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Michelangelo’s David-Looking for the Sublime

The most famous statue in the world still has the power to inspire

David (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Marble. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

What tends to strike viewers when they first see Michelangelo’s David is its size: it stands at over 5 metres from top to bottom, so that when you’re standing beneath it, your only choice is to look upwards.

In this way, the statue looms. It rises like a column, dominating the environment of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence where it is currently housed.

Then, after a few more moments of looking, some people begin to sense that David’s proportions are a little off-kilter. For a heroic statue, his hips and legs are curiously narrow, whilst his neck and head are weighty and substantial.

The meddling of proportions was intentional. Michelangelo carved the statue to meet its original commission, to stand along the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral alongside a series of other prophets. As such, the statue would have been seen from street level; Michelangelo’s solution was to follow classical methods by enlarging the proportions upwards so that from below everything would look correct.

Yet there’s no escaping the fact that this is a sublime work from the hands of an exceptional artist. And it isn’t only art history that confers greatness on this marble sculpture: Michelangelo’s contemporaries thought it was far too good to place high on the roof of the cathedral and instead placed it in the busiest square of the city. In the Piazza della Signoria, where a copy still stands, it could hardly have been more prominent.

And then there is Giorgio Vasari’s famously gushing judgement: “Anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by another sculptor, living or dead.” Praise indeed from the first historian of art…

The young hero

The statue depicts the youthful David, the future king of Israel. Over his left shoulder he holds a slingshot with which he has (or is about to) fling a rock at Goliath, the Philistine giant. The rock will hit Goliath in the centre of his forehead and Goliath will fall to the ground, whereupon David will cut off his head to finish the fight.

Despite the valiant narrative, Michelangelo has given David a decidedly brooding posture. His distant gaze, and the way his arm hangs impassively at his side, seem to tip the scales away from heroic vigour towards a more introspective poise.

What we are looking at, then, is David in a moment of contemplation. Most interpretations conclude that the sculpture shows David before his battle with Goliath, sizing up his opponent. The furrowed brow, the thick stare, and the veins bulging from his lowered right hand, make the case for a man calmly sizing up his enemy.

David (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Marble. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

Yet I always found David to be a lonely figure. He appears somewhat companionless, an outsider even. I take this ambiguity as part of the statue’s meaning. For this is really a portrait of a noble figure, intended to represent the psychological balance of the whole man rather than a moment in a narrative drama. David the warrior is easy to glorify, but David the honourable, worthy, distinguished yet also real, vulnerable, contemplative, is a much more complex prospect. And works of art that aim at such complexity tend to last the test of time.

The hardest block of marble

The statue of David was also an opportunity for the young Michelangelo to display his unprecedented skills as a sculptor. He was 26 at the time of the work’s commission, having just returned to Florence in 1501 after a period working in Rome. Famously, the statue was carved from a single piece of Carrara marble, a huge block of stone that had been rejected or abandoned by at least two other artists prior to Michelangelo’s undertaking.

The marble block had languished untouched for over a quarter of a century. Another Florentine sculptor by the name of Agostino di Duccio had been assigned the task originally. Beginning in 1464, Duccio wrestled with the massive piece of stone, getting as far as marking out the legs, feet and torso, perhaps even chiselling a hole between the legs. Ten years later another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was commissioned to take over from Agostino, who seems to have left the project midway. Rossellino didn’t last long either, and the unfinished sculpture remained untouched for the next 26 years.

The block that Michelangelo inherited was in rough condition. In September 1501, the church authorities settled on the 26-year-old as the next to try his hand at the imposing mass of marble. Michelangelo had recently proved his worth by carving the emotionally powerful Pietà, showing the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. By April 1504, the statue of David was complete.

Detail of ‘David’ (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

David’s languid pose

How does a person look when they are standing upright? In Egyptian sculpture, the answer to this question emphasised the natural symmetry of the human body. Egyptian sculpture was front-on, with level shoulders, symmetrical arms and hips.

