Rome is renowned as the “city of a thousand churches”. The first among them, St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican (Basilica Papali di San Pietro Vaticano), the acknowledged focus of Christianity worldwide was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644) 395 years ago on November 18, 1626.
That day marked the 1300th anniversary of dedication of the old S. Peter’s Basilica (Constantine’s Basilica) on November 18, 326 by Pope Sylvester I (285-335). This basilica was the centre of Christian worship and focus of pilgrims from around the globe until the new S. Peter’s was raised on its very spot.
Ancient writings has described how the body of Simon Peter of Galilee, Prince of the Apostles, was exhumed from his simple earthen grave at this time and re-interred in a shrine of silver, enclosed in a sarcophagus of gilt bronze upon which was laid the great cross of gold – a gift of Constantine the Great (c. 272-337) and his mother S. Helena.
The rebuilding of the basilica was first planned during the pontificate of Nicholas V (1397-1455) who rebuilt the Vatican, restored St. Peter’s, and the Vatican Library during his pontificate. However, the work of the new basilica did not materialise till the time of the great Renaissance Pope Julius II (1443-1513). In April 1506, Julius II began the new S. Peter’s from designs of Donato Bramante (1444-1514). The first stone for this most beautiful and the most sublime edifice was laid on the spot where the present statue of S. Veronica (by sculptor Francesco Mochi, 1580-1654) is located.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) wanted the cupola to be immense so that it would “embrace all those in Christian faith around the earth”. Left unfinished by Michelangelo, it was completed by Giacomo della Porta (1541-1604) and Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) in 1590.
The two semi-circular colonnades of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) were added by Pope Alexander VII (1599-1667) in 1667. The enormous Baldacchino or canopy over the high altar made of bronze and adorned with gilt ornaments is the work of Bernini who completed it in 1633. The enormous talent involved in its creation and preservation has made St. Peter’s Basilica a sanctified ornament of the earth. Jo
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 afterDavid 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.
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.
Piero Soderini was appointed as Gonfaloniere di Giustizia for life August 1502 following completion of the regular two month period as Gonfaloniere.
A Study of Michelangelo’s David by Raphael (during 1504-08) is at the British Museum in London.
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.
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.
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.
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.