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.

Notes:

  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)

20 thoughts on “A Florentine Ornament

  1. Thank-you for sharing this really interesting post.
    I have been to Firenze, and I regret not taking photos. There is much of interest in this beautiful historic city. 🤗🌷

  2. I do want to know the next story, Jo!!! I laughed out loud when I read these words: “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.”

    You retell the stories within stories with humour and detail, Jo. Thank you so much!

  3. Hi Jo, Just dropping by to say hello, and to thank you for all the work you put into your articles. They’re always very informative and well illustrated with your photography. Hope you and Carina are keeping safe and well. God bless from Izzy x

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