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Michelangelo's David and the Florentine Republic

Michelangelo, David, 1501–04, marble, 17 feet high (The Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence), a conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. More art history on Smarthistory.org. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Academia in Florence, surrounded by lots of people who have come to see the sculpture by Michelangelo of David. People love this sculpture, and people have always loved this sculpture. - [Beth] But we're seeing it in a place that it was never intended to be seen, inside a museum. This sculpture was commissioned to decorate the outside of a cathedral. - [Steven] Which for such a young sculptor, was an enormous honor. - [Beth] He was 26 years old. - [Steven] The sculpture is so big because it was meant to be placed high up on the cathedral, 40 feet above street level. And so in order for it to be visible, it had to be big. Now Michelangelo was given the commission just on the heels of his success in Rome, the Pieta, and it was such an outstanding success that the Florentines decided to give him an opportunity to carve an abandoned piece of marble, a huge block that had once been part of an earlier commission. - [Beth] For decades it had laid beside the Cathedral, but in the early years of the 1500s, the government of Florence decided to look back 100 years to what had been considered the Golden Age of the Florentine Republic, and commission sculptures once again for the Cathedral. - [Steven] A lot had happened in those intervening years. Florence was a Republic, but one family in particular, the Medici, a banking family, took more and more control over the course of the 15th century until they were really sole rulers of the city, but still under the guise of the Republic. Late in the 15th century, they were run out of town. - [Beth] And a Republic was reestablished, but this happened right at the time of the ascendancy of a very charismatic monk named Savonarola, who essentially began to turn the newly reconstituted Republic of Florence into a theocratic state. - [Steven] Savonarola believed that Florence had gone astray in part because of its wealth, and an expression of that wealth was it's interest in humanism, it's interest in the arts, and he's probably most famous for the Bonfire of the Vanities. That is his effort to rid the city of what he saw as the corruption of wealth, burning manuscripts, burning paintings. But Savonarola's rule of Florence does not continue. He's excommunicated by the Pope, put under arrest and ultimately he's executed, and then his body is burned. - [Beth] The Florentine government defeats two tyrants. They defeat first, the Medici, and then Savonarola. And so it's critical to see the sculpture of David against that background, especially because the biblical figure of David meant something very special to the Florentine people. - [Steven] The Bible tells us that David was a young shepherd, and his people were being attacked by the Philistines. It seems certain that the Israelites will be defeated, especially since none of their warriors are willing to go up against this giant of a man Goliath. David, this young shepherd is willing to. He takes off his armor before he goes into battle. He picks up a stone, places it in a sling, hits Goliath between the eyes, fells the giant, and then cuts off his head with the giant's own sword. - [Beth] It's a story of good overcoming evil through God's favor, and the people of Florence identified with David. They saw themselves as an underdog like David, who had consistently defeated their enemy because of God's favor. - [Steven] And because this story was so potent to the thinking of the citizens of Florence, Michelangelo's sculpture was not the first to embody these ideas. Donatello, Verrocchio had both produced sculptures of the young David that spoke to the virtues of the city of Florence. - [Beth] Donatello's David had in fact been commissioned by the Medici, and had stood in their garden. Now, as soon as the Medici were ousted, the government of Florence went into the Medici palace, took David and appropriated him as a symbol for the Republic. - [Steven] The subject of David could not have been more potent when he sets out to carve this piece of abandoned stone. - [Beth] The other important piece to this is the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture that happened, especially under the patronage of the Medici, and especially for Michelangelo, this love of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and competing with those ancient models. - [Steven] Florence wanted to see itself as the inheritor of the great humanist traditions of ancient Rome, and the very stance of the sculpture with his weight on the right leg is taken directly from classical antiquity. This is a stance that we call contrapposto. - [Beth] Now in the earlier versions, we're looking at David after the fight, we're looking at the moment of victory, and he looks youthful and confident. - [Steven] And contemplative, introspective, it's a moment of rest after the act. - [Beth] But here, the moment when David looks across space and readies himself for the fight ahead. - [Steven] Sometimes this is described as a pregnant moment, as this moment in immediate anticipation of action. A moment that signals what's about to happen. When I look at this sculpture, I see his hips forward, his shoulders are forward, but his head is at three quarters, it's turned. And if you look closely, his eyes are turned even further. If I do this, it's only comfortable for a second. He's just caught his first glance of his enemy. - [Beth] Although the face has this very powerful sense of the uncertainty of the future, that the pose itself of contrapposto is a relaxed one. - [Steven] It's almost as if he had been at rest. And now his body is just being filled with the tension that is required for the coming battle. - [Beth] We don't really sense David's confidence in God. We sent him as a human being facing his enemy. - [Steven] And therefore this must have been so reassuring because we all know the end of the story. David defeats Goliath. Florence will defeat its enemies. - [Beth] When the Florentine people finally saw David, it was clear that it was too fabulous to place high up on the Cathedral, and so a new location had to be found for it. Ultimately it was decided to place the sculpture on a platform in front of the seat of government in Florence. - [Steven] Taking it from its original religious context and placing it into a political context. - [Beth] This sculpture became a symbol of the newly reconstituted Republic of Florence. - [Steven] Florence had run the Medici out. Florence had gotten rid of Savonarola, and was trying to re-establish itself as a Republic. - [Beth] The sculpture was so clearly now a symbol of the Florentine Republic, that stones were thrown at the sculpture by some people who were loyal to the Medici. So we're really looking at a very potent political symbol in addition to a almost super human achievement. It's no wonder that Michelangelo got the nickname il divino, the divine one. - [Steven] But it's so interesting because the people who flock to see the sculpture today, are coming to see a work of art. This is a sculpture that was commissioned for a church for a religious context. It's meaning was transformed into an almost purely political one, and it's been transformed again in the context of our secular museum culture, into a work of art that can be understood as an expression of our history, our aesthetic appreciation, and perhaps most of all Michelangelo's mastery. (jazzy piano music)