Michelangelo’s Battle with Il Gigante: The Story Behind’s Italy’s Famous David Statue

Debra Thimmesch | 05/08/2019
David
Michelangelo's David in la Galleria dell'Accademia

At midnight on May 14, 1504, Michelangelo’s magnificent sculpture, David, representing the warrior king and vanquisher of the Philistine giant Goliath was removed from the workshop where it had been carved (an archway had to be demolished to release this colossus) and tied by strong ropes to a large wooden cart. Then, at least forty men pushed the cart through the center of the city of Florence on tree trunks laid down in the streets as rollers. It took several days to move the statue, which was eventually installed on June 8, 1504 near the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, the famous city hall with its single, slender, sky-scraping tower.

Both finished sculpture and the very stone it was carved from have a storied past. In 1464, a sculptor named Agostino di Duccio had been hired by the Operai, the Office of Works of the Florence Cathedral (famous for its dome by the genius Brunelleschi) to produce a large statue from a massive block of marble from a quarry in Carrara. This white or blue-grey-colored stone from the Apuan Alps in northern Tuscany has been used to create dozens of famous sculptures and buildings, including London’s Marble Arch, the grave markers of the American Cemetery in Normandy, and the Roman Pantheon.

Agostino was supposed to carve an Old Testament prophet nine bracchia for the buttresses of the Duomo, also known as Florence’s famous Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. Evidently he failed to get much accomplished aside from blocking out the figure and drilling a hole where the space between the legs would be before his contract was terminated late in 1466. By that time, the gargantuan hunk of marble had been conferred with the nickname Il Gigante (the Giant).

It wasn’t until 1501 that Il Gigante came to be identified as an unfinished, aspiring version of the great Old Testament figure, David. It was identified as Davit in Latin in a document belonging to the Operai, the Cathedral Works. Enter Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni or Michelangelo for short. Hailing from a small town in Tuscany near Arezzo, Michelangelo is perhaps the defining figure of the Italian Renaissance. Painter, architect, sculptor, draftsman and poet, friend to popes and dukes, he was only 26 but already the best-paid artist in the Renaissance art world (he had just completed the stunning Pièta in Rome). Michelangelo took over work on Il Gigante when he signed a contract in August 1501.

Michelangelo’s creation of David marks a major departure from the conventional representations of the biblical hero from the middle ages to the Renaissance. Most commonly, David is shown after he pitched his lucky stone at the gigante Goliath, striking the giant’s forehead and downing the much more experienced warrior. In the dramatic Old Testament story, 1 Samuel 17:51, Goliath falls and then David runs to his body, draws his foe’s sword from its sheath, kills him, and then cuts off his head. 

Rather than depicting a triumphant David holding the massive, severed, bloody head of Goliath or standing with one foot on the grisly trophy as in many representations, Michelangelo chose to show the soon-to-be victor before he struck the fateful blow with the stone. The handsome, youthful, and physically robust David, so unlike the slight figures produced by Donatello and Verrocchio, is deep in thought. He holds the stone up near his left shoulder, testing its weight, the sling barely visible trailing down his back. He stands in a pose known as contrapposto (counter pose), with most of his weight on one leg, the knee locked, the other leg bent, the pelvis tilted; he could spring at any moment. There’s a subtle, elegant, s-curve to his body as he stands, coiled, a pillar of concentration.

As the fervent young sculptor sketched his vision of the iconic warrior king, text written feverishly on a sheet on which he drew one of David’s arms — a poem, in fact — expressed something deeply personal that had risen to the surface of Michelangelo’s creative process. He likened himself to the ancient, idealistic shepherd boy, the only person willing to take on the notoriously unvanquishable Philistine warrior. Even the king himself, Saul, had proven unwilling. On that page, Michelangelo famously wrote, “David with the sling/And I with the bow,” comparing the drill he used to drive into the marble and reveal the figure to the slingshot used by his emerging hero to down the massive Goliath. 

By 1504, the 17-foot-tall marble statue was complete. According to insider accounts, Michelangelo labored in solitude, carving David in the courtyard of the Cathedral Works not far from the Duomo itself. He worked mostly in secrecy, revealing his work to only a select few people.

In January 1504, David was presented to members of the Cathedral Works board, who were so stunned by the brilliance of the sculpture that they realized immediately it should not be essentially hidden 260 feet above the ground on the facade of the Duomo. The city council of Florence assembled a committee of 30 or so people, which included esteemed artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, to decide on a more suitable place for the statue to be displayed. Ultimately, after much deliberation, they chose to install David near the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florence city hall, in the Piazza della Signoria. This was the political heart of the city and the statue represented, for Florentines the nascent Republic’s capacity to prevail over its foes using intelligence and strategy rather than simple military might.

Even after David was installed in the piazza, Michelangelo continued work on the sculpture, completing the fine details and finishing. During that summer, the tree stump (a support to prevent breakage of the stone) and the sling were gilded in bronze and the victorious young warrior was given a victory garland, also gilded. Regrettably, the gilding has been lost because of exposure to the elements. The statue, which was attacked the same year it was installed during a riot in a period of political unrest, remained in its original location until 1873. It was moved that year to the Galleria dell’Accademia, an art academy in the center of Florence, to preserve it. 

In the Accademia Gallery the impressive figure of David is illuminated by a skylight, where viewers can admire his powerful body, which has been described as distorted in some ways; for example, his right hand and head are quite large. Various explanations for these distortions have been proposed but one of the more plausible ones is that Michelangelo wanted to accentuate certain features of the sculpture so they would seem proportional from far below when he thought the statue would be displayed on the cathedral. An alternative explanation is that the artist wanted to focus on the head and the empty hand to emphasize the role that intelligence and strategy rather than weaponry played in David’s triumph.

You will have scarcely set foot in Florence before you begin to understand the significance of Michelangelo’s David to the city and its people. David is everywhere — on t-shirts, hats, scarves, in snow globes, prints, maps of Florence and books. He is replicated in full size in marble and forever poised to strike the giant Goliath from his original position in the Piazza della Signoria; he has been converted to bronze and stands lookout in Piazzale Michelangelo on a hill with one of the most splendid views of the city. 

In order to see the original David, you must visit the Galleria della Accademia at Via Ricasoli 58-60. It is close to the Piazza San Marco and the Monastery San Marco with the extraordinary frescoes by Fra Angelico in each of the monk’s cells and his sublime Annunciation scene, which becomes visible and literally glows once you begin climbing the stairs to the monastic living quarters. The Accademia is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:15 a.m. to 6:50 p.m. You must pre-book your visit by purchasing tickets either by calling ahead of time or online through B Tickets or Florence Tickets. You can also book your tour of the Accademia museum on ItaliaDeals.