Archive | August 2021

A Florentine Ornament

Continuation of: The Crown at the Piazza

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand.

The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”– Alexander Graham Bell

All those days when David remained engulfed within the scaffolding following itsdelivery at Piazza della Signoria on May 18, 1504, it was guarded round the clock. Meanwhile, a case of influenza virus had broken out in Rome which quickly spread all through Italy and beyond. In effect, it lasted for several months and on its visit to Firenze, about 90 per cent of Florentines caught on to cough and fever while few died from it.

On June 8, 1504, David was placed at the Ringhiera – at the spot where until then Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes had stood (1). A few days ago, Judith was taken off its pedestal and temporarily set on the ground within the Palazzo where it remained until it’s installation in the Loggia on May 10, 1506.

According to a book, an Order to prepare the marble pedestal for David was given to II Cronaca and Sangallo only by June 11, few days after David was installed. This indicates that David was placed on a plinth and the Order for pedestal implied only additional reinforcement of outer casing to the plinth to sustain the weight of David already on it.

In the days following the installation and it’s unveiling to the public on September 8, 1504, Firenze had days steeped in religious and cultural tradition. They celebrated the Festa di San Giovanni (Feast Day of St. John the Baptist), their Patron Saint, on June 24.

On August 10, the Florentines celebrated Festa di San Lorenzo (Feast Day of San Lorenzo) followed by the folkloric event, La Festa della Rificolona (Festival of the Paper Lanterns) on September 7, then a recently initiated tradition observed on the eve of the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin when Tuscan farmers and mountaineers carrying lanterns gather at the Piazza (transforming Piazza Santissima Annunziata into a giant market for their produce) fronting the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Firenze to celebrate the birth of the Madonna by singing hymns.

All through these days, Michelangelo was engaged with the finishing touches to the sculpture which remained surrounded by scaffolding. While the work on the pedestal also progressed, it was reportedly during this time David was provided with the sling, tree-stump support, and a victory-garland.

During one of these days Piero Soderini (Piero di Messer Tommaso Soderini, 1450-1522)(2),Florentine gonfaloniere di Giustizia who held Michelangelo in great esteem,  thought David’s nose too thick and shared this observation with its creator. Giorgio Vasari relates about this occurrence in his book, Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori et architettori. Knowing that Soderini’s point of view from beneath David still within the confines of the scaffoldings prevented him from seeing properly, Michelangelo, who didn’t want to prolong a satisfactory response to the remark of Soderini who had contributed in no small measure to the development of Florentine art, mounted the scaffolding to the level of David’s head and pretended to chip away at the surface of David’s nose with his hammer and chisel while letting drop some marble dust concealed in the hollow of his palm. Soon after, leaving the surface of the nose untouched, Michelangelo looked down and said to Soderini: “Look at it now.”

Soderini appeared pleased: “I like it better. You have given it life.”

The unveiling of David was specifically done on September 8 which marks the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in whose honour Santa Maria del Fiore, the ecclesia maior of Firenze is dedicated – the edifice upon which David was originally meant to be put up.

In reality, the ecclesiastical and civic authorities have seen another righteous opportunity to honour the Virgin who is widely respected as a mediator between God and the Florentines – a belief once echoed by Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) as well, and that, looking further back, one could notice that the cornerstone of Santa Maria del Fiore was also laid on September 8, in 1296.

Unlike the happy-with-his-triumph posture of the elegant and slender David depicted in the statues by Donatello (1386-1466) and in Andrea del Verrocchio’s (ca. 1435-88) clothed version of David holding a short sword at a negligent angle; the pose and composition of the David by Michelangelo heralded a stately grandeur and dignified solemnity.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1483-1520) came to Firenze in 1504 after the installation of the David – during the time when a galaxy of eminent artists were congregated there amidst an artistic atmosphere caused by the potent rivalry between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Raphael was one amongst the first to study the David (3) – the symbol of freedom and dynamism of the Florentine republic.

