For centuries people have been drawn to Florence to see one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance and images of Michelangelo’s David have been depicted around the world. Despite your familiarity with this classical nude, how much do you know about the story behind Michelangelo’s David? One of our most popular tours—Renaissance and David Florence Walking Tour—digs into the history of this famous artwork.
It is difficult to prepare people for how enormous this statue is when you see it in real life; David is colossal, standing over 5 metres high (17 feet). This is so incredibly huge that to see David in person is an unforgettable experience.
Originally Michelangelo was commissioned to create a sculpture that would be put on display up high in the Cathedral of Florence. When the artist was finished his David the powers that be decided such an awe-inspiring work of art needed to be more accessible to the people. And so it was that David was placed in front of Florence’s main government building of the time and not in the cathedral. Visitors today will see the original sculpture in the Galleria dell’ Academia in Florence and a copy by Luigi Adrighetti in the Piazza della Signoria.
How the statue got its name
What is intriguing about David is the symbolism this particular figure from the Old Testament had for the people of Florence at the time. You may remember the Biblical story of the boy, David, bravely fighting the Philistine giant Goliath armed only with a simple sling and a stone. The boy’s courage and faith are rewarded and he is victorious, slaying the mighty giant. His character is noble, courageous, and pure.
Unlike sculptors Donatello and Verrocchio before him, who depicted David triumphant over the severed head of Goliath, Michelangelo opted to show David before the fight. This is not the hero after he hits the giant in the head and then decapitates him. This is, importantly, the moment Michelangelo felt David showed the greatest courage: The moment David chose to fight.
For Florentines in 1504, when Michelangelo’s David was unveiled, the Biblical hero was a symbol of the liberty and freedom they esteemed in their republic. Their hard-won independence as a city state was still threatened by rivals; citizens of Florence well remembered the recent overthrow of the powerful ruling Medici family. It was with intent that the intense gaze of David – a warning look – was turned towards Rome.
So while over a million visitors flock to see the famous 500-year-old nude male every year because it is one of the finest examples of sculpture created by one of the best artists of all time, back in Michelangelo’s day it was the political message of David taking on Goliath that really made people stop and look. And like all good political artwork, it was not without controversy as some Florentines loyal to the Medici family threw stones at Michelangelo’s David. The majority, however, lauded the statue they called Michelangelo’s giant.