Discovering David…

For My Students…

Sayre, H.M. (2010) A World of Art, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

[To the students: do not follow this practice in your own papers—references are for the end. I want you to read the form over and again, so that you will become familiar with the format in APA  (not really, use MLA style)  style. If I put all of the references at the end you might not read them. Also, this is not a paper with a proper heading—it is part of a larger work, and therefore in another format. When you write your papers you must also use the proper format and APA style (I’m serious, use MLA style). I know this seems unfair. It probably is! (—Insert smiley face here—) This is an exercise that I strongly recommend for all of you who have never quite grown out of the juvenile impulse to tease small animals, and pull the wings off of flying soldier ants and the like. It may seem cruel on its face, but six previous panels of editors seem to have missed these points regarding Sayre’s presentation of Michelangelo’s David, and I felt it was high time someone said something…. (And of course,  if you are taking a course from me,  you expect nothing less–and btw,  please use MLA style….]

Henry M. Sayre’s treatment of Michelangelo’s David begins on page 48 of his A World of Art, with an argument concerning the statue as a work of Public Art, subject in its own time to opposition from some “segments of the public” because of a “specific political or social agenda” (Ibid.) The bulk of Sayre’s argument follows on page 49.  [There is another brief statement on page 456.] The passage is too long to reproduce in full here, but I will try to fairly summarize—at some length— the main points. I have also adapted the Devere translation [available on the web as elsewhere referenced] so that the reader can judge all of our scholars’ efforts by Vasari’s account of the installation of Michelangelo’s David in the public square in Florence.

Michelangelo (Copyright Casa Buonarroti, Florence)


“The sculpture was commissioned… by the Opera del Duomo (“Works of the Cathedral”), a group founded in the thirteenth century to look after the Florence cathedral and to maintain works of art. It was to be a public piece, designed for outdoor display in the Piazza della Signoria, the plaza where public political meetings took place on a raised platform called the arringhiera …. Its political context in other words was clear. It represented David’s triumph over the tyrant Goliath and was meant to symbolize Republican Florence—the city’s freedom from foreign and papal domination, and from the rule of the Medici family as well” (Sayre, p. 49).

Sayre has launched head-long into a gross misstatement of the facts; the David was designed specifically for a spot 40 feet off of the ground –on part of the cathedral itself—that is why it was commissioned by the group in charge of securing and maintaining art for the cathedral—and not the secular authorities in Republican Florence-at first! But I do not want to spoil the reader’s fun at watching each of Sayre’s points fall as we consider the work of other authors. Aside from the Sayre’s introduction he continues on each of the following points. (I will try to restrain myself and to keep my interruptions to a minimum.)

1)                  Everyone in the city knew the David was a “sculptural triumph in its own right”.

2)                  Carved from a 16 foot high block of flawed marble, quarried 40 years before and rejected by other sculptors—including Leonardo. [As will be shown in Vasari’s account one of the other sculptors actually hacked away at the marble—and abandoned it because he thought it was ruined.]

3)                  Upon completion it was moved from the Opera del Duomo to the piazza at eight in the evening. The task required 40 men, took four days to move the statue 600 yards. It took another 20 days to raise it to the platform.

4) The entire time the statue was being moved “…its politics hounded it. Each night stones were hurled at it by supporters of the Medici and guards had to be hired to keep watch over it. Inevitably a second group of citizens objected to its nudity, and before its installation a skirt of copper leaves was prepared to spare the general public any possible offense” (Ibid.). [My emphasis. I am not sure how Sayre can maintain that “everyone” appreciated the statue, even though some threw stones at it, and a skirt had to be fashioned to protect the tender sensibilities of others? Certainly it is obvious that the skirt was not present at the installation or Vasari would have commented on it; but more on that later.]

5) “By the time the Medici returned to power in 1512, the David was a revered public shrine….” (Ibid.). [And Sayre notes that the skirt had disappeared, but not when, how or why this happened. Sayre’s date is problematic, and elsewhere contradicted by others as will be shown.]

6) He concludes “Today we no longer value the sculpture for its politics but rather for its sheer beauty and accomplishment. It teaches us how important aesthetic issues remain, even in the public arena” (Ibid.).

[More on Sayre as necessary, as we continue:]

David--a sense of proportion


Hardt, Frederick (1993) Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Vol. 2, 4th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Frederick Hardt wrote:

“When the work was completed, its beauty seemed to the Florentines too great to be sacrificed in such a position [by placing it on one of the buttresses of the cathedral 40’ off of the ground]; after a long deliberation the statue was placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, where it became a symbol of the republic ready for battle against its enemies much like the statues by Donatello, Nanni de Banco…and Ghiberti at Orsanmichele  nearly a century before” (p. 676).

And, further:

“ The strong undercutting of the hair and the features can be explained by the high position for which the statue was originally destined. Brought to near ground level, the figure towers above us as a revelation of a transfigured humanity; such a vision had inspired no one since the days of Phidias” (p. 677).

Stokstad, Marilyn (1999). Art History, Revised ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Stokstad’s account includes the following important points:

“…[Michelangelo]… fell under the spell of the charismatic preacher Fra. Girolamo Savonarola. The preacher’s execution for heresy in 1498 had a traumatic effect on Michelangelo, who said in his old age that he could still hear the sound of Savonarola’s voice” (p.697).

And Further,

“When it was finished in 1504, the David was so admired that the Florentine city council placed it in the square next to the seat of Florence’s government” (p.698)….

[The timeline is important here I think. And the idea that Michelangelo was so traumatized by the iconoclastic Savonarola’s death. Savonarola and two of his principals are executed in 1498; Michelangelo is distraught; Michelangelo begins work on the David in 1501—in Florence—and the work is complete a mere three years later. This is a curious set of events, to say the least. Although this is perhaps not as curious as the accounts that say that Lorenzo De Medici called Savonarola to his death bed in 1492? Who wouldn’t have wanted to be a fly on the wall for that confession!?]

David--the traditional view...


Stokstad’s account continues:

“David represents the power of right over might—a perfect emblematic figure for the Florentines, who twice drove out the powerful Medici and instituted short-lived republics in the early sixteenth century” (Ibid.).

Stokstad also tells us what happened after the alleged controversy surrounding the David:

“Julius II [the pope] saw Michelangelo as his equal in personal strength and dedication and thus as an ideal collaborator in the artistic aggrandizement of the papacy. Despite Michelangelo’s contractual commitment to the Florence Cathedral for statues of the apostles, in 1505 Julius arranged for him to come to Rome. The sculptor’s first undertaking was the pope’s tomb, but this commission was set aside in 1506 when Julius ordered Michelangelo to redecorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel” (p.698).

Adams, L.S. (2005) A History of Western Art, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.

Laurie Schneider Adams adds a few details in this account, but the basics remain about the same:

“In 1501 Florence commissioned a marble statue of David…the symbol of Florentine republicanism. For three years Michelangelo worked secretly on a huge and difficult block of marble over 14 feet (4.27m) high. Originally destined for the exterior of the Cathedral, the David was placed in 1504 in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (the government seat of Florence)—a more suitable location for a political sculpture” (p.288).

[One thing that Adams adds to the discussion is the explicit notion that the act of moving the location of the statue from the church to city hall was an overt political move. Although Adams unlike Hardt, presents the move, neither as a source of controversy nor as the result of compromise, but as a matter of agreement. We should also note a quibble about the size of the marble—14 feet, not 16 feet high.]

