Continuation of: M as in Michelangelo
Work is love made visible – Kahlil Gibran
From September 13, 1501 until the first half of 1504, Michelangelo was industriously engaged in sculptural works related to his Gothic treatment of David, the young shepherd from the tribe of Judah who rose to become a hero of Israel. It was also during the autumn of 1504 when the traditional trinity of great masters of that period: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1483-1520), were all present in Firenze. Think of that!
During the above span of time, three popes reigned over the Catholic Church in Rome. Following the death of Pope Alexander VI (Roderic/Rodrigo de Borja, 1431-1503, pope from 1492), Pius III (Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, 1439-1503) took over the pontificate on September 22, 1503. Sadly, his untimely death on October 18, 1503 marked his reign as the shortest papacy in the history of the Church. Thereafter, the ten year pontificate of Julius II (Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, 1443-1513) commenced on November 1, 1503 following the shortest conclave in the papal history.
Even as Michelangelo worked to create David in a specially constructed wooden shed expressly erected to shield his work from prying eyes, he was sporadically attending to prearranged contract works agreed in 1501 with (pope-to-be) Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini to execute fifteen small size marble statues of male saints, over a period of three years, to decorate the Piccolomini Chapel in the Duomo di Siena, the city where Cardinal Francesco was born.
Besides other works, Michelangelo was also preparing to work on Tondo Doni (Doni Madonna), his first panel painting, ordered by the wealthy Florentine Agnolo Doni (1474-1539) either for his wedding in 1504 to noblewoman Maddalena (1489-1540) of the powerful Strozzi family or for the birth of his first daughter in 1507.
Historically, the biblical hero David (c. 1035-970 BC) in the face of all odds had defended his people and governed justly as a king who helped found the eternal throne of God. He has been much honoured in the history of the Jewish people ever since his duel with Goliath which is narrated briefly in 1 Samuel 17 of the Old Testament. Erecting a statue of this heroic personality was considered as a bringer of good omen for the future of Firenze. David would also symbolize the reality that the rulers of Firenze would defend the Republic with courage and govern it conscientiously.
As the narration in 1 Samuel 17 goes, when war again broke out between the Israelites and the Philistines and they were confronting each other across a valley between Shochoh and Azekah in Ephesdammim, shepherd David, the twenty-three year old youngest son of the Bethlehemite Jesse had come forward and dared to accept the challenge of Goliath (the Philistine of Gath) to any one from the Israelite ranks to come out and fight him. In the encounter which followed, the giant Goliath of six cubits and a span in height encased in complete armour and wielding weapons fell to the earth after having been hit on his forehead by a smooth stone shot from the sling of David after which he had quickly severed Goliath’s head with the giant’s own sword.
Michelangelo’s preference for muscular young men evidently dominates his art since they appears to be his ideal for beauty. The initial sketch Michelangelo prepared depicted the brave shepherd David standing with his foot planted on the head of Goliath. This was found unsuitable owing to the inadequate size and quality imperfections of the block of marble which was already worked upon on by earlier sculptors.
To that end, the design and composition, proportion and orientation Michelangelo had in his mind for his David had to be remodelled which prompted him to prepare another wax model which became the catalyst for the profile of his sculpture of David which he created at the wooden shed at the courtyard of the workshops belonging to Opera del Duomo.
Given that David was part of a dozen of statues of prominent Old Testament characters originally intended for placement along the borderline surrounding the outside of the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, it has to be viewed from below. And so, some parts of the body featured in disproportionate size apparently don’t hang together.
I could imagine the attention given for the articulation and balance based on the classical contrapposto pose David should adopt and of the clothes he should wear or not. To suit the shape of the block of marble, the left arm has been bent to touch the sling on the shoulder as against the originally extended arm Michelangelo envisaged.
Here he has adhered to his life-long theory of ruling out add-ons to the block of marble. By making the slingshot barely visible over David’s shoulder, Michelangelo has implied that cleverness underlined the young shepherd’s victory rather than sheer force.
In February 1503, when the sculpture was half finished, the Consuls decided that Michelangelo be paid in all 400 golden florins, including the stipulated salary. A major concern then was the ambiguity in the location chosen to install the sculpture. The intended location had to be ruled out considering the feasibility of lifting such a mammoth figure to the height of the buttresses of the Cattedrale. Nevertheless, at a headlong pace, Michelangelo brought David to perfection and almost had the sculpture completed before the learned Consuls met on January 25, 1504 to finalize where David would be best installed.
Follow on: The Crown at the Piazza
Note: For close study, some images featured above pertain to the replica at Piazza della Signoria.
(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)