Michelangelo’s David: The Fascinating Story Behind the Renaissance Marble Creation

Like many school­child­ren, and, for that mat­ter, Goliath, the Bib­li­cal giant who was felled by a sling­shot, I am a bit of a Philis­tine.

I admit that the first and, for a long time, pri­ma­ry thing that com­pelled me about Michelangelo’s David ( 1501–1504) was the frank­ness with which a cer­tain part of his anato­my was dis­played.

Mugs depict­ing him with a strate­gi­cal­ly placed fig leaf that dis­solves in response to hot liq­uid, Dress Me Up David fridge mag­nets, and an end­less parade of risqué mer­chan­dise sug­gest that his­tor­i­cal­ly, I am not alone.

Kudos to gal­lerist James Payne, cre­ator and host of the video series Great Art Explained, for his nod to the rab­ble in open­ing the above episode not with a view of David’s hand­some head or mirac­u­lous­ly detailed hands, but rather that most famous of male mem­bers.

Hav­ing got­ten it out of the way right at the top, Payne refrains from men­tion­ing it for near­ly 10 min­utes, edu­cat­ing view­ers instead on oth­er aspects of the statue’s anato­my, includ­ing the sculptor’s unusu­al meth­ods and the nar­row, flawed, pre­vi­ous­ly used block of mar­ble from which this mas­ter­piece emerged.

He also delves into the social con­text into which Michelangelo’s sin­gu­lar vision was deliv­ered.

Flo­ren­tines were proud of their high­ly cul­tured milieu, but were not near­ly as com­fort­able with depic­tions of nudi­ty as the ancient Greeks and Romans.

This explains the com­par­a­tive small­ness of David’s tack­le box. Per­haps Goliath might have got­ten away with a gar­gan­tu­an penis, but David, who van­quished him using intel­li­gence and willpow­er rather than brute strength, was assigned a size that would con­vey mod­esty, respectabil­i­ty, and self-con­trol.

The Bible iden­ti­fies David as an an Israelite, but Michelan­ge­lo decid­ed that this par­tic­u­lar Jew should remain uncir­cum­cised, in keep­ing with Gre­co-Roman aes­thet­ics. It was a look Chris­t­ian Flo­rence could get behind, though they also forged 28 cop­per leaves to con­ceal David’s con­tro­ver­sial man­hood.

(This theme returns through­out his­to­ry — the 1860s saw him out­fit­ted with a tem­po­rary fig leaf.)

One won­ders how much small­er things would have appeared from the ground, were David installed atop the Duo­mo, as orig­i­nal­ly planned. Michelan­ge­lo designed his cre­ation with this per­spec­tive in mind, delib­er­ate­ly equip­ping him with larg­er than usu­al hands and head.

One of Payne’s view­ers points out that David’s face, which con­veys both resolve and fear as he con­sid­ers his upcom­ing con­fronta­tion with Goliath, seems utter­ly con­fi­dent when viewed from below.

Giv­en that David is 17’ tall, that’s the van­tage point from which most of his in-per­son admir­ers expe­ri­ence him. 16th-cen­tu­ry Civic lead­ers, cap­ti­vat­ed by David’s per­fec­tion, placed him not atop the Flo­ren­tine Cathe­dral, but rather in Piaz­za del­la Sig­no­ria, the polit­i­cal heart of Flo­rence, where a repli­ca still faces south toward Rome. (The orig­i­nal was relo­cat­ed to the Gal­le­ria dell’Accademia in 1873, to pro­tect it from the ele­ments.)

Payne points out that David has sur­vived many soci­etal shifts through­out his 600+ years of exis­tence. Fig-leafed or not, he is a per­pet­u­al emblem of the under­dog, the deter­mined guy armed with only a sling­shot, and is thus unlike­ly to be top­pled by his­to­ry or human pas­sions.

Watch more episodes of James Payne’s Great Art Explained on his YouTube chan­nel. As a bonus below, we’ve includ­ed anoth­er infor­mati­ive video from Smarthis­to­ry fea­tur­ing the always illu­mi­nat­ing Dr. Steven Zuck­er and Dr. Beth Har­ris.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

What Makes Leonardo’s Mona Lisa a Great Paint­ing?: An Expla­na­tion in 15 Min­utes

New Video Shows What May Be Michelangelo’s Lost & Now Found Bronze Sculp­tures

3D Print 18,000 Famous Sculp­tures, Stat­ues & Art­works: Rodin’s Thinker, Michelangelo’s David & More

Michelangelo’s Hand­writ­ten 16th-Cen­tu­ry Gro­cery List

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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