On a professional perspective, the sculpture looks different close up than it does when viewed from the ground. From the ground, one can see the rigid and turgid tendons of the neck – the sling resting on his shoulder – the forehead furrowed with threatening wrinkles, his flared nostrils and, that defiant look as David measures the distance of his antagonist – to throw the slingshot from the accuracy of his hand. At close up, the furrowed brows protrude from the forehead and there is variation in the gaze direction of the two eyes – all optimised for visual effect.

On that note, one could visualise Michelangelo’s great ability to look at things – of how he could take a thing in mind, turn it over and see so many facets and focused on the desired shape to carve out of the block of marble. A quote attributed to Michelangelo summarised his work: I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.”

While Michelangelo’s public sculpture remained outdoors for 369 years (4), by and by, it attained great prominence not only as one of the most historically and aesthetically significant sculptural works of the Renaissance but also turned itself into the second symbol of Firenze, next to the fleur-de-lis (giglio bottonato, the official emblem of Firenze).

With La Pietà in Rome and David in Firenze, Michelangelo’s pre-eminence was established as a sculptor. Even though he was accepting commissions for work even while working on David, (5), the latter half of 1504 saw Michelangelo, at the behest of Piero Soderini, embark on the creation of historical compositions on the wall of the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Palazzo Signoria (Vecchio) (6) where Leonardo da Vinci was already engaged in the design of another cartoon on the opposite wall.

As it turned out, this work was left unfinished by Michelangelo early in 1505 having opted to proceed for his second journey to Rome at the invitation of Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere, 1443-1513, pope from 1503)

Earlier, on August 12, 1502 while the work on David was in progress, Michelangelo was given a commission to make a copy of Donatello’s David within six months. This bronze figure was meant for Pierre I. de Rohan (Pierre de Rohan-Guéméné, 1451-1513), son of Marie de Montauban and Marechal de Gié, who greatly desired to own it. Rohan was highly favoured at the court of popular King Louis XII (Le Père du Peuple/Father of the People, 1462-1515) of France. Naturally, Signoria was eager to comply since an alliance with France was considered of the highest importance for the Florentine Republic. 

During the next two years, while the bronze-casting of the statue was done with the assistance of special master, Benedetto da Rovezzano (Benedetto Grazzini, 1474-1552), unforeseen developments in France occasioned Pierre de Rohan to fall into disgrace having been charged with treason in 1504 after he became Duc de Nemours in 1503 as a result of his marriage with Marguerite, heiress of Armagnac and a sister of Louis d’Armagnac (1472-1503), Duc de Nemours.

Eventually, Florimond Robertet (1531-67), the Secretary for finance who was influential with King Charles IX (third son of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici) was afforded the mental pleasure as well as spiritual benefit from this sculpture. After 1566, Robertet placed it in the courtyard of his Château de Beauregard, near the city of Blois until more than a century later, it was removed to Château de Villeroy (Villa regis), Sète (Cette), owned by great art lovers Nicolas IV de Neufville (1543-1617), Seigneur de Vlleroy and his wife Madeleine de L’Aubespine (1546-96, poet and lady-in-waiting to Catherine de Medici), from where it eventually disappeared. The only evidence left of this sculpture is a fine pen-and ink drawing by Michelangelo

Besides Michelangelo’s tomb at the Franciscan Basilica di Santa Croce, scattered around his city of Firenze are several of his creations. And what tribute more graceful and intimate to the memory of Michelangelo could be conceived than to visit and appreciate the creations of Michelangelo in the delightful radiance of Florentine ambiance? Ascribed to his atelier are: David at the Galleria dell’accademia; the Medici tombs at Basilica di San Lorenzo; mallet and chisel works at the Casa Buonarroti and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo; Tondo Doni in the Galleria degli Uffizi. Then, there is the site of his fortifications at San Miniato.

Although monuments, museums and galleries aren’t the only reason to visit Firenze, a stay in Firenze is incomplete without a look at the original David of Michelangelo. Its heightened reputation since its installationbefore Palazzo Vecchio overlooking the Piazza della Signoria, the center of political life in Firenze, has influenced successive generations – blazing a trail of appreciation amongst kings and emperors, dukes and marquise, knights and counts, scholars to the general public.

