The Accademia: David, Matthew and the four slaves of Michelangelo
Before we enter the museum, we walk along the San Marco and cross the Via Cavour. Here you see a marble plate on the walls with an inscription. The inscription reminds us that it was precisely here that the Medici garden was originally created, where the young Michelangelo was trained as a sculptor by Giovanni di Bertoldo.
We return to what once was the Ospedale San Matteo, which we already visited during the days of architecture, to see the fourteenth-century loggia. The first Academy of Art was founded here in 1562.
In this museum, too, there is much more to see than we will end up seeing. We limit ourselves to the statues of Michelangelo. When you enter the room you will see statues of Michelangelo to the right and left, most of which were made for the tomb of Pope Julius II. In the round domed hall you have a view of, you’ll find Michelangelo’s David. The replica of this statue is on the left next to the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio.
The David of Michelangelo: a true giant
In the spring of 1501, Michelangelo gets the chance to carve a colossal statue out of an enormous marble block. Some forty years earlier, the sculptor Agostino di Duccio had made a gigantic Heracles for the Duomo. In 1464 it was decided that a second statue should be created. The intention was to make this new large sculpture of four marble blocks. Two years after this decision, however, an exceptionally large block of marble was extracted from the quarries of Carrara. It was now possible to carve the new statue from a single block of marble.
This new block was first worked on by the creator of the Hercules: Agostino di Duccio. He started at the height and the place where now we see the space between the legs of the sculpture. However, this weakened the stability of the block. Duccio left Florence. Ten years later Antonio Rossellino received the mutilated block, but he died in 1477. In his first edition of ‘The Lives’ in 1550, Vasari writes about the large marble block: ‘[…] that it had been spoiled and ruined, so much so that the Opera of the S. Maria del Duomo, who owned this block, had given up on it without worrying about finishing it.’
Vasari describes that Michelangelo, who was twenty-six at the time, first made ‘a wax model of a young David with a garland in his hand. In 1986 it was discovered that a previously discovered model was the design Vasari writes about. According to the art historian Hartt, it is a model of Buonarroti himself (Hartt, F., ‘David by the hand of Michelangelo The original model discovered’, Thames and Hudson, London 1987).
Without a part of the legs and head it stands 21 centimetres tall and is designed so that it resembles not so much a bozzetto (more a fairly rough sketch often used to try out or test designs), but rather a model, although not to actual scale. A compass was used to convert a small model into a marble statue. Nevertheless, in a comparison between the model and the marble statue, differences can be seen despite many similarities. Michelangelo used this figure not only to look at his design before he could start working with the chisel, but also as an idea on which he could continue and from which he could deviate if necessary.
Twenty-five years after Rossellino’s death, the attitude of sculptors towards such a large block of marble has completely changed. It was no longer seen as a difficult obligation, but as a challenge. Andrea Sansovino had made a request to work on the block. Sansovino assured that he could certainly make a statue if he could use a few more blocks to go along with it. Piero Soderini, gonfaloniere (head of the government of citizens), wanted Leonardo da Vinci to work on the block. Michelangelo had seen the marble block as a young boy and was all too eager to make a figure out of it. As a young future sculptor, Michelangelo had already made a life-size sculpture of Hercules in 1493, a sculpture that later disappeared. Moreover, as an artist he had gained fame through the Pietà he had made in Rome. Michelangelo Buonarroti eventually became the final choice.
The contract, which has been preserved, states that the work was to be completed within a period of two years starting in September 1501. The Opera would provide Michelangelo with all the means such as scaffolding and workers who could help. The agreement stipulates that, should the work of art deserve a higher remuneration, this would be determined in good faith.
By September 9th in the same month that the contract was signed, Michelangelo, with a few swings of his hammer, removed a few protrusions that were at chest level and Vasari said:
“Michelangelo then made a wax model of a young David with a pendulum in his hand […] And he started it in the cathedral factory [Museo dell’Opera del Duomo] of Santa Maria del Fiore, where he erected a temporary wall around the block of marble; he worked constantly on it, without anyone seeing it, and it became a completely perfect statue. Since the block of marble had previously been damaged and spoilt by master Simone [Agostino di Duccio], in some places it did not meet Michelangelo’s wishes, and he could not make exactly what he wanted; somewhere at the end of the marble he left some of the original chisel strokes of master Simone, some of which can still be seen today’. Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, Deel II 1992, blz. 208 (originele editie 1568
The tall block probably did not stand completely upright in the cathedral factory, but slightly tilted backwards. This way you have considerably less trouble with flying bits of marble and splinters that jump off during carving. We have previously seen this method at the recess for which Nanni di Banco carved his Quattro Coronati or a relief of Andrea Pisano for the bell tower.
Besides the ‘mutilation’ of the block by Duccio, there was a much bigger problem that Michelangelo had to solve. The marble block is rather shallow, especially when you compare this with its height which is more than five and a half meters. Because of this Michelangelo could indeed ‘not make what he wanted’ The limitations of the block can be clearly seen when you walk around the statue in the Accademia. What you saw in the Bargello with the bronze David of Donatello and Verrocchio is not seen here: a statue that is convincing in composition from multiple angles. The limited depth of the block made it impossible to give the side of the David a view as beautiful as the front. In this respect Michelangelo was bound by the dimensions of the block.
In this context, Pope-Hennessy refers to the structure of a classical sculpture. Although the back is elaborated, particularly in the pendulum, the statue is much more elaborated at the front. This may indicate that the sculpture was indeed intended to stand against a wall.
The inspiration for the David was probably the horse tamers (Dioscuri) on the Quirinal in Rome, which are just as high save for a few millimetres. According to Vasari in his first edition of ‘The Lives’ from 1550, Buonarroti had surpassed these classic examples. David’s hair part is also based on a classical work, namely on the bust of Antonius.
If you look closely, you will notice something about this David. Michelangelo does something that his predecessors, like Donatello and Verrocchio, have not done: he chooses another moment from the biblical story described in Samuel. Here you see the David before the battle with Goliath. In the seventeenth century, Bernini chose the moment when David is about to sling the stone to Goliath. This is what you sometimes encounter in miniatures in prayer books like that of Martin of Aragon. Michelangelo’s David does not have a severed head of Goliath at his feet like Verrocchio and Donatello.
Michelangelo has accentuated David’s head heavily, like the frowning eyebrows, he is staring at his enemy intensely. David’s gaze is rather striking, especially when you compare it to his contrapposto attitude. Classic statues of heroes in such a position always had a subdued facial expression and no frowned eyebrows. The expression of David was in classical times more something for monsters or evil spirits. The face, except for the frowning, and the body are exactly as Polyclitus had already prescribed in his Canon in the fifth century BC. Mother nature is perfected by the craftsman.
There’s something odd about the David in the round dome hall of the Accademia. This space is far too limited for this statue, which makes some parts appear grotesque. Moreover, the shadow effect has completely disappeared due to the lighting and the round walls. In Piazza della Signoria, where the replica is located, the statue comes out better. Originally the statue was intended for the buttresses of the Duomo. However, some parts like the big hands still stand out. These are so high up, however, that it is very useful to enlarge certain parts of the body so that the statue is still convincing for the viewer below. However, it remains unclear whether Michelangelo has taken this into account from the outset in his design.