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Legends set in stone that have lived for centuries

August 16, On This Day

David, by Michelangelo


Michelangelo\’s statue of David has become one of the most recognized works of Renaissance sculpture; a symbol of strength and youthful beauty.

On August 16, 1501 — a full 520 years ago — the famed Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet of the High Renaissance, at the age of 26, was given the official contract by the Overseers of the Office of Works (the Operai) of the Duomo, Florence\’s cathedral church, to take a large hunk of neglected marble and turn it into a finished work of art.

Interestingly, before Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and others were also consulted. Michelangelo began carving the statue early in the morning on September 13, a month after he was awarded the contract. He would work on the massive statue for more than two years.

David is a 17 ft statue of the Biblical figure David (who took on Goliath), a favoured subject in the art of Florence. Because of the nature of the figure it represented, the statue soon came to symbolize the defence of civil liberties embodied in the Republic of Florence, an independent city-state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states and by the hegemony of the Medici family. The eyes of David, with a warning glare, were fixated towards Rome.

David has stood on display at Florence\’s Galleria dell\’Accademia since 1873. In addition to the full-sized replica occupying the spot of the original in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, a bronze version overlooks Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo.

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The plaster cast of David at the Victoria and Albert Museum has a detachable plaster fig leaf which is displayed nearby. Legend claims that the fig leaf was created in response to Queen Victoria\’s shock upon first viewing the statue\’s nudity, and was hung on the figure prior to royal visits, using two strategically placed hooks.

During World War II, David was entombed in brick to protect it from damage from airborne bombs.


La Porte de l\’Enfer, by Auguste Rodin


Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My Maker was Divine authority,
The highest Wisdom, and the primal Love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, who enter here.

Dante, Inferno, 3.1–9

The immortal poetry of Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy inspired French sculptor Auguste Rodin — often considered the founder of modern sculpture — to create his Gates of Hell, a monumental sculptural group work depicting a scene from the Inferno. It stands at 6 metres high, 4 metres wide and 1 metre deep and contains 180 figures.

On August 16, 1880, the French state commissioned Rodin for the large sculpted doorway for the proposed Musée des Arts Décoratifs. This Decorative Arts Museum was never built.  Rodin would continue to work on and off on this project for 37 years, until his death, on the ground floor of the Hôtel Biron. Near the end of his life, Rodin donated sculptures, drawings and reproduction rights to the French government. In 1919, two years after his death, the Hôtel Biron became the Musée Rodin, housing a cast of The Gates of Hell and related works. The original plaster was restored in 1917 and is displayed at the Musée d\’Orsay in Paris.


A work of the scope of The Gates of Hell had not been attempted before, but inspiration came from Lorenzo Ghiberti\’s Gates of Paradise at the Baptistery of St. John, Florence, 15th century bronze doors depicting figures from the Old Testament. Another source of inspiration was medieval cathedrals combining high and low relief. Rodin was also inspired by Michelangelo\’s fresco The Last Judgment, Delacroix\’s painting The Barque of Dante, Balzac\’s collection La Comédie humaine and Baudelaire\’s poems Les Fleurs du mal. The original sculptures were enlarged and became works of art of their own, such as The Thinker.


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