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David: The neglected block of marble given to the 26-year old Michelangelo to complete


Michelangelo was famously quoted as saying: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to release it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free”.

On this day, 16 August, 1501 Michelangelo signs a contract with Operai (the Office of Works of Florence Cathedral), for creating David — now considered a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture — at the age of 26. But the story of the sculpture dates back to 1464 when Operai contacted Agostino di Duccio to create a sculpture of David. This was part of the ongoing project by the Arte della Lana, who had plans to commission a series of twelve large Old Testament sculptures for the buttresses of the Florence cathedral.


The first statue, a figure of Joshua in terra cotta was completed by Donatello in 1410 and later on Agostino was commissioned for the second and third statues. In 1463 the second statue of Hercules was completed by Agostino and the commission for David was granted to him the next year, in 1464. However after working on it for two years, managing to mark out the legs, feet and drapery he left the project.

This marble block that had been purchased from the Carrara quarry was left untouched for the next 35 years. Although the artist Antonio Rossellino was roped in by the Office in 1476, his contract was terminated immediately. The large piece of stone remained in the courtyard workshop of Florence Cathedral exposed to the weather and to the elements in the yard.


“The Giant” as they called it was again taken into serious consideration by the authorities in 1501 and many artists were invited to examine the marble and revive the colossal block of stone to a figure originally envisioned by the cathedral. Michelangelo got the news while at Rome, returned to his native city for the challenging work and the rest is history.

He was only 26 years old when he signed the contract to sculpt David from a second-hand piece of marble that had deteriorated during its years of negligence.

The statue of David is a Renaissance interpretation of a common ancient Greek theme of standing heroic male nude, and is characterized with the contrapposto pose which was considered a distinctive feature of antique sculpture in the high renaissance.

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