Portal #11 Putting David in his place


It was on this day in 1504 that Michelangelo unveiled his sculpture David. The project was first imagined more than 30 years earlier, in 1463, when the sculptor Agostino di Duccio accepted a commission to sculpt a biblical figure for one of the buttresses of the Santa Maria del Fiore, a cathedral in Florence. Duccio was given a block of marble more than 19 feet high, but he gave up after a rough attempt at the feet and legs. The commission was passed to another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, who also gave up.

The piece was forgotten for a while, and the hunk of marble sat in a courtyard until 1501, when the Church authorities revived their project. It was about that time that they started referring to the sculpture as David. The Church settled on awarding the commission to 26-year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Michelangelo was undaunted by the huge piece of marble, even though it had the mistakes of the two previous sculptors already carved into it. He began sculpting in the fall of 1501 and finished less than two years later, in the summer of 1503. A group of artists — including Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, and Leonardo da Vinci — assembled to decide where to move the statue, since the idea of using it as a buttress for the cathedral seemed less practical now that the marble was weakened from years of exposure to the elements, and because the statue was 17 feet tall and weighed several tons. It took a huge effort to move David to its new location outside the Palazzo della Signoria. The diarist Luca Landucci wrote about the David, which he called ‘the giant,’ in his diary: “During the night stones were thrown at the giant to injure it, therefore it was necessary to keep watch over it. It went very slowly, being bound in an erect position, and suspended so that it did not touch the ground with its feet. There were immensely strong beams, constructed with great skill; and it took four days to reach the Piazza […] It was moved along by more than 40 men. Beneath it there were 14 greased beams, which were changed from hand to hand; and they labored till the 8th July, 1504, to place it on the ringhiera.”Duccio,Rossellino,Michelangelo

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