The Politics of David

Michelangelo’s David might be the most famous statue in the world—but it was controversial when it was unveiled in Florence in 1504. 

When Michelangelo began the sculpture in 1501, it was intended to decorate Florence’s cathedral. The piece had been commissioned by the Arte della Lana, the guild of wool merchants, as a sign of their religious devotion. But in early 1504, when Michelangelo had nearly completed the statue, its intended location was changed. This started as a practical concern: the statue weighed over six tons, and it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to raise to the roofline of the Cathedral. 

The statue was instead placed outside the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence’s town hall (now known as the Palazzo Vecchio). The piazza surrounding the building contained numerous statues intended to glorify Florence, but David would have a place of honor at the very entrance of the town hall.

And suddenly the statue became a political statement.

Today a replica of Michelangelo's  David  is in the statue's original position outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

Today a replica of Michelangelo's David is in the statue's original position outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

In 1504, the powerful Medici family had been exiled from Florence for a decade, and the city was being run by a republican, anti-Medicean, government. David, guarding the town hall, faced toward Rome, where the Medici resided in exile, his arm ready to cast a stone toward the Medicean Goliath if necessary. 

When the statue was unveiled on September 8, 1504, it was pelted with stones by political protestors who instantly saw the anti-Medici message. Michelangelo, who had enjoyed Medici patronage earlier in his career, may not have intended such an overtly political message, but the placement of the statue took a clear stand against the powerful family. 

When the Medici returned to Florence in 1512, they allowed the statue to remain, though they tried to reframe its political rhetoric in more favorable terms: David represented all of Florence, standing up against political rivals on the Italian peninsula who threatened their liberty. Florence’s republicans did not forget the anti-Medici message, though. In 1527, anti-Medici riots broke out in the city, and the Medici were again exiled as the 1498-1512 Republic of Florence was revived from 1527-1530. During the riot, David’s arm was broken in three places. 

Today we might appreciate the statue for its beauty, dignity, and ingenuity, but it has a long history in the sordid political machinations of Renaissance Florence.  

Renaissance Portraits

It’s no secret that people in the Renaissance were obsessed with appearances. 

In the tumultuous world of Renaissance Italy, reputation was everything—it could mean the difference between success and failure, wealth and poverty, fame and ignominy. And one of the best ways to build a reputation was through portraits. 

Lowest prices on antiquities, guaranteed!  Andrea Odoni, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527

Lowest prices on antiquities, guaranteed!

Andrea Odoni, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527

When commissioning a portrait, Renaissance men and women could control every detail, down to the background minutiae, to project a cultivated image of oneself. In order to make an enduring legacy, you had to leave behind signs of your greatness, and portraits were one of the best tools for crafting your reputation.

See, ladies, I'm good with dogs!  Federico Gonzaga, by Titian, c. 1529

See, ladies, I'm good with dogs!

Federico Gonzaga, by Titian, c. 1529

The fashion for portraiture provided a new way to manipulate one’s reputation. Though he focused on writing rather than portraiture, Stephen Greenblatt made this argument in his excellent academic work, Renaissance Self-Fashioning. Self-fashioning meant using every available tool to craft and project an intentional reputation. 

I always put on a full coat of armor when I settle in with a good book.   Federigo da Montefeltro, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1480

I always put on a full coat of armor when I settle in with a good book. 

Federigo da Montefeltro, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1480

I think of these portraits as the Renaissance version of a “selfie”—but requiring much more time and energy. There is a direct link between the Renaissance fixation on cultivating a reputation and our current infatuation with social media.

No biggie, just chillin' with my ermine.  Cecelia Gallerani as "The Lady with an Ermine," Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1489

No biggie, just chillin' with my ermine.

Cecelia Gallerani as "The Lady with an Ermine," Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1489

In short, we have internalized the Renaissance obsession with appearances.