31] The sculpture was so clearly now a symbol of the Florentine republic that stones were thrown at the sculpture by some people who were loyal to the Medici. We’re really looking at a very potent political symbol in addition to an almost superhuman achievement. It’s no wonder that Michelangelo got the nickname “Il Divino,” the divine one.

Dr. Zucker: [6:55] It’s so interesting, because the people who flock to see the sculpture today are coming to see a work of art. This is a sculpture that was commissioned for a church, for a religious context. Its meaning was transformed into an almost purely political one.

[7:07] It has been transformed again in the context of our secular museum culture into a work of art that can be understood as an expression of our history, our aesthetic appreciation, and perhaps most of all, Michelangelo’s mastery.

[7:19] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Michelangelo, David," in Smarthistory, December 6, 2020, accessed May 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/michelangelo-david/.