Of David’s influence, a book relates a diary entry of Ukraine-born ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) mentioning about how he allowed French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) to photograph and sketch him in nude to create a sculpture inspired by Michelangelo’s David. Then there were those who considered David a provocatively sexual portrayal of idealised male beauty. Sometime after its completion, Michelangelo was disgusted to witness a fig-leaf attaining a new use on a certain part of his David which remained unrectified until the early years of the 20th century.

A plaster cast (six metres in height) by Florentine cast-maker Clemente Papi based on the original statue of David presented by Leopold II (1797-1870), the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857 to Queen Victoria (Alexandrina Victoria; 1819-1901) was outfitted with a plaster cast of a fig leaf of appropriate size and hung at a certain place with clips during early years.

Then again, not to anyone’s surprise, there were also those contemporary rivals who squared their shoulders and detested the talent of Il Divino.

Foremost amongst such high-handers of malcontent tracking Michelangelo quietly and silently as a snake sloughing off its skin, was Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560), son of a famous goldsmith and the prospective creator of Hercules and Cacus (Ercole e Caco), whose impending efforts to outdo Michelangelo Buonarroti would generally ricochet to strike back on himself – but that’s another story…. Jo

This concludes PART ONE.


  1. Commissioned by the Medici as a metaphor of their rule in Firenze, Judith and Holofernes was a freestanding companion figure to Donatello’s David. The original is presently in Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo Vecchio.
  2. Piero Soderini was appointed as Gonfaloniere di Giustizia for life August 1502 following completion of the regular two month period as Gonfaloniere.
  3. A Study of Michelangelo’s David by Raphael (during 1504-08) is at the British Museum in London.
  4. Although the sculpture was periodically taken care of and its surface waxed many times during its long exposure to all injuries of rain and frost, the left arm of David was broken by a huge stone during the popular riots of 1527. Giorgio Vasari relates how he and friend Cecchino Salviati gathered the scattered pieces, and the arm was restored in 1543 under the care of Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), first Grand Duke of Tuscany. As related in a book, there is photographic evidence suggesting that David was slightly moved forward from its original position in early 1870s to align the pedestal with the new stairs of the Palazzo. Upon David’s removal to Galleria dell’accademia in Firenze on July 31, 1873, the space where it stood at Piazza della Signoria lay empty for almost 37 years.
  5. Due to lack of space, this series of posts cover only selected creations of Michelangelo in its chronological order. Thus, Madonna of Bruges (c. 1501-04) and some other works are omitted.
  6. The frescoes created by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci depicted Florentine victories in the battles of Cascina (Florentine victory over Pisa in 1364) and Anghiari (Florentine (League of Italian states) victory over Duchy of Milan in 1440). Michelangelo discontinued this work when he left for Rome to fulfil the commission granted to him by Pope Julius II (1443-1513) to do frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and to design the pope’s tomb. A fine copy from Michelangelo’s cartoon of Cascina by Aristotele (Bastiano) da Sangallo is at the Earl of Leicester Collection at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, England and a Study for Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari is at Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Crown at the Piazza

Continuation of: Rise of the Brave Shepherd

Work is love made visible – Kahlil Gibran

Long before the Medici was ousted in 1494 and Firenze declared a republic, the biblical hero David had been reckoned an emblem of Florentine enthusiasm for republicanism. Now that the sculpture of Michelangelo’s David was almost completed, and since its placement on a buttress of Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) has been abandoned, an appropriate place where David should be permanently installed has to be determined.

The meeting convened by the Consoli of the Arte della Lana on January 25, 1504 at the audientia of the Opera del Duomo in this respect was attended by about thirty participants – selected crème de la crème from the great Florentine community of contemporary painters, sculptors, architects, Signoria, etc., – many men of acknowledged abilities brought together under one roof !

