Statue of David
Marble Statue Carved By Michelangelo.

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David (1501-4)
Academy of Arts Gallery, Florence.
An immortal work of Biblical art
created during the late stage of
the Florentine Renaissance.

Statue of David (1501-4) by Michelangelo


Michelangelo's Greatest Statue
Other Famous Sculptures

Further Resources

How to Appreciate Sculpture
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This masterpiece of Christian art
captures the moment of anxious
thought between David's decision
to fight Goliath and the fight itself.

Michelangelo's Greatest Statue

One of the greatest sculptures ever, Michelangelo's statue of David embodies the aesthetics of High Renaissance art, the politics of Renaissance Florence, and the technical virtuosity of Greek sculpture. Representing the Biblical hero about to do battle with Goliath - an apt analogy for a Florentine city-state beset by powerful rivals - the marble sculpture was positioned outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the centre of civic government in Florence, where it stayed until 1873. Unveiled on 8 September 1504, the effect of this masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, was startling. Florence had never seen such an explosion of enthusiasm, and even today it retains its iconic status. Along with his earlier masterpiece Pieta (1498-9), which he had just sculpted for Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, the David established Michelangelo (1475-1564) as one of the best Renaissance sculptors of the early cinquecento, and the only serious rival to the older Florentine Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Indeed, shortly after completing the statue, Michelangelo was given another major commission, involving a mural painting for the new council chamber in the Palazzo Vecchio, where he worked in rivalry alongside Leonardo, who was painting another fresco in the same room. As it happened, he was forced to abandon his mural when Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome in 1505 to create Moses (c.1515) and other statues for his tomb at San Pietro in Vincoli. Not until the emergence of Giambologna (1529-1608) with his Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-2, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence) was there anyone who came close to the terrifying intensity (terribilita) of Michelangelo's plastic art.




The origins of Michelangelo's Old Testament sculpture can be traced back to 1464, when the Overseers of the Office of Works of the Duomo commissioned the Florentine sculptor Agostino di Duccio (1418-81) to produce a sculpture of David. A block of Carrara marble was duly purchased from a quarry in northern Tuscany, but Agostino - allegedly working under the supervision of Donatello, one of the best sculptors of the quattrocento - only managed to complete a small amount of "roughing out" before he quit the project, for reasons unknown, following the death of Donatello in 1466. A similar stop-start, involving the sculptor Antonio Rossellino (1427-79), occurred a decade later, after which the project stalled and the block of marble was left exposed to the elements in the yard of the cathedral workshop for more than twenty years. By 1500, the Duomo authorities were desperately searching for a sculptor who could transform their neglected block of marble into a stone sculpture worthy of the city's cathedral, so that it might join the other Biblical statues which they intended to position along the roofline at the east end of the building. The principal difficulty was to carve a suitably impressive human figure out of the slender 17-feet tall stone block. Several artists were interviewed, including Leonardo da Vinci, but it was the precocious 26-year old Michelangelo who was awarded the commission.




Completed in January 1504, the finished statue weighed more than 6 tons, making it far too heavy to hoist up to the cathedral roof. An installation committee, composed of thirty prominent citizens - including a number of artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522) and Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) - was set up to decide on a new site. There were two main viewpoints: the first, held that because of imperfections in the marble, the statue should be installed under the roof of the Loggia dei Lanzi on the Piazza della Signoria. The second proposal was that it should be placed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence's town hall). The latter proposal was accepted. Accordingly, in June 1504, the statue was slowly moved next to the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, where it replaced Donatello's heroic bronze statue of Judith and Holofernes. It remained there until 1873, when it was removed to the nearby Academy of Fine Arts Gallery. In 1910, a replica was duly installed at the original location in the Piazza della Signoria. Finally, for one day in November 2010, a fiberglass replica was installed on the roofline of Florence Cathedral, to show how the statue would have appeared had it been installed in its originally intended location.


