365 Days of Art: August 16 – Michelangelo Signs Contract to Work on David

August 16, 2014

David by Michelangelo, in the Accademia Gallery

August 16, 1501

Michelangelo signs a contract with the Office of Works of Florence Cathedral to sculpt his famous David. The road to get to this point has been a long one, though.

About 100 years earlier, the same Office decides to commission twelve sculptures to serve as buttresses for Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. The first terra cotta figure is completed by Donatello in 1410. For some reason, it takes 50 years to complete the second statue, made by an artist named Agostino, who is also commissioned for the third sculpture. For this one, the Office specifically envisions David, and purchases a block of the finest marble, from the Carrara quarry, and deliver it to Florence at considerable expense. Agostino never gets beyond the stage of roughing out some basic shapes, and after two years, he leaves the project.

For some reason, the project lays dormant for the next ten years; then, in 1476, the Office commissions an artist named Rossellino to step in, but they terminate his contract almost immediately. Another 25 years go by (if you’re keeping track, that’s 91 years total) while the block of marble sits outside in the cathedral workshop’s yard.

The sight of that large piece of stone must have worn on the members of the Office as it gets exposed to the weather, and on top of that, it has already cost quite a bit of money and effort. They call it The Giant (in private, I bet they call it a Giant-something else). Even the inventory from 1500 sounds bored and exasperated with the project, listing it as: “a certain figure of marble called David, badly blocked out and supine.”

The Office eventually decides to stand the marble upright and revive the project. They invite several artists, including Leonardo, to examine the marble, in the hopes that their original vision can be realized.

Surprisingly, because he’s only 26 years old, Michelangelo is the one who convinces the Office that he has something to offer.

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