Aug. 16, 2022

Michelangelo Begins the Statue of David

Michelangelo Begins the Statue of David

August 16, 1501. The famed Italian artist Michelangelo Buonarroti is awarded a contract to create the statue of David at Florence Cathedral.


Cold Open

It’s the summer of 1496, in Rome, Italy.

A young man with a flattened nose guides a middle-aged gentleman through the streets. The younger man is 21-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti, a budding sculptor. The older is Catholic Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who’s commissioned a statue from Michelangelo.

The artist and the cardinal pass a busy construction site, the location of Riario’s soon-to-be palace. There, workers and oxen are hauling blocks of travertine. And soon, the two men reach their destination; a small building nearby that Michelangelo has been using as a workshop.

Michelangelo opens the door and Riario walks in briskly. He’s a busy man, and eager to see the piece he’s commissioned.

Michelangelo follows him inside. The room is sparsely furnished, with chisels and files sitting on a rough bench, and drawings of nudes pinned all over the wall. As often as he can, Michelangelo brings models into his workshop to pose while he studies and draws the human body.

In the center of the room is a life-size figure, covered with a heavy cloth. Michelangelo walks up to it while Riario waits expectantly. Due to his duties, Riario hasn’t had the time to see the progress of the statue since he commissioned it a year ago.

So after a slight dramatic pause… Michelangelo pulls the cloth off of the piece he’s been laboring over. The statue is a life-sized rendition of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, known to the Greeks as Dionysus.

Riario slowly circles the piece and examines every detail. He loves antique Roman statues and owns a large collection. But Michelangelo has done something different with this one. Bacchus is in the classic pose, but his head is tilted towards his goblet of wine. A little satyr even steals grapes from behind Bacchus without him noticing. The god of wine is drunk!

Riario frowns. He’s not overly religious, but this feels too indulgent. It's borderline inappropriate, even for his tastes. Frustrated, he heads for the door.

But before he goes, he turns back and tells the expectant Michelangelo that the statue is well done on a technical level, but that it would not reflect well on the Cardinal to display it to the public. Michelangelo will have to find another buyer. And with that… Riario turns and slams the door on Michelangelo.

The sculptor is upset, but not because Riario doesn’t like the statue. Michelangelo stands by his work as a brilliant inversion of classical expectations. He’s upset that after a year of labor, he will have to find another way to make money. He’s broke and doesn’t want to ask his connections in Florence for another loan.

Eventually, Michelangelo’s luck will turn around. He will secure a commission for a new sculpture known as the Pietà. This piece will catapult his career and set the table for his return to his hometown of Florence. There, Michelangelo will fight to secure a commission to make David, the most famous statue of all time; an undertaking that will begin when he secures the job on August 16th, 1501.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

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Today is August 16th, 1501:  Michelangelo Begins the Statue of David.

Act One: The Commission

It’s early August, in the year 1501 in Florence, Italy. Five years after Michelangelo unveiled Bacchus for Cardinal Riario.

Michelangelo is back in his hometown, and on his way to a very important meeting. He walks past the cathedral at the heart of Florence, towering over the rest of the city with its iconic red dome. In the shadow of the Cathedral lies a workshop, owned and operated by the Wool Guild, one of the most powerful guilds in the independent Republic of Florence.

The Wool Guild is responsible for commissioning art for the Cathedral. Every year, three men are elected to make these decisions; they are known as the Operai, and they have already commissioned several pieces to sit on spires on top of the Cathedral.

One such commission is an ambitious statue of David, intended to be carved from a block of marble known as “The Giant”, the largest to be quarried since Ancient Rome. The original sculptor made large cuts to the block in order to transport it more easily to Florence. But the cuts were too deep and made the block hard to work with. After a year of work, the sculptor gave up. And after him, two more sculptors attempted to conquer the Giant but failed.

Michelangelo is no stranger to the Giant. He saw the block firsthand many times during his childhood in Florence. But he never imagined he’d have a chance to get his hands on it; until recently, when he learned that the Operai were considering reopening the commission and that they had called for experts to evaluate if anything could be done to salvage the deeply gouged and weathered block. Hearing this, he quickly gathered his few possessions in Rome and headed back home.

Now, Michelangelo walks through the streets of Florence on his way to meet the Operai, and hopefully convince them that he is the right man for the job. But he has plenty of competition, including such famous artists as Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea Sansovino, a talented sculptor who’s been working in Portugal for the king. Still, Michelangelo is confident in his abilities. He’s done well in Rome, and he’s eager to prove himself at home in Florence; the monumental challenge posed by David and the Giant is the perfect opportunity.

Michelangelo arrives early, carrying a foot-tall object with a cloth draped over it. Under the cloth is a wax model that Michelangelo hopes will convince the Operai. He places the model on a bench in the workshop and turns to spend some time with the Giant.

Michelangelo examines every inch of the stone, running his fingers delicately over the surface of the marble. The early morning sun gives the stone a soft glow. Michelangelo has seen the Giant many times before, but today, he looks at it with fresh eyes, imagining how the figure of David rests within the large, misshapen block.

Soon, three men walk into the workshop: the Operai. Michelangelo must convince them that he is more suited for the job than Sansovino or the other half-dozen sculptors vying for the opportunity. The Operai begin by asking Michelangelo to talk about his experience and skills. Michelangelo tells them about the time he spent in Rome. The Pieta that he carved there was very successful, and word has begun to trickle north from Rome to Florence.

The Operai press him on the unusual challenge presented by the marble block. It's misshapen, weathered, and larger than any piece worked on for centuries. They say many sculptors have already deemed the block unusable, including recently, Leonardo da Vinci. Sansovino proposed adding another piece of marble to make it more workable. They ask, ‘Now, what is Michelangelo’s plan?’

In response, Michelangelo leads them over to the bench where his model rests and pulls off the cloth.

The Operai murmur in approval. David is a popular figure in Florence and has been sculpted before. But every other statue of David shows him as a boy with a soft body, in a relaxed pose. In contrast, Michelangelo’s David is a muscular young man; his face concentrated on the unseen Goliath. He stands in a heroic pose, weight on one leg. And although David is a biblical figure, Michelangelo’s model is nude in the style of classical sculpture.

The Operai are impressed, but they have more questions. They want to know how he will work with the badly chiseled parts of the block. Michelangelo smiles and points to parts of the model, showing the Operai how it will translate to the shape of the marble. He shows how the unique stance of his David avoids the deepest gouges in the block. And as Michelangelo finishes his pitch, for the first time, the Operai are convinced that the Giant can be salvaged.

Michelangelo’s vision is ambitious. But it’s also compelling. And it’s enough to win over the Operai. On August 16th, 1501, Michelangelo signs a contract to carve his David. He will have 18 months to complete that feat.

Within a few weeks, Michelangelo will build three levels of scaffolding around the block and will start carving away marble. If he can successfully complete the assignment, David will be the largest marble statue carved from a single block since the height of Ancient Rome almost 1000 years before; a feat that will make Michelangelo arguably the most famous sculptor of all time.

Act Two: Carving David

It’s the summer of 1503, almost two years since Michelangelo successfully landed the commission for David.

Michelangelo stands outside his workshop, exchanging greetings with a very important visitor”: 50-year-old Piero Soderini. Soderini became the de facto head of government in Florence a year ago, and he is eager to have Michelangelo's David unveiled as a symbol of the artistry and ingenuity of the independent Republic of Florence. He is here today to see the progress that Michelangelo has made.

Michelangelo has been working on the statue tirelessly for two years. He eats irregularly and often sleeps with his clothes and boots on. But his non-stop work has paid off. Though no one has seen David in his entirety, due to the heavy scaffolding surrounding the statue, the Operai have seen enough to know that the finished piece will exceed their expectations. They have given Michelangelo a six-month extension to finish the statue as well as a hefty raise.

After they exchange pleasantries, Michelangelo leads Soderini into the workshop, where David stands waiting.

Soderini’s eyes widen as he tilts his head back to see the statue’s full height. He’s seen the block of marble before, prior to Michelangelo beginning his work. But seeing it today, in its nearly finished form, he is impressed by what the sculptor has accomplished.

Soderini walks around the statue, with Michelangelo only a couple of steps behind. He remarks on the mastery of the work; how the cold stone is very convincingly shaped into human flesh. David still needs to be polished and detailed in a few areas, but already the veins on his hands and the hair on his head stand out in incredible detail.

As Soderini completes a full circle around the statue, he looks up into the focused and confident face of David. But something seems off. He turns to Michelangelo and offers that maybe David’s nose is a bit too big.

Soderini is a politician, not an artist. He has no clue how many hours Michelangelo has spent laboring over every square inch of the statue that stands before him.

But Michelangelo nods and smiles politely. Deep down, he’s annoyed, sleep-deprived, and irritable. And he doesn’t appreciate Soderini’s unsolicited advice. But he doesn’t want to be rude to the man either. After all, Soderini is the most powerful man in Florence. So Michelangelo swallows his frustration. He thanks Soderini for his feedback and grabs a chisel.

Michelangelo climbs to the third story of the scaffolding. At the top, he discreetly stoops down, then takes care to make sure Soderini doesn’t notice him gathering a handful of marble from the wooden planks. He deftly conceals the dust and crumbles in one hand and then stands. Then, Michelangelo lightly taps at David’s nose with the chisel, but not with enough force to actually remove any marble. But with each impact, he lets a bit of dust fall from his hand.

A few minutes after pretending to work on both sides of the nose, he calls down to Soderini 15 feet below to ask him if it’s more to his liking. Soderini responds by saying "It looks much better now", and that Michelangelo has truly brought the statue to life. Michelangelo smirks as he climbs down from the scaffolding. He thanks Soderini for his time and input, then he escorts the head of government out of his workshop.

After Soderini leaves, Michelangelo gets back to work. He painstakingly details and polishes every hair and vein on David’s body. He carves the pupil of David’s eyes, the skin on his knuckles, and the sharp line of his collarbone. He brings the marble to a soft glow by polishing it with pumice stones. And after a month of hard work, David stands finished.

Michelangelo knows that he has done the impossible by carving such a masterpiece out of a previously discarded block of marble. But now that the statue is complete, one question remains: where to put it? Soon, a group of artists and government officials will gather to deliberate on the proper placement of David. Ultimately, they will decide to place the statue in the courtyard of the Palazzo Signoria, the building where the government of Florence meets.

Michelangelo is proud of his creation, but he has no idea what the future has in store. Once his statue is unveiled to the public, Michelangelo’s life, and the course of art, will be changed forever.

Act Three: The Unveiling

It’s late February in 1504, a few months since Michelangelo finished David.

The sculptor makes his way to the Palazzo Signoria, where David now stands as a political symbol, with eyes fixed in the direction of Rome.

As Michelangelo strolls up to the building, he gasps when he sees how his creation glows in the full light of the sun. David stands more than three times taller than the crowd of people gathered at his feet.

Michelangelo slows down as he approaches the crowd. He is anxious; there are many other statues of David in Florence, but this one is so different. Michelangelo wonders if his fellow citizens grasp the concept behind this David. He hopes they will understand why Michelangelo carved him as a powerful young man, heroic and muscular; and why this David is nude, in the style of classical sculpture.

As he reaches the edge of the crowd, people begin to notice him; and they part to let him pass. Michelangelo can see the awe in their eyes as he makes his way through the throng. Many people murmur appreciation of his David. A few speak to Michelangelo more directly, telling him he has sculpted a great symbol of Florence and that he has made something worthy of pride.

But the crowd does not clap or cheer as Michelangelo nears the base of his statue. The sculptor is far more touched by their quiet, almost reverent tone. He can tell that they understand that he has taken David, a religious figure, familiar to all of Florence, and re-imagined him as a classical hero. Today, as he gazes up at his work, he feels that he has truly brought his idea to life.

After sculpting David, Michelangelo will become one of the most well-known and respected artists in Italy. His work will come to represent the ideas of the Renaissance, a renewal of classical Greek and Roman ideals. He will live another 60 years after sculpting David, eventually passing away at the age of 88. Among his most influential works are the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and the design for St. Peter’s Basilica. But the most famous sculpture ever made started with Michelangelo landing the commission to sculpt David on this day, August 16th, 1501.


Next onHistory Daily: August 17, 1846. Commodore Robert F. Stockton of the US Navy annexes California during the Mexican-American War.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.