The theme of Michelangelo's statue was nothing new. The Biblical story of how the young David beat the Philistine giant Goliath in single combat, armed only with a sling and pebbles, was a popular theme in Renaissance art. In 1443, the great Donatello (1386-1466) had created his famous bronze of David (Bargello Museum) - for an interpretation, see: David by Donatello - as had Andrea del Verrochio (1436-88), in 1475. Both works, however, depicted David after the battle, with the head of his victim. In contrast, Michelangelo deliberately depicts him before the fight with Goliath.

So, rather than looking relaxed and confident after his victory, Michelangelo's David looks tense and ready for combat. His brow is furrowed; the tendons in his neck are taut, as are the muscles in his nose and lips; and his eyes are focused on something in the distance. Despite this mental concentration, he stands in a relaxed contrapposto position, with his sling casually thrown over his left shoulder. This combination of intense expression and calm pose is intended to capture the short period between the decision to fight and the fight itself.

On the surface, Michelangelo's David is merely a High Renaissance interpretation of the standing heroic male nude - a popular theme in Greek art of the High Classical period (450-400 BCE). In reality however, the composition is more complex and more political. To begin with, by dispensing with the usual bloody sword and gruesome severed head, Michelangelo is emphasizing the mental rather than physical nature of David's victory. This, like the siting of the statue next to the centre of Florentine government, is almost certainly a political statement. Michelangelo is trying to show that David's character is the critical factor in his victory. Like the city of Florence herself, David is strong-willed and ready for a fight to the death. Let rival city-states beware: Florence was afraid of no one.


In starting this work, the young master committed a serious error. Forgetting that only adults can be subject to enlargement, as required for a monolith, he took for his model a young boy who was incompletely developed. That is why the statue has a certain emptiness which clashes with its colossal dimensions. The posture of the figure is most simple. Considering the dimensions of the block, a moving pose and violent gestures would have compromised the balance. Perhaps the state of advancement of the work when Michelangelo took delivery of the monolith did not leave him enough volume to work with either. It was obviously a tour de force to have extracted from this mass in the form of an extremely long rectangle, a figure as noble and lively as his David.

David stands with his right leg holding his full weight and his other leg relaxed. This classic stance - a position called contrapposto - makes his hips and shoulders rest at opposite angles, lending his torso a slight s-curve. With his left leg slightly forward, the young hero - or one might perhaps say the young god - lets his right arm hang loose halfway down his thigh, while his left arm is bent to shoulder height. With a bold look but a reflective expression, firm footed he awaits his adversary Goliath, calmly calculating, like a true Florentine, the chances of combat, while preparing for attack.

True, the proportions of the statue are not typical of Michelangelo's usual work: the figure, for instance, has an oversized head and hands. But these excessive dimensions may have been deliberately planned in order to be visible from its intended position on the rooftop of Florence Cathedral.

Above all, it was the massive scale of the statue that awed the spectators, including Michelangelo's artistic contemporaries. It was actually the first monumental free-standing statue to be carved since late Roman times. The famous Mannerist artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) thought that the work excelled all ancient and modern statues in the history of sculpture.

Other Famous Sculptures

For details of other famous examples of statuary and relief sculpture, which are held in the collections of the world's best art museums, see the following reviews:

- Thinker of Cernavoda (c.5,000 BCE) Neolithic terracotta figure.
- Parthenon Sculptures (c.447-422 BCE) Reliefs and longest ever frieze.
- Altar of Zeus at Pergamon (c.166-156 BCE) Famous mythological reliefs.
- Venus de Milo (c.100 BCE) Hellenistic Greek statue.
- Laocoon and His Sons (c.42-20 BCE) Hellenistic group sculpture.
- Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BCE) Altar with processional marble frieze.
- Trajan's Column (106-113 CE) Doric-style monument with spiral frieze.

• For more about the history and styles of three-dimensional art, see: Homepage.

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