The relevant Minutes existing in the archives of Duomo reveals identity of attendees such as artists Cosimo Rosselli, Leonardo da Vinci (1), Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi (2), Piero di Cosimo, Pietro Perugino, Andrea della Robbia, Lorenzo di Credi, Davide Ghirlandaio, Simone del Pollaiolo, Bernardo della Ciecha, Giovanni Piffero (father of Benvenuto Cellini), wood-carver Francesco Monciatto; architects Giuliano da Sangallo and Antonio da Sangallo, L’araldo di Palazzo/the chief herald of the Signoria Francesco Filarete, who was the first speaker, etc (3).

The proposals and deliberations, which reflect the possibility of prior examination of the almost completed sculpture by the participants before this meeting, projected the most prominent locations favoured for David’s installation:

  1. at the west façade which is the front of Il Duomo facing Piazza di San Giovanni (see above illustration showing the image of David superimposed on the proposed spot);
  2. at Il Duomo, the edifice upon which David was originally meant to be put up;
  3. at the spot where Donatello’s bronze statue of Judith and Holofernes (4) stands on Piazza della Signoria. This is one of the two spots suggested by the chief herald of the Signoria – the other spot being, in the courtyard of the Palazzo;
  4. in the shelter of the middle bay of the Loggia dei Priori (Signori/Lanzi) (5) so that due to its centralized location, one can walk around it. Alternatively, place it unobtrusively against the rear wall within a black niche. While placement against the rear wall in a niche would shelter the sculpture from direct exposure to open air, David’s appearance would be limited to frontal view and his gaze obstructed by the frame of the niche. Leonardo da Vinci was in support of this sheltered middle bay subject that David’s presence would not cause hindrance to State ceremonies or to the priors when they wished to convocate the people;
  5. at the arch of the Loggia dei Priori facing Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio) where there was a staircase specially reserved for the Priors. Placement under the middle arch of the Loggia (see item 4 above) was not favoured since it would obstruct the order of whatever ceremonies conducted there by the Signoria and Priors;
  6. in the inner courtyard of the Palazzo rather than in the Loggia (see items 4 & 5 above) where the statue could not be seen in its entirety and would be susceptible to injury from scoundrels. Besides, the floor of the Loggia may not be strong enough to hold the weight of David;
  7. spot where the Marzocco (6) stands at the northern angle of the ringhiera (or rostrum) before the Palazzo;
  8. Inside the new Sala del Consiglio Grande (frequently called Salone dei Cinquecento) on the first floor of the Palazzo della Signoria.
  9. the choice should be left to Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Other opinions sounded were: a) somewhere in the vicinity of the Palazzo – a choice favoured by the Signoria; b) at the steps of the central arch of the Loggia.

At length, with the absence of a vote, it was resolved, in par with sculptor’s conception and execution of the work, to have his David installed on the left of the principal entrance of Palazzo della Signoria (Vecchio) immediately beneath the tower. There it would act as the symbol of Signoria, the governing body of the republic.  It was an irresistible idea. Rain, frost or shine, David ought to do well there.

The proposals and deliberations of the Meeting of January 25 gave birth to various opinions and interpretations as to the sculpture’s bodily features, the location for installation, it’s positioning (especially, David’s gaze in the direction of Rome), based on the prevailing political climate typical of the time, etc. Amongst such interpretations, there are suggestions that David’s position in front of Palazzo Vecchio was already considered way back in 1501 and the Meeting of 1504 was held just to rally public acceptance to legitimize David‘s separation from the Duomo where it was to be originally installed on a buttress of the north tribune.

Before long, disputes arose about how best to safely transport the massive sculpture from behind Il Duomo over to the selected spot. On April 1, 1504, the commission to undertake the preparation and transportation within a month was assigned to Simone del Pollaiolo (II Cronaca/The Chronicle One, 1457-1508), the last great architect of the Quattrocento who had long enjoyed his dignity. A tall order, but where II Cronaca is concerned, by no means impossible.

The commission for the above assignment excluded the contractor from responsibility in case of any accident in transit. To be sure, follow ups were also issued on April 28 and on April 30 in which the delivery destination of the sculpture suggested was interpreted as the Loggia which could mean only as an off loading location. Furthermore, two supplementary issues also demanded attention: a) the removal of Judith and Holofernes for re-installation at a new location; 2) to prepare a suitable pedestal to install David at the chosen spot.

