Walking in the footsteps of Michelangelo’s David


Emma Bovill

May 10, 2023

If you’re stirred and moved by art, you must go to Florence. You really must. The Tuscan city consistently features in journalistic hot lists for art lovers, often ranking at the very top even in articles aiming for breadth of both geography and genre. But just because something is obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of note and it’s a fool who ignores the path often trod purely out of cultural snobbery.

All that’s needed to transcend the guidebook, to seek a depth and richness of experience, is to feel and not just think. Take a moment to etch in your neural pathways the nuanced, deep reactions you had on encountering Renaissance masterpieces, and not just the fact you saw them. The hands that made the works before you belonged to complex and flawed individuals striving for expression and impact. They will have succeeded if you only let them.

In a city historically defined by polygonal and considered intellectual and creative interactions – between patrons and artists, politicians and architects, masters and apprentices and among scholars and scientists – the natural step to gain knowledge is to seek conversation. For while Florence may be an open book for the eager student, ‘it opens its heart only to those who know how to listen’ says guide Chiara D’Allesandro, with whom I had the delight of spending an afternoon walking in the footsteps of Michelangelo’s David.

The original of Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell'Accademia

A Napolitana by birth, Chiara brings a fervour for Firenze to a tour of its treasures that only someone who has chosen to make the city their home can do. Despite having now lived in Florence for 18 years, she exhibits a natural curiosity and wonder for it that appears undulled by repetition or time. She didn’t blink when I said I wanted to get close to Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell'Accademia before taking it in, unhesitatingly leading me, my eyes trained down, with care to the foot of the sculpture before inviting me to look up.

She asked what my reaction was with genuine interest. Having already confronted the plaster replica in the V&A museum, the imposing size of the original was not what struck me, nor the ‘proportion, beauty and excellence’ praised by 16th century art historian Giorgio Vasari. It was its imperfections. The weathering it endured over centuries stood outside in the Piazza della Signoria. The observable crack in its left arm, broken off during a riot in 1527. The damage inflicted on its toes inside the Galleria dell'Accademia in 1991. The unmistakeable ‘taroli’ in the marble which had deterred other sculptors before Michelangelo accepted the commission.

A masterpiece of minutiae

Vasari is right of course. A critical study of a nearly overwhelming host of works in the Bargello museum, even those by Michelangelo himself, doesn’t reveal a piece to rival the sculptor’s David. You almost feel sorry for those working in his wake. The true mastery of Michelangelo’s David is in its humanity which is palpable and impossible to ignore. The throbbing jugular, bulging veins of the right hand, clutching the stone, and intense stare of the figure, depicted before the battle with Goliath (in contrast to earlier bronzes by Donatello and Verrocchio which feature the giant’s severed head underfoot) draw you in to a story that reverberates on and on.

An hour and a half passed as Chiara and I indulged in eager two-way discussion over the David, simultaneously exploring Renaissance ideals, the perils of patronage and the characteristics of (and interplay between) Michelangelo and his contemporaries at various vantage points around the sculpture’s base. I noticed fellow visitors occasionally leaning in to listen intently. The David inspires a form of pilgrimage but my reasons for visiting were not so lofty as to miss a photo opportunity, which serves to neatly capture the sculpture’s scale.

Dwarfed by the David

Reluctantly, we left, heading to the Piazza della Signoria (via espresso and stuffed schiacciata) to see the former home of Michelangelo’s David, and now Luigi Arrighetti’s marble replica, outside the Palazzo Vecchio. Arrighetti’s sculpture too is now experiencing the effects of exposure to the elements. Stopping en route to take in the original intended location for the David, atop the domineering Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, verges on the surreal. With restoration underway on the adjacent Baptistery with the use of hydraulic cranes, how the statue would ever have been hoisted to the roof of the Duomo centuries before is extraordinary to imagine.

Michelangelo’s approach to sculpting was to reveal figures from within the rock. ‘The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work,’ he is quoted as saying. ‘It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.’ Technically speaking, all the intricacies on the back of the David, from the texture of the sling to the curvature of the spine, the muscularity of the contrapposto pose to the fingernails of the right hand, would not have been visible from the piazza below when on the roof of the cathedral. It’s surplus to requirement and yet it’s still there.

Details on the back of the David

The details of the David, the many and varied narratives that can be drawn out from it, as if it were in some ways alive, are what makes the sculpture so compelling. ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’ is another quote attributed to Michelangelo to describe his process. There is undeniably something of the spiritual in his creation that goes beyond the biblical figure depicted or the sculptor’s own faith. You can choose to ignore it, or you can let it flood you with mysticality and sensuality that you can carry with you beyond your sojourn in Florence.

As our tour drew to a close, Chiara recommended I go on to the Piazzale Michelangelo, created by architect Giuseppe Poggi in 1869 as part of alterations to Florence during its brief reign as capital of a united Italy. Powered by pistachio gelato, the soft ice cream melting rapidly in the early evening sun and dripping down my wrist in rivulets in what seemed a curious echo of the rain damage to Arrighetti’s marble, I wound my way up the ramps to the popular viewpoint over Florence. While home to a bronze replica of the David, its base designed by Poggi, the Piazzale is more of an ode to the city as a whole (and to those in love), than to Michelangelo.

Michelangelo's tomb at the Basilica di Santa Croce

An odyssey with the David is incomplete without a visit to the final resting place of Michelangelo, the Basilica di Santa Croce, where the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo and Rossini are also found. Contemplating the sepulchre, adorned by figures representing personifications of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, I was moved to hear a tour guide speak with undiluted reverence to her enraptured audience. The Italian proved no barrier, hearing her eulogise about Michelangelo with such passion turned her native tongue into a universal one. It was a privilege and a fitting close to my meditations on the Renaissance master.


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