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David (1501 – 1504): The Story Behind Michelangelo’s Masterpiece

Michelangelo’s David is not only a symbol of the artist’s incredible talent as a sculptor, but also the city of Florence and its artistic prowess during the Renaissance. In this article, Singulart discusses Michelangelo’s masterpiece and his importance to the Italian High Renaissance.

Who was Michelangelo? 

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 – 1564) was an Italian sculptor, painter and architect considered to be one of the most influential artists to come out of the Renaissance period. He was born in Caprese near Arezzo in Tuscany and raised in Florence where he studied grammar under the Humanist Francesco da Urbin. At the age of 13, he became artist Domenico Ghirlandaio’s apprentice. Ghirlandaio had one of the largest workshops in Florence and in 1489 he recommended Michelangelo to Lorenzo de Medici after being asked for his two best pupils. From 1490 to 1492, he studied at the Medici’s Humanist Academy, founded on their Neoplatonic beliefs. However, after Lorenzo de Medici’s death in 1492, Michelangelo left and returned to his father’s home.

After stints in Venice and Bologna, he returned to Florence but didn’t receive any work from the Savonarola who had taken control of the city. He accepted an invitation by Cardinal Raffaele Riario to move to Rome in 1496 and wouldn’t return to Florence until 1499 when he was commissioned by the Guild of Wool to complete an unfinished carrara marble statue. It was here that Michelangelo created one of his most famous works, David, which was completed in 1504.

michelangelo portrait
Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)

The following year he returned to Rome to build Pope Julius II’s tomb and was also commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, on which he worked from 1508-1512. The Sistine Chapel commission includes some of his most famous paintings and depicts nine episodes from the Book of Genesis, split into three sections: The Creation of Earth, The Creation of Humankind and The Fall from God’s Grace.

In 1520, the Medici’s commissioned Michelangelo to design a family funerary chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. He would continue to be a highly sought out figure, with him being appointed in 1546 as architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Michelangelo continued to work tirelessly up until his death, with the incomplete Rondanini Pieta being sculpted six days before his death in 1564. As the prolific artist that he was, he is perhaps the best documented artist of the 16th century and the only artist to have had his biography (by Giorgio Vasari) published during his lifetime. 

What is David?

David is 170ft sculpture in Carrara marble by Michelangelo, completed between 1501 and 1504. It was originally commissioned as part of the renovation of Florence Cathedral and was undertaken by the sculptor Agostino di Duccio in 1463. He began to chisel the legs, feet and some drapery, however, he abandoned the project soon after starting. Ten years later, Antonio Rossellino was commissioned to continue Agostino’s work but he too abandoned the sculpture. The marble block was left in the cathedral workshop for 26 years until Michelangelo convinced the Cathedral authorities to allow him to complete it. He started work on David in 1501 and would continue to do so until its completion in 1504. 

david michelangelo
David, 1501 – 1504

Michelangelo chose to depict David in an unusual pose, distancing himself from the earlier Renaissance traditions. Michelangelo portrays the moment when David decided to fight Goliath and the human reaction of fight or flight. It is a highly expressive moment, with Michelangelo conveying the tension in his neck and his bulging veins. With his raised left hand, he drapes the sling over his shoulder and in his right hand he holds a rock. Michelangelo used a traditional contrapposto twist – where more weight is placed on one leg and the other is bent – in order to depict motion and to reference the Ancient Greek theme of the heroic male nude. David is now one of the most renowned masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture and is considered a symbol of strength and beauty. 

Although David was commissioned by the Cathedral, upon its completion a committee of 30 influential citizens of Florence (including Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli) came together to decide on an appropriate location for the sculpture. They eventually chose the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio. The statue replaced Donatello’s bronze sculpture of Judith and Holofernes and took four days to transport it half a mile from Michelangelo’s studio to the Piazza della Signoria. It remained there until 1873 when it was moved to the Accademia Gallery to protect it from damage. David was a symbol of the strength of Florence and stood as a warning to its rivals, most notably Rome.

View more works inspired by the great Michelangelo