These traits passed onto early Greek sculpture. Yet one of the most interesting aspects of the development of sculpture in Greece was the inception of a new type of posture. Known since the Renaissance as contrapposto, this nuanced but fundamental invention offered a turning point in the course of naturalistic representation.

The contrapposto technique can be readily seen in this sculpture, the so-called “Spear Carrier” attributed to the Greek sculptor Polykleitos. The image shown below is a marble Roman copy made after the bronze original, which has been subsequently lost.

Doryphoros by Polykleitos (Spear Carrier), Roman copy after bronze original of c. 450 BC. National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy

Notice the distribution of weight, being borne on one leg whilst the other is relaxed. The deliberate asymmetry of the legs instigates movement throughout the rest of the body. The hips tilt, thereby causing the torso to squeeze on one side and open on the other. In this way, broader symmetry gives way to a more flexible pose overall; one arm is raised (holding the missing spear) whilst the other hangs down to one side. The head is turned as if gazing into the distance. The sculpture can be viewed from many angles — seen “in the round” — and still deliver its full impact.

During the Italian Renaissance, this classical pose was explicitly revived. Taking inspiration from Roman sculptures that were being unearthed across Italy at the time, Italian sculptors reawakened and expanded the method. Indeed, contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “counterpoise” and was coined in the time of the Renaissance.

David (1501–1504) by Michelangelo. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy

Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is probably the most famous statue that makes use of contrapposto. David’s left leg is emphatically relaxed, adding further weight onto the right leg. The important tilt of the hips is there; along with it the right arm hangs long, almost heavily, so that the entire torso and shoulders lean to one side. In all, the arrangement is asymmetrical yet harmonised, yielding a gentle S-shape in the body to give a sense of serene contemplation predicated on muscular strength.

A Florentine emblem

With its imposing naturalism and understated sense of self-confidence, the figure of David soon began to attract attention. A 30-strong committee gathered to reconsider its purpose — including venerable artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangallo. Given that the six-tonne statue was probably too heavy to lift to the roof of the cathedral, the committee considered several alternative locations, with the Piazza della Signoria — the political heart of Florence — eventually selected.

David in the Piazza della Signoria, with the leaf loin covering added by 16th-century city officials. Photo taken between 1860–1870 by John Brampton Philpot

First, the great statue had to be moved the half-mile from Michelangelo’s workshop behind Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral to the piazza. The event was captured in a diary entry from a local herbalist Luca Landucci:

“It was midnight, May 14th, and the Giant was taken out of the workshop. They even had to tear down the archway, so huge he was. Forty men were pushing the large wooden cart where David stood protected by ropes, sliding it through town on trunks. The Giant eventually got to Signoria Square on June 8th 1504, where it was installed next to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, replacing Donatello’s bronze sculpture of Judith and Holofernes”.

The statue soon became a symbol of the Republican ideals of Florence. Fearless, sovereign and self-sufficient, it seemed to say so much about the independent spirit of the city.

It remained in the Piazza della Signoria until 1873, when it was moved into the Galleria dell’Accademia to protect it from weathering. A replica was placed in the Piazza della Signoria in 1910.

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The Artist’s Models who made the Renaissance Masterpieces Possible

And their controversial relationships with their maestros

When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.

By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–1599 or 1602

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.

Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute,and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.

Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.

That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.

Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486)

Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.

Given the nickname, La Bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta), she is present in many of Botticelli’s paintings, such as Venus and Mars, 1485 and La Bella Simonetta, 1480–85. Sometimes, she can even appear multiple times in the same painting, as appears to be the case in Primavera, 1482.

As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.

DaVinci

Leonardo DaVinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?)

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.

While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.

Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.

The Face Behind the Art

Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.

Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.

Mystery of Anghiari Battle by Leonardo da Vinci “Cerca Trova-Who Seeks Find” War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of the Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

Fresco – Water Pigments (7.60 x 13 metres) 1568-1571 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Battle of Marciano
On the eastern wall of the Hall of the Five Cents, the third fresco of the Siena War depicts the decisive battle of Marciano, also known as the Battle of Scannagallo in Val di Chiana. 

This battle saw the scathing defeat of the Sienese commanded by a rebel Florentine nobleman, Piero Strozzi, on August 2, 1554. 