Perry, M., Baker, W., & Pfeiffer-Hollinger, P. (2003). The Humanities in the Western Tradition: Ideas and Aesthetics, Vol 2. Renaissance to Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Perry, Baker and Pfeiffer-Hollinger (2003) provide us with an alternative translation of Vasari—that is interesting and instructive of itself—and in comparison with the Devere translation. They also describe the David as “a symbol of Florentine civic virtue” as represented by the sling; and the secrecy surrounding Michelangelo’s work:

“…the sling to show that the city should be boldly defended  and righteously governed following David’s example.” …and that …[He] finished him without anyone having seen him at work” (p. 29).

–But that is not the most interesting part of their presentation from Vasari:

“ When the statue was finished and set up Michelangelo uncovered it….[their ellipses] The legs are finely turned, the slender flanks divine, and the graceful pose unequalled, while such feet, hands and head have never been excelled. After seeing this no one need wish to look at any other sculpture of the work of any other artist” (Lives of the Artists, qtd, by Perry, et al.  p.29).

The obvious point here, of course—is that if there was indeed a skirt at the unveiling, would Michelangelo have ‘uncovered it’ himself—and would Vasari or anyone else be able to admire the statue’s ‘slender flanks’—‘devine’ or otherwise?! Surely Vasari would have commented on a copper skirt—given his otherwise effusive praise of the work! I could mention to that David’s nudity was a matter for the church to interpret—and both Michelangelo and Donatello (half a century previously) represented David in the nude because he rejected the clothes and armor Saul gave him. (1Samuel 17: 38-39).

Bishop, P.E. (2005). Adventures in the Human Spirit, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Philip Bishop (2005) provides a unique perspective on the statue’s creation and placement:

He tells us that Michelangelo was called back to Florence, from Rome, by the Florentine “city fathers” (not by letters from his friends as Vasari wrote) and “given the opportunity to carve” the large block. Vasari of course tells another story, implying that the “opportunity” is about to fall to someone else, and his return is a matter of some urgency! Concerning the location of the finished work Bishop’s view is unique:

“When the stupendous figure was unveiled, the Florentines chose to place it in the city square, next to Donatello’s statue of the Hebrew heroine Judith. Donatello’s work bore the inscription, “Kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtues: behold the neck pride severed by humility.” [The quote refers to the severed head of the tyrannical King Holofernes.] Donatello’s and Michelangelo’s defiant works of art were intended as talismans against tyranny” (Bishop, p. 203).

By placing Michelangelo’s work near that of the acknowledged master of the previous generation, even the average Florentine could make the connection between the two Davids, and the two master sculptors. As we will see later however, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this was in any way a spiritual wedding between the Medieval revival preached by Savonarola and Florentine republican civic virtues.

Cunningham, L.S., Reich, J. J. (2006). Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities, 6th ed. Alternate Volume, Instructors’ ed. Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth.

Cunningham and Reich (2006) help to demonstrate that the “second group” noted by Sayre, may have been something of a momentary lapse—a hiccough– in an otherwise tolerant humanist environment:

“It has been said that Botticelli’s paintings, the Davids of both Donatello and Michelangelo, and the general skepticism of a mind like Leonardo’s are all symptoms of the general pagan tone of Laurentian Florence—That Athens and Rome, in short, seemed far more important to fifteenth-century Florence than did Jerusalem. There is no doubt that the Classical revival was central to Florentine culture. Neither is their any doubt that the times had little patience with, or admiration for, Medieval culture” (p. 297).

And even more to my point:

“…the Golden age of Lorenzo had ended with a spasm of medieval piety. The influence of the city and its ideals had, however, already spread far beyond its boundaries” (p.299).

To say the very least, with or without the skirt, Sayre’s “second group” could not have been very large, or very influential for very long. It was certainly not enough by itself to extinguish the momentum of the Renaissance as practiced among the Florentines. Nonetheless there are persistent voices in the academic community who seem to tilt toward a more tarnished view (if they are indeed in earnest):

Bohm-Duchen, M. (1992).  Themes in Art: The Nude. London: Scala Publications.

Monica Bohm-Duchen wrote concerning the connection between the pagan gods of Greece and Rome and the representations of figures during the Renaissance. The theme had been broadly addressed first, (I believe) by Kenneth Clark, in his series of lectures on the Nude in 1953. [n.b. reprinted in Clark, K. (1984) The Nude: A Study in Idea Form. The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts 1953, National Gallery of Art Washington. (Bollingen Series xxxv. 2) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.] One of the remarkable qualities of Feminist Critical Theory as expressed by Bohm-Duchen in the passage cited here is its remarkable ability to be apparently surly, probably inept and definitely humorless all in the same exasperated breath:

“Just as Venus was resurrected, albeit in a form modified by a Christian Conscience, so, too, Apollo emerged from centuries of disapproval into the light of fifteenth-century Europe. In contrast to Venus, who was soon to become a synonym for feminine desirability, the forms he took were various, the most famous of them probably being Michelangelo’s David…” (p.19).

She continues:

“Conceived as a Florentine tribute to Republican Rome, this statue is a typical example of the use of classical nudity to embody abstract virtues. However, it can also be seen, at least in retrospect, as a reflection of the sculptor’s homosexuality. … Even in its own day the David’s nudity was controversial. …the statue was stoned during the night, probably out of a sense of moral outrage on the part of decent citizens, and was soon made respectable by the now familiar addition of a fig leaf” (p. 21).

If one imagines that my earlier summary analysis of Bohm-Duchen’s argument was unfair or dismissive—I can only respond—“well, she started it!” Given the fact that David stood in the square for over three hundred years, unclad, inoffensive, and unmolested—after the fig-leaf or copper skirt’s removal, I think it is safe to conclude that David’s “naughty bits” were never seriously threatened. And whatever protective measures might have been taken, if taken at all, were brought about through an abundance of caution, not from the desire to preserve the “moral” climate of an adolescent Florentine public. Everyone in Florence at the time knew the statue was fragile—and everyone could see which bits were the most fragile; one can only imagine (given the fierce sense of pride shared by the vast majority of Florentine citizens for their city and for their statues) the punishment to be meted out to anyone caught desecrating this particular monument—in any way. And I am sure that everyone understood that point as well! We will see later, in an ironic contrast, how even an unruly mob can sometimes police itself, or not—to suit the occasion or circumstances.

Benton, J. R., DiYanni, R. (2002). Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities, Combined ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Janetta Rebold Benton and Robert Diyanni provide the current inquiry with what I believe to be one of the more poignant accounts from the life and career of Michelangelo. Michelangelo saw himself as a sculptor; in the hierarchy of medieval crafts and arts sculpture was near the bottom—the only less desirable occupation was what we would call architecture. Painting, Music, Poetry and Philosophy were all considered to be superior arts—although not necessarily in that order. The authors point out the theoretical differences between Leonardo and Michelangelo for example:

“Unlike Leonardo, who believed that beauty was found in Nature, Michelangelo believed that beauty was found in the imagination, and it is the power of the human imagination that his sculptures constantly evoke” (pp. 318-319).

For the most part Benton and DiYanni’s discussion is unremarkable and virtually indistinguishable from other academic accounts concerning the creation and installation of the David in the Piazza. This is so true I think that many students (and perhaps those who should know better) try to surgically remove the authors’ account from the book and transplant it to their own works. I am sure that the reasons are various—many students assume that their current teachers are only familiar with their own texts, and would not therefore recognize words stolen from another text taught in another class [Humanities 101 for example]. Others simply have such a low opinion and estimation of the teacher’s relative intelligence that they think that the teacher might not notice even if they are otherwise familiar with the text. It becomes a kind of game of teacher baiting—a practice exercised not by the poorer, less able students—but by the brighter—lazier students.

