Poor Agostino di Duccio.  He had learned his craft under the most innovative and imaginatively expressive sculptural master of the quattrocento, Donatello.  But Agostino could not have been happy on the mountain in Carrara as he oversaw the quarrying of a shallow, broad block of marble some eighteen feet long.  Over the course of his career, Agostino had taken to bas-relief work of the sort one finds on the façade of a church or a palazzo.  He had created grand works in terra cotta, too, but clay is a thing far different from stone.

Nevertheless, here he was, perhaps because the elders in Florence had decided to make good on a fifty year old plan to erect a huge statue of Donatello's making on a buttress of the cathedral.  Then in his late 70s, Donatello was no longer in a position to give more than nominal attention to such a project.  To Agostino fell the labor. Continue reading….

Last 5 posts by David Byron


  1. rsm says

    Just wanted to say thank you for the post. I learn something new every day, but I think this just short-circuited the tiny part of my brain that regularly deals with art. Thank you.

  2. says

    Brilliant and informative, as always. It's like auditing an art history course. I think I know where you're going, and I'm looking forward to the trip.

    Two quick questions:

    1. The perspective from which David looks worried — even terrified — is from the same level as his head or above, right? Would Michelangelo have expected the statute to be displayed in a multi-level environment where viewers could see the face from that angle? Or is it intentionally obscure, suggesting a comment about that particular emotion?

    2. I've read commentary that David's endowment is a further comment on/reference to terror. Genuine theory, or frat house jabber replacing art house discussion?

  3. says

    Good questions, Ken.

    On the first: after dismissing the idea that a 17-foot high statue with this level of detail belonged way up on the cathedral, the folks who commissioned it decided to place it on a six-foot pedestal right before the Palazzo della Signoria, the city hall of Florence. In these two images (one, two), the fruit of rapid googling, you can see a replica of the statue that now stands in the original location.

    The face would've been visible in part from certain windows of the town hall itself, and in degrees of profile from various windows in the adjacent buildings, and frontally from various temporary structures that were erected from time to time in the Loggia dei Lanzi, the structure off to the right with the huge arcade.

    Most viewers, however, wouldn't have been positioned to see the face from the most transformational angle. So including but obscuring it could indeed count as a commentary about the balance of emotions.

    Obligatory trivia: the original was moved from this location after a fracas in the upper stories of the town hall resulted in the defenestration of a chair that struck the David and damaged it in mid-plummet. The original statue now stands in the Academy.

    To your second question, I think the Seinfeldian theory of fear-based genital reduction, a.k.a. the blinkage/shrinkage effect, is folklore. The better explanation is that Michelangelo was doing what the Greeks whom he aspired to exceed at their own game had done: downplay overt sexuality in favor of skeleto-muscular form. So it's perfectly conventional, as is the fact that this Israelite shepherd, future king of the Jews, was apparently not circumcised on the eighth day.

    Perhaps they couldn't find a moyel who worked in marble.

  4. Rich Rostrom says

    I notice something about the Bernini David – the last photo seems to be reversed from the first two. In the first two, the figure is turned to the right, with the left hand across the body, gripping the stone in the pocket of the sling, and the right hand back holding the cords of
    the sling.

    In the third photo, the figure is turned to the left. A Google image survey indicates that the actual figure is turned to the right. The only facing-left one is a rear view at Artchive – which looks just like the one here.

  5. Rich Rostrom says

    I did note the history of the stone that became Michaelangelo's David – what a fabulous story.

    "Bernini could do almost anything with stone…"

    One thing I find utterly amazing how the visuai and aesthetic genius required to imagine and design such a work comes together with the artisanal skill required to fabricate it. Stone is not an easy or forgiving medium to work in. How many hammer and chisel strokes were required? And all of them had to be right.

    One wonders how many sculptures have been spoiled when almost complete over the centuries.

  6. says

    Thanks for noticing the flipped image, Rich. I've flipped it back. And thanks for your remark about accidents of craftsmanship. I'll be posting about the risks of fabrication in a future installment of this series, and would welcome your further thoughts at that time!

    There's a poignant tale of the elder Michelangelo's dissatisfaction with how the chiseling and drilling had gone during his work on the Florence Pietà. After eight years of intermittent work on a swan song of a statue in which the sculptor had portrayed himself as Nicodemus, an insurmountable flaw or vein in the marble caused one of its legs to drop off. Enraged that there would be no bridging the chasm between his vision and his rock, he smashed the latter with a hammer and then left the remainder to followers to do with it whatever they would.

    The tragedy of this work was offset in some measure by the success, at least to modern eyes, of his Rondanini Pietà, another work for which angle of perception is decisive for interpretation.

  7. Bob says

    Stone sculpture just seems like magic to me. I am incapable of understanding how anyone can conceive and create such works from a single chunk of rock. To even hold that kind of detail in your mind, much less translate it (without error) through your hands to a chisel is.. mind blowing.

  8. Austin says

    "As his pupil Vasari later memorably emphasized, Michelangelo took the stone that the previous builders had rejected and made of it a cornerstone of European sculpture: his statue of David."

    Awesome. A great read as always!

  9. Old Geezer says

    With roughly 160 units toward a 125 unit degree objective, I do not have a college degree because I simply could not wade through the three art history classes that were required. Pontification and obfuscation seemed to be a substitute for actual communication. Now, some 48 years later, you have put this subject into terms that not only make sense, but are a joy to read. Wish you had been around back then.

  10. says

    Absolutely beautiful. A history lesson, art critique, and crash course into the world of sculpture. If my high school teachers had had even an ounce of the devotion to any of the subjects you just touched upon that you have shown, I would have dived head-first into the world of classical sculpture.

  11. says

    Following up on your question…. This view of the replica of David, snapped by one of my former profs, shows how it would be visible from nearby buildings: