The commission and the placement of the giant David
The work on the sculpture progressed at a high pace. On February 1502, six months after Michelangelo started carving, the sculpture was already half finished, even though the contract had stipulated a term of two years. When the David is all but finished on June 23, 1503, it is opened to the public, for one day. Six months after this ‘open day’, the Arte della Lana meets to discuss where the David should be placed now. The Signoria was also getting involved. From that moment on it was certainly no longer a foregone conclusion that the David would be placed on the buttresses of the Duomo. A group of thirty-two masters and citizens had been convened by the Arte della Lana to decide on the placement of the statue. The document on this issue is silent on the political implications of the placement.
Michelangelo immediately knew that his David was unsuitable for a buttress. The convened committee included no fewer than twenty-nine artists, architects and craftsmen. They were particularly interested in a place where the sculpture would be shown to its full potential. It is therefore not surprising that the buttress, as a possible location, had no chance. Among these artists were: Leonardo Buonarroti’s childhood friend, Francesco Granacci and four new friends: Botticelli, Il Cronaca (Simone del Pollaiuolo), Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo (Il Vecchio). The latter made the cart or ‘machine’ with which the sculpture was transported. The committee also included Giovanni Cellini (the father of Benvenuto Cellini), the brother of the old teacher of Michelangelo: David Ghirlandaio, the father of Baccio Bandinelli: Michelangelo Viviani de’Bandini and Leonardo da Vinci.
Francesco Filarete, of the Signoria, was the first to speak. He argued for placement next to the Judit of Donatello, instead of the Judit directly in front of the facade of the Palazzo Vecchio. The Signoria obviously had an interest in this. The woodworker, Francesco Monciatto, reminded the gathering crowd that the sculpture had been carved for the Duomo. Rosselli wanted to place the David next to the Judit. Botticelli pointed out that Judit and David are essentially pendants. He therefore pleaded for the two statues to come together. Some said that the statue would suffer too much from the weather if it was placed on top of the Duomo. They identified the Loggia dei Lanzi as the place of choice. Here the statue would be protected against weather influences. Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo and Leonardo were in favor of the Loggia dei Lanzi.
The argument of weather protection seems a bit of a search, because marble sculptures were always made for outdoor locations. Moreover, there was no air pollution at the time, as there is in modern times. An additional argument for the placement in the Loggia dei Lanzi was that the beautiful arches of the loggia were a beautiful frame for the David. The later transformation of the loggia into a kind of sculpture museum may have been stimulated by these remarks during the meeting, but perhaps this was even proposed. Filippino Lippi suggests to let the maker decide on the placement himself. After further discussion the painter Piero di Cosimo returns to the proposal of Lippi, but this was not accepted.
The Loggia dei Lanzi was a very prestigious place and perhaps Michelangelo himself wanted his giant to be placed here as some scholars have claimed. However, the report of this meeting does not allow any clear conclusions to be drawn.
The David, to reiterate, was a clear political symbol. Just as David had defeated the Philistine Goliath with God’s help, so too would Florence deal with its enemies. Moreover, he was seen as a symbol for the Republic of Florence where not a monarch reigned, but the bourgeoisie. David’s gaze, when he stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi, is on the west: towards Pisa. In front of Palazzo Vecchio, David looks south: towards Rome. Both directions make political sense. Florence had lost Pisa and plans were already being made for a possible reconquest. In Rome, Alexander VI was Pope and he had given Piero de’Medici shelter. The Pope himself was also anti-republican. However, it is impossible to tell whether Michelangelo wanted his prophet to look west or south.
Five months after the meeting it was decided to let the David look south, to Rome. The David came to the place where first the Judith stood. The Judith was moved to the ringhiera (a raised podium in front of the facade of the Palazzo Vecchio). Between 14 and 18 May 1504, the David is transported from the Opera to Piazza della Signoria (Vecchio). The walls of the Opera had to be partly broken to get the statue out of the workshop. The diary of Luca Landucci recounts this. The first night David, standing on a cart, was towed step by step to his destination, Medici followers threw stones at the statue. It is unknown whether the vandals pelted the giant because of his nudity or because of the strong republican character. On 8 June, the David is hoisted on his pedestal. The hero had a golden laurel wreath on his head, while his garland and trunk were gilded. A gilded garland covered his masculinity. Vasari tells us what happened right before the unveiling.
Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio ‘Portrait of Piero Soderini’
‘[…] When Piero Soderini saw the statue in place, he was very pleased with it, but while Michelangelo added some final touches here and there, Piero said he had the impression that the nose was too thick. Aware that the gonfaloniere [head of the state government] was under the giant statue and that from there he could not see what was really happening, Michelangelo climbed, in order to satisfy him, on the scaffolding near the shoulders of the statue, grabbed a chise with his left hand, also took some of the marble debris that lay on the planks of the scaffolding, and started to lightly beat his chisels together, gradually dropping the debris, but he didn’t change anything on the nose. Then he looked down, at the gonfaloniere, who had stayed there to see the result, and Michelangelo said: “Look at it now.” “Much better”, said the gonfaloniere, “now you’ve really brought it to life.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, Deel II 1992, blz. 208 – 209 (originele editie 1568).
On September 8, 1504 the holiday of the birth of Mary, the David was unveiled. The garland and trunk were originally gilded and David wore a gold leaf garland on his head. ‘In addition, the loins were also covered and the genitals completely hidden behind a brass festoon with twenty-eight copper leaves, which was attached to the statue before it was revealed publicly. […] Were these additions the ‘appropriate decorations’ Leonardo had spoken of?” translated from: Anton Gill,’Il Gigante Florence and Michelangelo’s David 1492-1504,’ De Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam/Antwerp 2004 blz. 207-
Mary was the patron saint of Florence. Vasari, a supporter of the Medici, naturally wanted to forget David’s republican background. The palace was the foremost seat of the republicans in 1504.
Vasari describes David ‘as an emblem for the palazzo, as a sign that [anno 1550 Cosimo de Medici] who ruled this city had to defend it vigorously and rule righteously, just as David had rightfully defended and ruled his people.’ When the Medici regained power in 1512, Buonarroti and his statue are protected by the enormous fame and appreciation.
Michelangelo and his missing bronze copy to Donatello’s David
In 1502, while Michelangelo was still working on his David, there was another commission for a David by the French general, Pierre de Rohan, who stayed in the Medici palace. He wanted a bronze copy of Donatello’s David that we saw before in Bargello. Working with bronze was something that a true sculptor like Buonarroti detested, but he could not escape this commission. Later he would have to make a bronze statue of Pope Julius II in Bologna. This statue has also gone lost.
There is still a drawing left of the right hand of the bronze David with the text: ‘David with the sling and me with the bow – Michelangelo’ and at the bottom: ‘Broken is the long column and the green … ‘The last line refers to a famous sonnet by Petrarca. A poem that complains about the temporariness of happiness. According to Seymour, the bow Michelangelo writes about was a drill bit that sculptors used. Michelangelo also saw himself as a militant David. Each is armed with his own means of combat in the fight against the giant: Goliath and the gigantic marble block.