The place is the Piazza San Firenze in Florence, Italy. A large crowd is silently gathered looking up in awe at the immense statue of David. It has taken the artist some four years to complete the seventeen foot tall statue, but the result takes your breath away. David stands there naked with his left hand holding a sling on his shoulder while his right hand with its veins visible in the white Carrera marble is down by his side. He is ready to do battle with Goliath. The statue is carved from one huge block of unwanted marble and is 17 feet tall weighing some 12,000 pounds.
Few sculptures are as famous as Michelangelo’s David, and if you’ve ever seen it, you’ll know why. This masterpiece of the Renaissance period was completed by Michelangelo when he was just 29 years old. The marble block had been sitting around for forty years before Michelangelo started work on the David. Two artists had attempted to sculpt the marble, but abandoned their plans because of a flaw in the block. Michelangelo managed to work around the flaw and create the most famous sculpture in the world. Today, over eight million people visit the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence every year so they can marvel at his David.
A couple of weeks ago I picked up one of my dad's old history books as I was examining some books on a shelf in our house. Ever heard of "The Agony and the Ecstasy" by Irving Stone. This is an excellent biography of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the celebrated 15th century Florentine sculptor. You may remember the name of the author because Stone wrote another famous biography about Vincent Van Gogh entitled "Lust of Life".
What an incredible time it must have been in Florence during the Italian Renaissance under the wing of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici). Lorenzo was the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic and a powerful patron of the arts. He sponsored a stable of great artists and poets including Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo who lived under his roof for three years, dining at the family table and participating in discussions with statesmen and philosophers.
At the end of Lorenzo's life, Florence came under the influence of that mad puritan fanatic, the Dominican friar and preacher Girolamo Savonarola who later clashed with the Borgia pope, Alexander VI. He demanded new laws against vice and laxity in the town and denounced Renaissance art. In 1497, he had carnival masks, mirrors, ornaments, nude statues and indecent books and pictures burned in his famous ‘bonfire of the vanities’. After Lorenzo's death in 1492, Savonarola took over establishing a democratic government in Florence. The Medici were driven out and the city of God attempted to reform Italy and the church.
Savonarola's triumph was too great not to arouse jealousy and hatred. A new political party was formed to oppose Savonarola and Alexander VI invited him to Rome to pronounce his prophesies before the Vatican. But Savonarola avoided the trap and pleaded illness. As Savonarola's prestige increased, the Pope tried again to win him over by offering him a cardinal's hat. Savonarola replied: "A red hat. I want a hat of blood." Powerful enemies continued to plot against him and eventually gained enough support to have him excommunicated. He was put to death on May 23, 1498 in the Piazza della Signoria along with his most ardent followers, Fra Dominico and Fra Salvestro. You may remember the scene of Savonarola being burned at the stake in the television drama series "The Borgias". Today, there is renewed interest in the Italian Renaissance with the release of the new drama series "Leonardo" starring Aidan Turner of Poldark fame.
In Stone's book there is a description of the famous party of the Company of the Cauldron to celebrate Michelangelo's good fortune in getting the commission for the David sculpture. Michelangelo overhears Leonardo declaring that "sculpture is so much less intellectual than painting... I spent years at it and I tell you from experience that painting is far more difficult and reaches greater perfection." Stone writes: "Michelangelo felt his spine stiffen. He glanced over his shoulder. Leonardo's back was to him. Again a rage rose in his bowels. He yearned to spin Leonardo around, smash him in his beautiful face with the sculptor's fist he held in such contempt. Then quickly he moved to the other end of the room, hurt not only for himself but for all the marble carvers. One day he would make Leonardo eat those words." Not all was peace and joy among those fabled Florentine artists, there were also great passions and jealousies.
Later in life, Michelangelo quarrelled with Pope Julius II, the warrior Pope, who wanted him to create a bronze statue of himself. Michelangelo didn't want to do it, because he felt he knew nothing about making a mold for a bronze statue. He struggled with the 11-foot-bronze, but finally completed it to the satisfaction of the Holy Father. Unfortunately, the bronze was later sacrificed in the war with Bologna and ended up as part of a canon in the city's defences. After the bronze, Julius refused to allow Michelangelo to return to his beloved marble carvings and hired him to do the impossible: paint the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Again he protested that painting was not his thing, but Julius forced him to accept the commission. It took Michelangelo four years working alone to complete all the Old Testament scenes and still he struggled in his relationship with the Pope. He had originally been hired to sculpt a mausoleum for the Holy Father after his death - a large statue of Moses and numerous biblical characters - to be installed in St. Peter's Basilica but the project was delayed for years. The quarrels with Pope Julius II adds zest to Stone's novel.
Another interesting chapter in the book has to do with the feuding quarry workers in the Carrara quarry north of Florence when Julius demanded that all the white marble for his tomb come from the neighbouring Piestrasanto district. Michelangelo visited the site up Monte Altissimo in the Apuan Alps and found the marble of his dreams: ‟a marble of compact grain, crystalline, and reminiscent of sugar.” He then spent a year or more trying to build a road up the mountain until his then benefactor, the capricious and spendthrift Pope Leo X interrupted the project due to a lack of funds.
Stone's biography impresses in many ways because it deals with the sculptor's intellectual anguish, his struggle to look for new ways of expressing himself through the arduous task of chipping away at large blocks of marble. Here is a quote from the book as Michelangelo works on Julius' tomb:
‟His David had been young , knowing he could conquer everything he set out after; his Moses was ripe in years, but with the inner strength to move mountains and form nations. These new creatures of his making had an aura of sadness about them, of pity; they were asking the most painful and unanswerable of dilemmas: for what purpose are we put on earth? To live our cycle? To perpetuate it? A continuous chain of living flesh, binding the burden of one generation to another? Before his concern had been with the marble and what he could extract from it. Now his concern shifted to human emotion and what he could portray of the philosophic meaning of life”.
This is a remarkable book about a fascinating and hugely prolific artist, a humble man whose only desire in life was to be allowed to carve marble.
*Originally posted in December 2021