I (for one) do not always feel compelled to react or respond to this “baiting”—I use the term deliberately. Those of you who are familiar with Elizabethan theater [probably not those of you who “took” HUM 101—because it is not mentioned in the Benton and DiYanni text] may know about the practice of bear baiting. A bear was staked in the middle of the ring where spectators normally stood during theatrical performances, and a group of specially trained dogs on leashes—were allowed to provoke the bear until the bear slumped in exhaustion—at which point the dogs could be cut off the leash and the bear killed. It was of course a betting sport—with the house getting a cut of the proceeds (and possibly the kill). The logical question posed by the book keepers (for the house) “will you take the dogs?” or “Will you bet the bear?” Betting the bear, as one can imagine, was a very “low percentage” bet –it paid well if one won…but somehow the bears seldom ever did. Only a very small percentage of the money made in the Elizabethan playhouses was from the actual plays themselves. Most of the money was made backstage in the tiring rooms and the Gentleman’s room—but that is another story.

So, after that interlude, back to the matter at hand.

The comment recorded by Benton and DiYanni that is of interest to us in our current discussion, is possibly apocryphal –but still consistent with at least the terribilita reputation that Michelangelo had among some of his peers. If in fact it is true, I suspect that time, memory and academic modesty have conspired to “clean it up”.  Benton and DiYanni report that after Michelangelo was recalled to Rome by the pope in 1505,

“…the pope decided that finishing the painting of the Sistine Chapel, a project initiated by his predecessor [and uncle] Sixtus IV should take priority[ ] Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “painting is for women, sculpture is for men” (p.319-320).

Michelangelo, if he said this probably did not say this exactly; there is no doubt that Michelangelo preferred sculpting to painting; when he finished the ceiling, he signed it “Michelangelo, Sculptor”. There has been much speculation concerning Michelangelo’s sexuality; but I don’t believe that anyone would have considered him effeminate—and I think that Michelangelo (regardless of orientation) saw painting as an effete pursuit—something enjoyed by dandies like his rival Raphael (who was or were younger, handsomer and more popular than Michelangelo—and was or were no doubt, always ingratiating himself or themselves on Michelangelo’s other rival Bramante.) I am absolutely certain that Michelangelo hated the politics and vagaries of the papal court—and it was against these [and those who flourished in that environment] that he would launch a *colloquial epithet*; it was surely somewhat diffident yet nonetheless a vulgar attack, not a simple disparaging remark aimed at women.

Marquardt, J., Eskilson, S. (2005). Frames of Reference: Art, History and the World. New York: McGraw Hill.

Marquardt and Eskilson wrote:

“Donatello’s David […] was made for the Medici Family’s private sculpture garden. Its proportions and the twisted pose (-contrapposto-) reflect a broad Classical influence. The sculpture was in fact one of the first free-standing nudes to be made since antiquity. Donatello’s David remains controversial; the warrior appears both arrogant and sexualized, toying with the head of Goliath at his feet. Some scholars assert that the Neoplatonic theory of Ficino’s academy lies behind the work’s complex levels of meaning. Homosexuality was widely practiced in ancient Greece and Rome, and Plato himself extolled the educational value of homoerotic relationships. The sexual suggestiveness of this work fits the context of its commission for a private collection.

In contrast, Michelangelo’s David […] was destined for a public square. It remains the most widely admired statue of a male nude. The citizens of Florence saw David [The biblical figure—so not a title—so not italicized] as a courageous figure who had fought and defeated a more powerful enemy and therefore as an allegory of their own struggles. Michelangelo was able to carve his David from an expensive single piece of marble that had been abandoned by several earlier sculptors, a task that was no small feat technically. The work was completed soon after the expulsion of the sometimes tyrannical Medici, who were exiled in 1494 [is ten years soon?] (they would return to power in 1515), and has the mature, powerful physique and confident self-awareness that made it an icon of the Renaissance ideal. There is a certain irony in the fact that Donatello’s statue of David [no italics] was thrown over by the mob that ransacked the Medici palace on their defeat” (pp.148-149).

