There is probably no sculpture of the male form more famous than Michelangelo’s David.
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.
A six ton block of marble
It is incredible to stand before this work, which Michelangelo carved from a massive block of marble that weighed over six tonnes, and consider that the artist created it when he was not yet 30 years old. And it took him only a couple of years. No wonder that not long after the pope insisted Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.
As you stand before David at the Academia, pay careful attention to the proportions of the figure. Astute visitors realize that some parts – notably David’s hands – are bigger. This was part of the genius of Michelangelo, who remember was commissioned to design a statue to be viewed at great height. It was only after the completion of David that Michelangelo learned it would not be elevated far above the people, but his careful attention to unique perspective is evident.
A trip to Florence is not complete without a visit to admire one of the city’s most famous inhabitants: Michelangelo’s David. And knowing more about the secrets behind the gorgeous male youth depicted stunningly in marble make David’s message transcend his beauty. Read more about our Renaissance and David Florence Walking Tour.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.