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

Notes:

  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: commons.wikimedia.org
  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)

26 thoughts on “The Crown at the Piazza

  1. I think we tend to take the logistics of iconic works of art for granted. As your posts have clearly documented, both the carving and the installation of David were no small feat!

  2. Jo – this is a brilliant post – I’m saving it to reread because the detail is extraordinary. The back story of events is even more exciting than the actual event sometimes. Can you imagine what it was like to be in the decision-making of where The David would end up. I had goosebumps when I read your last thoughts: “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.” I remember when I first saw David – I started to cry because of the beauty, history and creativity that was associated with this magnificent sculpture.

  3. What an interesting post! I had never heard that there was so much deliberation over where to display the statue, and it’s pretty amazing to think that they were able to safely transport it in that day and age. I always learn so much from your blog, thank you for that!

  4. Dear Jo,
    thank you very much for this very well researched and presented post. I read quite some books about the Renaissance and even so learned something more reading your post.
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Thank you, dear Klaus. I appreciate your comments. Going through events of that Era was an enthralling experience and it helped in creating new knowledge in me – a welcome phenomenon! Have a lovely weekend. Jo

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