Michelangelo, the Italian Renaissance artist, has achieved a rare and coveted posthumous distinction: his name is practically a household term meaning “great artist.” The statue of David is arguably his most famous work of all.
However, works of art rarely survive for many centuries without gathering a few exciting stories along the way—David is no exception. From when Michelangelo first selected the stone to work with, right up until the modern day, this world-renown piece of marble has had some wild experiences and are the most exciting stories David has to tell.
It Was Carved from Reject Marble
The immense piece of marble that became a 17-foot-tall statue almost didn’t become anything at all.
In 1464, a statue of the biblical hero David was commissioned to decorate the Florence Cathedral. The plan was to adorn the cathedral with a series of huge statues depicting both mythological people and figures from the Bible. Agostino di Duccio, a student of Donatello, was charged with creating a sculpture of David, the hero who famously fought Goliath.
Agostino chose an enormous piece of marble for his statue, but all he ever did was start a bit of work on David’s legs. The committee in charge of the cathedral’s decor hired Antonio Rossellino for the job instead. But after looking at the hunk of marble, Rossellino decided it was too low-quality to work with.
By 1501, that same piece of marble had been sitting outside, untouched, for at least 25 years. It was so weatherworn that some thought it was beyond salvaging. However, at just 26 years old, Michelangelo got the job of creating David from this raw material. He was supposed to finish in two years but didn’t complete the sculpture until 1504. However, in a way, it’s remarkable that he finished at all: today’s analyses of the marble have proved that it was low quality, in addition to being misshapen and damaged from years of neglect.
It Was Meant to Go on the Roof
The committee that commissioned David planned to put the statue on the roof, along with the other statues they’d ordered. However, the other statues were made of lighter materials, like terracotta. Unsurprisingly, the 17-foot marble David was a little too heavy to go on the cathedral roof when Michelangelo finished it.
The decision to place the statue somewhere lower may also have been, in part, because the finished product was so impressive, and putting it on the roof would have been a waste of such fine craftsmanship.
David ended up in the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall. However, in 1873, the statue was moved to an art gallery instead. You can still see a replica of the statue at the Palazzo Vecchio, but convincing as it looks, it’s not the real thing.
Its Proportions Are Off
If you look closely at David, you’ll notice that his right hand is oddly large. His head is also a bit larger than usual, and his facial features are exaggerated. Some art historians think this is because the statue was supposed to go on the roof, so Michelangelo adjusted the proportions for viewers on the ground. Others believe these things were meant to symbolize David’s strength or youth.
This statue is also narrower than most of Michelangelo’s work. The artist’s sculptures were often big and burly, but David is more slender. Historians think this might be because the piece of marble Michelangelo had to work with was narrower than his usual choice of raw material.
To further complicate matters, David is also a bit cross-eyed. It’s also impossible not to notice that David is, well, not very well-endowed. There is a concrete explanation for this last feature, at least: historical evidence suggests that small penises were found more desirable than big ones in Ancient Greece. Their artistic style influenced Michelangelo’s David.
While many people think of this statue as a symbol of perfect proportions like the Greek statues that inspired it, upon closer examination, you’ll find lots of inconsistencies. While we may never fully know Michelangelo’s motivations for sculpting David the way he did, as with many works of art, its “imperfections” are precisely what makes the statue so interesting.
It’s a Bit Off Balance
Michelangelo almost certainly made David disproportionate on purpose. However, the statue is also a bit unbalanced, which seems to have been accidental.
David’s center of gravity isn’t quite the same as the base’s center of gravity, so even when the base of the statue is level, the weight is unevenly distributed. This puts extra weight on the ankles, one of the weaker parts of the statue to begin with. If the statue tilts just a little, that pressure on the ankles increases a lot. In fact, David already has cracked ankles.
For many years, the statue was tilted, which seems to have caused the ankle cracks. (When David still adorned the town hall of Florence, he famously leaned a bit.) According to legend, a single thunderclap in 1511 caused the statue to lean. It’s more likely, however, that the naturally shifting ground (Florence is near multiple active fault lines) shifted the statue off-center.
It Wasn’t Always Naked
When David was carved, public nudity was less acceptable than it is today—even in the form of art. Michelangelo’s David was one of the first nude European statues that we know of since ancient times. Even so, the Florence authorities put a modesty covering of copper leaves around his waist when the statue was unveiled. This “garment” wasn’t removed until around the mid-1500s.
A replica of the statue gifted to Queen Victoria in 1857 also had a plaster fig leaf attached, so the queen and her visitors wouldn’t have to see the statue’s nakedness. Later, in 1995, the authorities in Jerusalem refused to accept a replica David as a gift, because they thought residents would find the nudity offensive.
It Has a Political Meaning
To many people, the political implications of the statue of David reach no farther than the Bible story it’s based on. But to Michelangelo, the statue likely was also a political statement. In fact, some people think the distorted elements of the sculpture were an obscure way for Michelangelo to comment on the politics of Florence.
When David was sculpted, Florence was ruled by the House of Medici, a family dynasty that first came to power using the banking industry. This family was supportive of the arts and helped fuel the Renaissance. In fact, the Medicis helped raise Michelangelo as a young artist from the age of 13.
However, Michelangelo had a complicated relationship with the Medicis despite his connection. In the Bible, David was famous for overthrowing Goliath. Many people think Michelangelo’s David symbolized Florence overthrowing the elite Medici family, mainly because he sculpted it while the family was in exile. Later, in 1527, Michelangelo designed military fortifications to help keep the Medicis out of Florence.
A Mob Attacked It in 1527
Even the artist’s revolutionary sensibilities couldn’t protect the statue of David from the effects of political upheaval. A mob attacked the city hall and the statue along with it in 1527, throwing everything in sight out of the windows.
A heavy bench struck David during this riot and broke his left arm. However, it was later repaired, as were many smaller marks of damage that the statue accrued over the years.
It Was Attacked Again in 1991
For the most part, David has done a remarkable job of surviving unscathed through the centuries. However, a surprise attack damaged the statue again in 1991, long after it had been ensconced in a museum.
A man smuggled a hammer into the Florence museum and managed to break part of David’s toe before authorities could stop him. When pressed for a reason behind the attack, the man claimed that the model from a sixteenth-century painting had told him to. In 2005, the same man attacked a commemorative plaque in Florence with a can of spray paint because it contained “a sentence that doesn’t make any sense.”
Luckily, every broken piece of the toe was collected, and the statue was repaired. But between attacks, earthquakes, and other unpredictable events, the future of David is far from certain—and in many ways, it’s impressive that this statue carved from an undesirable and damaged piece of marble is still intact today.