The Galleria dell’Accademia: David, Matthew and the four slaves of Michelangelo 1/2

Entrance Galleria dell’Accademia
The entrance Galleria dell'Accademia Florence

Galleria dell’Accademia and pictures:
Timetable, entrance and address
Museum’s plan

The Accademia: the 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.

Ospedale San Matteo nowadays the Accademia large size       Accademia
Ospedale San Matteo nowadays the Accademia Florence

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.

Accademia large size             View of the David
The Accademia interior view of David Florence

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.197 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.198

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.

1.    Video Khan Academy David Michelangelo ( 5.39 minutes)
2.0 Video David part 1 (20 seconds advertising, starts at  1.43 – 402 minutes)
2.1  Video David part  2 transport Gigant (20 seconds advertising; starts at 46.58 minutes)
3.0  Video David documentary BBC (48.10 minutes)
4.    Video about the restoration of the  David (4.02 minutes)

Michelangelo David two sides large size     Head
The Galleria dell'Accademia Michelangelo David

photos: Wikipedia

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.199

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.200 In 1986 it was discovered that a previously discovered model was the design Vasari writes about.201 According to the art historian Hartt, it is a model of Buonarroti himself.

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.202 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.

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.

bozzetto study David Michelangelo

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’.

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, part II 1992, p. 208 (original edition 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.203 We have previously seen this method at the recess for which Nanni di Banco carved his Quattro Coronati.

Nanni di Banco Quattro Coronati predella recess  Orsanmichele detail large      In its entirety 
Nanni di Banco 'Quattro Coronati' predella recess Orsanmichele detail: sculptors

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.

Michelangelo ‘David’ rear and front
Michelangelo David rear

In this context, Pope-Hennessy refers to the structure of a classical sculpture.204 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.205

Fontana Dioscuri originally from the thermal baths of Constantine
Fontana dei Dioscuri Rome

picture: Apostolis Giontzis

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.

  David’s head large size
Michelangelo   David's head

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.206 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.

Michelangelo David replica large size
Michelangelo David replica Palazzo Vecchio

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.207 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.

Video of the placement of the giant, BBC

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.

Rafael ‘Study of Michelangelo’s David’ large
Leonardo da Vinci ‘Study of Michelangelo’s David’
Rafael 'Study of the David' of Michelangelo

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.

Michelangelo David replica   Donatello Judit and Holofernes replica

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 Loggia dei Lanzi and the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio
The Loggia dei Lanzi and the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio Florence

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.

The placement and unveiling of the giant

Michelangelo David (left) Bandinelli Hercules and Cacus large      1910 David moves to the Accademia    Michelangelo David replica
Michelangelo David (left) Bandinelli Hercules and Cacus (right)

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 Judit stood. The Judit 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.208 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.


‘[…] 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,

Piero Soderini large
Piero Soderini portrait

in order to satisfy him, on the scaffolding near the shoulders of the statue, grabbed a chisel 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.”

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, part II 1992, pp. 208-209 (original edition 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?

Anton Gill,’Il GiganteFlorence and Michelangelo’s David 1492-1504,’ De Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam/Antwerp (English edition 2002) 2004 pp. 207-208

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.’209 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.


Donatello ‘David’ ca. 1440 large        Side
Michelangelo ‘Study David of Donatello’
Donatello 'David' bronze c. 1440 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.210 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.

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