Strozzi was the head of an army composed of French, Grisons and Florentine political refugees. 

Shortly before noon, the Imperial Florentine cavalry attacked the French cavalry, whose rout can be seen in the left part of the fresco. 

The French infantry then attempted a counter-attack which was valiantly repelled by that of the Florentines who crushed the French and Grisons, as seen in the ballet of flags at the top of the painting. 

The Sienese casualties were terrible for the French and Grisons: 4,000 dead and as many injured. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: “Cerca Trova”, “Who Seeks Find”

Of the 130 enemy banners, the troops of Duke Cosimo I of Medici took over 103 of them, who were then exposed for several days in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
The fresco of this battle of Marciano also became famous because of the inscription that can be seen on one of the enemy banners, “Cerca Trova”, “Who Seeks Find”. 

Many saw a hidden message from Giorgio Vasari indicating that behind the wall of his fresco was a second wall with the famous Battle of Anghiari painted by Leonardo da Vinci. 

A hypothesis that acquired great fame because of the author Dan Brown and his book “Inferno”. 

Dan Brown staged his hero Robert Langdon in the Hall of the Five Hundred of Palazzo Vecchio to decode Vasari’s secret message. 

In 2012, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, even allowed a team of researchers to drill small holes through Vasari’s fresco in an attempt to find behind it the remains of Leonardo da Vinci’s. 

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
But the endoscopic micro-cameras used found nothing to confirm the presence of this work by Leonardo da Vinci. 

In October 2020, the hypothesis of a battle of Anghiari hidden under the fresco of Vasari was definitely ruled out by expert Cecilia Frosinini, director of the Painting Restoration Department of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. 

After years of studies and research carried out collectively with experts and academics, she published a book that definitively concludes the debate: “The Great Hall of Palazzo Vecchio and the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci. From architectural configuration to decorative device” Olschki editions, 2019 — 596 pages. 

The conclusion of Cecilia Frosinini and the group of experts with whom she collaborated is that Leonardo da Vinci never painted, even partially, the Battle of Anghiari on the wall of the Hall of the Five Hundred. 

Only preparatory sketches, cartons, would have been made by de Vinci. 

How to explain the presence of this “Cerca Trova” “Who Seeks Find” on the flag of the Florentine exiles?

The Mystery of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci: Cerca Trova, Who Seeks Find , Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in Italy
Mystery Anghiari Leonardo da Vinci
For this, we must recall the verses of one of Florence’s most famous exiles, Dante Alighieri, who wrote in the “Purgatory” of the Divine Comedy (I 70-72): 

“Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta”

“He seeks the freedom that is so dear, as knows who, for her, refused life.” 

The refusal of life is an allusion by Dante to the suicide of Caton, who preferred the immortality of a free soul. For Dante, political freedom is spiritual and ethical freedom. 

If tyranny deprives us of the exercise of free will, of our soul, death must be preferred to a sworn existence. 

Thus, the warrior who lets himself be killed in a crowd of enemies rather than surrender to mercy is violence suffered by the righteous and wise man. 

It is for this reason that the king of France who supported the Florentine rebels had offered them about twenty green banners carrying this verse of Dante: “Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara”. 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Battle of Marciano
The “Cerca trova” seen on the green banner of the Florentine rebels in Vasari’s fresco therefore corresponds well to Dante’s verses. 

On the other hand, Vasari diverted its meaning sarcastically to the benefit of the glory of Duke Cosimo I of Medici. 

The word freedom no longer appears, and for a good reason, since for Vasari it can only be on the side of Florence and in fact his “Cerca trova” can be summed up to “who seeks me finds me! or developed to “Who seeks false freedom while fighting Florence finds punishment!” 

Vasari’s frescoes in the Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio had no other purpose but to affirm the greatness of Duke Cosimo I, and for this reason, the inscription “Cerca Trova” can only be seen in this context as an element of political propaganda, without hidden mystery. 

War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
War of Siena, Battle of Marciano or Scannagallo in Val di Chiana, Hall of Five Cents of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence