I came to Florence expecting to love it, and the city didn’t disappoint. As an engineer, I knew I’d be impressed by Filippo Brunelleschi’s massive red brick dome, and as a history buff, I was excited to see the home of the Italian Renaissance.
What I didn’t expect, though, was to be so thoroughly moved by Michelangelo’s David. I’d seen pictures of this sculpture many times before, but there was so much that photos can’t express.
A Brief History
The story of Michelangelo’s David begins the year before the artist was even born, with a large, but difficult piece of marble. Two sculptors had previously tried and failed to work with the stone before Michaelangelo received the commission to create a sculpture from the biblical story of David as one of 12 planned sculptures to surround Brunelleschi’s dome atop the buttresses of the Florence Cathedral.
But the real story begins a century earlier. This work of art is inextricably bound to the rise of the Medici family whose wealth came from their bank, perhaps the largest in Europe at the time. Giovanni de’ Medici began the long and important tradition of art patronage in Florence.
In the early 15th century, the city was hardly a center of power, and the local people were embarrassed by the incomplete cathedral that stood at the city center. No architect could figure out how to design a dome for the massive cathedral and it was thought to be impossible. With a 1419 commission funded by the Medici family, Brunelleschi realized his remarkable vision (Il Duomo), and Florence could now boast an iconic centerpiece to rival any in Italy.
In addition to growing the wealth of the Medici Bank, Giovanni’s son, Cosimo the Elder, continued to support the arts, most notably Donatello, whose bronze nude sculpture of David, the first nude in a thousand years, blazed a trail for Michaelangelo. It was Cosimo who first sought to influence the politics of Florence, and through the years and many favors to the Florentine people, the Medici family built up much political capital and goodwill. But they also made many enemies with rivals competing for power.
Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent, grew the family’s patronage of the arts, with such legendary artists as Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci working for the family. Possessing a keen eye, it was Lorenzo who first discovered a talented young sculptor in his arts school, and soon after, took Michaelangelo under his roof. Living with the Medici, the young Michaelangelo grew as an artist, and saw firsthand the ability of great art not only to inspire people, but to bestow power on those who control it.
But while Lorenzo had taken the arts in Florence to new heights, he had ignored the business of the Medici Bank, which fell on hard times, and imperiled the family’s status in the city. Rival families had long waited for the Medici to stumble, and as the money dried up, so did the political capital and goodwill from the people. Lorenzo died of illness in 1492, and soon after, the Medici family was forced into exile from Florence.
Meanwhile, a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola who had railed against the perceived excesses during the times of Lorenzo gained followers, and his short-lived influence culminated in the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497. After the fires died down, and 25 years since the block of marble known as David had been left exposed in the cathedral courtyard, Michaelangelo convinced those in charge of the works of the cathedral that he alone was capable of finishing the sculpture. And for over 2 years, beginning in 1501, the young artist worked behind a drape, shrouded in mystery. He employed his technique of running water over the marble and slowly chiseling away.
The Power of David
When you enter the Galleria dell’Accademia and spot David from a distance, you will see the first thing that was obvious to everyone in early 1504. David is huge, standing 17 feet tall and weighing over 6 tons. There was no way they were ever getting this statue to the top of the cathedral.
As you get closer, you will notice the second obvious thing about David. It is his determination. Unlike previous depictions of David (like Donatello’s) that show the time after he defeats the giant Goliath, Michaelangelo captures David at that first moment when he believes he can do it. His eyes are focused, his muscles are tense, his blood is pumping, and his will is unbreakable. He knows his destiny, just as we do.
And any Florentine politician at the beginning of the 16th century would immediately grasp David’s potential. It was quickly decided that David would be placed facing Rome in the main government square, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio della Signoria. In this position, he would stand as a symbol of the city’s power. For Michaelangelo, who had seen the damage caused by the Medici rule, David’s glare was also a stern warning to the family, still in exile at the time. (While the original has been moved into museum, a reproduction still stands in front of the palace.)
Get Closer Still
When you finally work through the crowds to stand beneath David himself, you will see the fine details of every muscle, ligament, and blood vessel. You might be tricked into thinking he’s alive. Since David was originally intended to be viewed from below, his hands and head are enlarged to enhance an optical illusion. As you walk around him, he will seem to be taking that first step toward becoming a legend. You witness the beginning of the legend for yourself.
When You Visit David
In a popular city like Florence, standing in line can take up most of your trip. So here, I highly recommend joining a tour group that allows you to skip the lines and walk right in. We visited David and the Duomo as guests of Walks of Italy on their Best of Florence walking tour, and the tour would have been worth it for the time savings alone.
But more importantly, our guide, Teresa, made these works of art come to life. She shared her love of Florence and her passion for these treasures — her enthusiasm was contagious. She also made Florence’s complicated history easy to understand. Having Teresa guide us through the centuries added greatly to our experience. Without her context, David would have been just a really good statue, and the cathedral’s Dome, just big and red. We would have missed a lot.
No work of art I’ve ever seen belongs to a city like David does to Florence, and no work of art has ever affected me like David did.
If you go to Florence, you’ve got to see Michelangelo’s David. You’ll be surprised at how he moves you. I sure was.
Before You Go to Florence: Check out the PBS documentary, “Medici: Godfathers of The Renaissance,” which covers the history of the city from the perspective of its most powerful family. It’s riveting, and it inspired our trip.
Thanks to Walks of Italy for hosting us on this tour. Opinions and photos are my own.