There was a giant in the city of Florence. It had been there for nearly forty years. And no one knew what to do about it. The giant was an enormous block of stone–marble, to be exact. It stood three times as tall as any man in the city. It was the color of cream. And it was a troublemaker.
~JANE SUTCLIFFE, author of Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
When we think of classic works of art, the most common setting we imagine them in is a museum. But we often forget is that much of this art was not produced with a museum setting in mind. What happens to an art work when it’s taken out of its originally intended context?
James Earle walks us through the statue’s journey, to show how art gains layers of meaning over time. Take the example of Michelangelo’s Statue of David, depicitng the boy hero who slew the giant philistine, Goliath, armed with only his courage and his slingshot.
~Atop their grand cathedral
When Michelangelo began carving a block of pure white marble to communicate this famous Biblical story, the city of Florence intended to place the finish product atop their grand cathedral.
Not only the 17 foot tall statue be easily visible at this height, but its placement alongside 11 other statues of Old Testament heroes towering over onlookers would have a powerful religious significance, forcing the viewer to stare in awe towards the heavens.
But by the time Michelangelo had finished the work, in 1504, the plans for the other statues had fallen through and the city realized that lifting such a large sculpture to the roof would be more difficult than they had thought.
Furthermore, the statue was so detailed and lifelike, down to the bulging veins in David’s arm and the determination on his face, that it seemed to shame to hide it so far from the viewer.
~In front of the Palazzo della Signoria
A council of politicians and artists convened to decide on a new location for the statue. Ultimately voting to place it in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, the town hall and home of the new Republican government.
This new location transformed the statue’s meaning.
The Medici family, who for generations had ruled the city through the control of banking, had recently been exiled, and Florence now saw itself as a free city, threatened on all sides by wealthy and powerful rivals.
David, now the symbol of heroic resistance against overwhelming odds, was placed with his intense stare, now a look of stern warning, focused directly towards Rome, the home of Cardinal Giovanni de Medici.
Though the statue itself had not been altered, its placement changed nearly every aspect of it, from a religious to a political significance.
Though a replica of David still appears at the Palazzo, the original statue was moved in 1873 to the Galleria dell’Acccademia, where it remains today.
In the orderly, quite environment of the museum, alongside numerous half-finished Michelangelo statues, overt religious and political interpretations fall away, giving way to detached contemplation of Michelangelo’s artistic and technical skill.
But even here, the astute viewer may notice that David’s head and hand appear disproportionately large, a reminder that they were made to be viewed from below.