Historians have variously described the Renaissance as an advance beyond the “dark ages”, and a nostalgic period looking back to the Classical age. Whatever it was, the 15th and 16th centuries produced some of the most gifted artists, in history.
None more so than the Italian Masters.
There was the polymath Leonardo and the Florentine sculptor, Donatello. There was Raphael, that prodigiously talented architect and painter whose enormous body of work belies an early death, at the age of 37. We remember Brunelleschi and Botticelli but only one had his biography written, while he was still alive. Not once, but twice. Only one of these men would have his home town renamed…after himself. Today, the Tuscan village of Caprese is known as Caprese Michelangelo.
He was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.
If you look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, you would never guess the artist who produced such a work didn’t care for painting. “Along with the milk of my nurse,” he would say, “I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer, with which I make my figures”. Michelangelo was a sculptor.
He was “Il Divino”, “The Divine One”, literally growing up with the hammer and chisel. He had a “Terribilità”, a sense of awe-inspiring grandeur about him that made him difficult to work with, but he was widely admired and imitated. He was that insufferably cocky kid who wasn’t bragging, because he could deliver.
A massive block of Carrara marble was quarried in 1466, nine years before Michelangelo was born. That same year a commission to produce the work we now know as “David” went to the artist Agostino di Duccio. So difficult was this particular block that he never got beyond roughing out the legs and draperies.
Antonio Rossellino took a shot at it 10 years later, but he didn’t get much farther.
25 years later, the Guild of Wool Merchants decided to revive the abandoned project and went looking for an artist. The now infamously difficult slab had deteriorated for years in the elements, when Michelangelo stepped forward at the age of 26. The prevailing attitude seems to have been yeah, give it to him. That might even take him down a few pegs.
The sculptor began work on September 13, 1501. His master work would take him three years to complete.
The 17-foot, six-ton David was originally intended for the roof of the Florence Cathedral, but it wasn’t feasible to raise such an object to such a great height. A committee including Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli was formed to decide on an appropriate site for the statue. The committee chose the Piazza della Signoria outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence.
It took four days on a specially constructed cart to move the David statue into position, the unveiling taking place on September 8, 1504.
Among the dignitaries gathered for the occasion was the Mayor of Florence, Vasari Pier Soderini, who complained that David’s nose was “too thick”.
Michelangelo climbed the statue with a handful of marble dust, sending down a shower of the stuff as he pretended to work on the nose. After several minutes, he stepped back and asked Soderini if it was improved. “Yes”, replied the Mayor, now satisfied. “I like it better. You have given it life”.