If you have been reading along, you understand how Eskilson and Marquardt can make that statement and why. I believe you will also understand why Sayre’s account of the creation and installation of Michelangelo’s David is flawed.

From the beginning of his discussion, Sayre neglects the shift from the church location intended for the statue to the secular primacy it won—albeit after some “deliberation.” Sayre often discusses “reading art” through formal elements—yet he neglects the fact that Michelangelo undercut the hair (to emphasize the head) and enlarged the hands, head and face so that they could be seen (and “read”) from forty feet below on the street. This physical displacement of the statue is symptomatic of and fundamental to an understanding of the political and intellectual climate in Florence at the time of the Renaissance. It demonstrates not an awareness that we may have of the changes in their culture—but the awareness that the Florentines themselves had of the change from a fundamentalist, biblical, medieval world view of God and the Church—with the Church at the center—to one of Humanist Ideals, Natural Philosophy, with Man at the center.

David--not so traditional level


Sayre in large part neglects the pagan and Neoplatonic origins of the images (of Apollo especially) that inform Michelangelo’s work—and more importantly he ignores the tolerant atmosphere that infused the very air in Florence. The David was posed so as to gaze at the Republican Rome of antiquity—even as it embodied Republican Florence of its present. Michelangelo’s David, furthermore, must be seen as foil to the work of Donatello—and not as an extension of it.

Donatello’s David depicts a homoerotic fantasy of the decadent elite who visited the Medici’s gardens; Michelangelo’s statue stands above banal sensuous concerns as if he were akin to those Greek warriors who entered battle naked and ready for death. In this sense Michelangelo’s David was beyond sex and secularism and has become a pious pagan warrior. The altar where he stood was the altar of the exchange of ideas, not of prayers and supplication. This is precisely why a girdle of leaves was not required to protect him. David’s nudity is emblematic of Florentine strength [in adversity], Republican virtue [remember too that “virtue” derives from the Latin root “Vir” or “Man”] and individual manhood [to attack or insult his manhood—is to attack all of the men of Florence].

The political context of Michelangelo’s David, contrary to what Sayre tells us, was not “clear” until Michelangelo uncovered it—he worked on it in secret; he was known by reputation, as a braggart, a talented terribilita! The stone was not “expensive”—it was old, brittle, unused and probably useless—it had been hacked on by someone else who apparently didn’t know what he was doing…. It was the first colossal free standing nude since ancient times—proving that Michelangelo had surpassed the Master Donatello—Michelangelo created something astounding from almost nothing—like the unknown and unknowable masters of Antiquity. The “political” and the cultural contexts of Michelangelo’s David were now co-equal in that, a man created this—perfection.

Adams, L.S. (2005) A History of Western Art, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.

Benton, J. R., DiYanni, R. (2002). Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities, Combined ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bohm-Duchen, M. (1992).  Themes in Art: The Nude. London: Scala Publications.

Cunningham, L.S., Reich, J. J. (2006). Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities, 6th ed. Alternate Volume, Instructors’ ed. Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth.

Hardt, Frederick (1993) Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Vol. 2, 4th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Marquardt, J., Eskilson, S. (2005). Frames of Reference: Art, History and the World. New York: McGraw Hill.

Perry, M., Baker, W., & Pfeiffer-Hollinger, P. (2003). The Humanities in the Western Tradition: Ideas and Aesthetics, Vol 2. Renaissance to Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.


Sayre, H.M. (2010) A World of Art, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.


Stokstad, Marilyn (1999). Art History, Revised ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams.



© [copyright 2010]

Kelly W. Knox, M.A.

All rights reserved.

December 08, 2010.













2 thoughts on “Discovering David…

  1. Write extra, thats all I’ve to say. Literally, it appears as if you relied on the video to make your point. You undoubtedly know what youre speaking about, why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your weblog when you possibly can be giving us something informative to read?

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