On May 14, 1504, in consonance with the arrangements drawn up by Giuliano da Sangallo and his brother Antonio da Sangallo, the colossal marble sculpture, duly enclosed in strong wooden frame, was taken out of the work-shed inside the courtyard of Opera del Duomo behind the east end of Santa Maria del Fiore for its onward transportation to Piazza della Signoria, under the supervision of II Cronaca. They had to break the wall above the gateway to let it pass out of the work-shed where Michelangelo created it in an atmosphere shrouded in secrecy.

David was secured with ropes to remain suspended vertically within the timber frame-work of stout beams and planks in order to ensure that it was properly defended against any transit lurches and vibrations. The consignment was then slowly moved out by way of fourteen movable wooden greased rollers (which were changed from hand to hand) and windlasses. The concept of keeping the figure upright was hardly a strange sight in Tuscany where cows, bulls and horses are transported standing up.

Other than the assistance proffered by Michelangelo, Baccio d’Agnolo, and Bernardo della Ciecha, more than forty male workers were roped in as manual labour with workflow benefits for transportation of Il Gigante (David) through the mapped out route of some less than 550 meters to south which was levelled, secured and kept on watch and guard. Barring an incident en route, of stone pelting at night by four youths with intent to harm the sculpture, at mid-day on May 18, they had an arrival at Piazza della Signoria, the area of many civic festivities, where Palazzo Signoria (Vecchio), with its lofty tower, imposing bulk, and gloomy grandeur, is located.

Documents related to end May 1504 indicates that the sculpture, enclosed within the wooden framework, was still standing nearer to the Judith where it was originally off-loaded on May 18. The fact remains that more delay in the installation was inevitable since the work order to remove the Judith was issued only ten days after David was delivered at the Piazza, and only then it became clear where David will be permanently situated.

Follow on: A Florentine Ornament


  1. Leonardo da Vinci was engaged in painting Mona Lisa during the period of events depicted above, having started the work by October 1503 or early 1504 in Firenze;
  2. Filippino Lippi didn’t live long to witness the installation of David on June 8 since death stole him on April 18, 1504.
  3. Source for images of Andrea della Robbia, Cosimo Rosselli, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Leonardo da Vinci, Filippino Lippi, Giuliano da Sangallo, Simone del Pollaiolo and Baccio D’Agnolo:
  4. Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes depicted the story of Jewish heroine Judith in the Apocryphal Old Testament book in her name. In her imperturbability, Judith went into the tent of Holofernes, general of Nebuchadnezzar and cut off his head, thus saving her native town of Bethulia. Generally perceived as a Medici symbol (as defenders of Firenze) for it was commissioned (undocumented) by their family for their garden at Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Judith and Holofernes was transferred and placed on the ringhiera in 1495 as symbolical of liberty after Piero de’Medici (1472-1503, the eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) was driven out of Firenze where he tried to restore his former honours few times. It was deemed erected under an evil constellation and believed to be an omen of evil and unfit where it stands. This was a favourite erotic subject and painted in Italy by Andrea Mantegna, Giorgione, Giulio Romano (Giulio Pippi), Pellegrino Tibaldi, Titian, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, and others.
  5. Before the middle of the sixteenth century, there were no statues in the Loggia. It was during Pietro Leopoldo’s (1747-92, Holy Roman EmperorLeopold II) reign as Grand-duke of Tuscany (1765-90), when he first began to fill up the interior of the Loggia with sculpture.
  6. An ancient Marzocco or Lion of Firenze, the legendary guardian of Florentine Republic, occupied that spot in 1377, nearly on the same spot where the present lion, a replica of Donatello’s Marzocco, sits. The original by Donatello is in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello.
  7. 148 years ago, it was on July 31, 1873 when the real David of Michelangelo left Piazza della Signoria for its four days journey to the shelter of Accademia di Belle Arti.  

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)