Astonishing Renaissance of Michelangelo’s David Sculpture

This astonishing Renaissance sculpture was created between 1501 and 1504. It is a 14.0 ft marble statue depicting the Biblical hero David, represented as a standing male nude. Originally commissioned by the Opera del Duomo for the Cathedral of Florence, it was meant to be one of a series of large statues to be positioned in the niches of the cathedral’s tribunes, way up at about 80m from the ground. The Vestry Board had established the religious subject for the statue, but nobody expected such a revolutionary interpretation of the biblical hero.

The account of the battle between David and Goliath is told in Book 1 Samuel. Saul and the Israelites are facing the Philistines near the Valley of Elah. Twice a day for 40 days, Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, comes out between the lines and challenges the Israelites to send out a champion of their own to decide the outcome in single combat. Only David, a young shepherd, accepts the challenge. Saul reluctantly agrees and offers his armor, which David declines since it is too large, taking only his sling and five stones from a brook. David and Goliath thus confront each other, Goliath with his armor and shield, David armed only with his rock, his sling, his faith in God and his courage. David hurls a stone from his sling with all his might and hits Goliath in the center of his forehead: Goliath falls on his face to the ground, and David then cuts off his head.

Traditionally, David had been portrayed after his victory, triumphant over the slain Goliath. Florentine artists like Verrocchio, Ghiberti and Donatello all depicted their own version of David standing over Goliath’s severed head. Michelangelo instead, for the first time ever, chooses to depict David before the battle. David is tense: Michelangelo catches him at the apex of his concentration. He stands relaxed, but alert, resting on a classical pose known as contrapposto. The figure stands with one leg holding its full weight and the other leg forward, causing the figure’s hips and shoulders to rest at opposing angles, giving a slight s-curve to the entire torso.

The slingshot he carries over his shoulder is almost invisible, emphasizing that David’s victory was one of cleverness, not sheer force. He transmits exceptional self-confidence and concentration, both values of the “thinking man”, considered perfection during the Renaissance.

It is known from archive documents that Michelangelo worked at the statue in utmost secrecy, hiding his masterpiece in the making up until January 1504. Since he worked in the open courtyard, when it rained he worked soaked. Maybe from this he got his inspiration for his method of work: it is said he created a wax model of his design, and submerged it in water. As he worked, he would let the level of the water drop, and using different chisels, sculpted what he could see emerging. He slept sporadically, and when he did he slept with his clothes and even in his boots still on, and rarely ate, as his biographer Ascanio Condivireports.

After more than two years of tough work, Michelangelo decided to present his “Giant” to the members of the Vestry Board and to Pier Soderini, the then gonfaloniere of the Republic. In January 1504, his 14 foot tall David was unveiled only to them: they all agreed that it was far too perfect to be placed up high in the Cathedral, thus it was decided to discuss another location in town. The city council convened a committee of about thirty members, including artistslike Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangallo, to decide on an appropriate site for David. During the long debate, nine different locations for the statue were discussed, and eventually the statue was placed in the political heart of Florence, in Piazza della Signoria.