Guys, I have a confession to make. I used to live in the San Marco neighborhood, and anytime I needed to head into city center I’d practically skip down the cobblestones of Via Ricasoli towards the Duomo. But my gait would slow when I’d pass the long line of people snaking around the block. Tourists would be out there mid-day, all day, fending off wares from street vendors, checking their watches, and looking bored. And – if you haven’t inferred already – nothing gets Hannah and I more heated than time wasted waiting in line when there are so many other adventures to be had! It took everything I had not to shake these people (nice people, I’m sure!) and yell at them, “Do you realize what you’re doing?!” Of course, I would end up looking like the crazy one, because of course they knew what they were doing. They were waiting to see arguably the most famous and revered piece of artwork in the city. They were in line at the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David.
Right, ok. If you fly all the way to Florence, the David is most likely on your list of must sees. Which leads me to my next confession: when I had friends visit, I wouldn’t take them to the Accademia to see David. In fact, I’d talk them out of going. Before you write me off as the worst host a world traveller could have, please allow me the rest of this post to change your mind.
The Accademia is a wonderful museum filled with treasures beyond the main attraction (Michelangelo’s Unfinished Prisoners are truly something else), but unless you’re traveling off-peak or catch a day when the Accademia is open late-night, you’re almost certainly doomed to fight crowds to get in. So if you have the time – do it! There’s nothing like getting up close and personal with the original. But if your schedule is limited and you’re up for more of a history lesson, follow us on our David walk throughout Florence. Because yes, I may have talked my visitors out of the Accademia, but I’d really be nuts if I didn’t show them the David. Confused? Let me explain.
Distance: 2.4 km (1.5 mi)
Time: about a half hour + ample time for gawking
We’ll start outside the Accademia on Via Ricasoli, where David has been kept since 1873. It was moved indoors to protect it from potential damage. Most hours of the day you’ll simply see lines outside the building, but sometimes close to closing hours the doors to the Accademia will be propped open. If you can steal a peek, you’ll look right down a long hallway and see the magnificent statue lit up in all its glory. Even from far away, it still leaves an impact. If you don’t see him, don’t worry. Head towards the Duomo for the start of David’s story.
AT THE DUOMO
Now that we’re in Piazza del Duomo, we can talk about the origins of the statue, which precede even Michelangelo. In the 15th century, the Opera del Duomo commissioned some of Florence’s best artists to create 12 Old Testament sculptures that would stand atop the buttresses of Santa Maria del Fiore. In the 1460s, an artist from Donatello’s workshop began work on a piece of Carrara marble for a statue of the David, but soon stopped. Another artist then takes a few jabs at the stone, but he never finishes the sculpture either. The project was abandoned and shunned by other artists; the large block was decidedly ignored for the next 35 years.
But the Opera was determined to have their sculpture finished from the now-flawed block. In 1501, a brazen 26-year-old Michelangelo convinced the Opera he was the man for the job. He had to incorporate the previous artists’ less-than-awesome cuts – an incredible thought, considering how “perfect” we consider the statue to be today. And so Michelangelo got to work, strategically sculpting a work that would be able to be seen from atop the Cathedral. He tailored the sculpture’s features to the unique perspective it would be viewed from, enlarging David’s right hand and head. When viewed straight on, the exaggerations are obvious, but when placed upon the buttress, David would appear perfectly in proportion.
Of course, the statue never ended up on top of Santa Maria del Fiore. But in 2010, our friends at Team Florens installed a fiberglass replica of David on the Duomo so the public would have an opportunity to see what it might’ve looked like if placed where originally intended. Imagine looking up to see this guy towering high above you!
AT THE PALAZZO
Time to see this sucker up close and personal. Head towards Piazza della Signoria; guarding the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio is a full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s David. Admire the veins running through his hand and his curly locks. Note that he’s yet to slay Goliath; he seems to turn the stone over in his hand in anticipation, with the slingshot hanging over his shoulder. He’s fully nude (as if you didn’t notice) thanks to Michelangelo’s love of antiquity, when the naked body was celebrated for its beauty and strength. David’s contrapposto (slouched stance) and even the funny tree stump (used in antiquity to support the sculpture’s standing leg) are also both artistic references to celebrated Greek statues.
Sure it’s not the real thing, but it does show us where the original once stood. Once Michelangelo worked out all those kinks in the marble, dignitaries and other artists began to take note that the sculpture was flawless in execution. The thought of then hoisting up onto the Duomo this 14+ foot statue – nicknamed “The Giant” – seemed (very labor intensive and) like a disservice to Michelangelo’s genius.
On January 25, 1504, a consul of Florence’s master artists were called together to debate the final placement for the David. The likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, Andrea della Robbia and Filippino Lippi participated in the meeting (Michelangelo must’ve been loving this!). Nine different locations were proposed, including to keep it in Piazza San Giovanni, to house it under the Loggia dei Lanzi, or to place it outside Palazzo Vecchio. Opinions overwhelmingly favored moving David to Piazza della Signoria in some way.
What’s the big deal, you might be thinking? The David was originally commissioned by the Opera del Duomo for Santa Maria del Fiore and intended to serve as a religious work. Moving him to Piazza della Signoria, however, put him squarely in political territory and making him a symbol of the Florentine Republic. The Signoria had only very recently regained control of the government in 1498 after decades of domination by the Medici and then Savonarola. Whereas the priest had been burned in the piazza, the Medici were still plotting to overthrow the newly established order from Rome. For obvious reasons, the Signoria was desperate for a show of strength and chose David as their banner man. Of course, during the Renaissance, religious imagery often also served a state purpose, but this was a blatant appropriation by the Republic to symbolize their resolve in the face of outside threats.
And so, while it was nice for the city to call a meeting of the Florentine masters, the government knew all along that David would make his home outside Palazzo Vecchio. The original remained here until 1873, as we previously said, when it was moved for protection; the replica was installed in 1910. As you approach the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio from the piazza, the figure appears heroic and confident, relaxed but ready to take on the impending challenge of slaying Goliath. But if you approach the doorway from the Uffizi corridor, you’ll encounter a much different David: his menacing expression and furrowed brow are meant to intimidate. You get a sense that the man (a.k.a. the city) is dangerous and not to be messed with. David was strategically placed this way, staring due south towards Rome.
ABOVE THE CITY
Follow David’s intense gaze down to the Arno and start the climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s only fitting that the piazza, dedicated to the Renaissance master, has some of the best views of Florence: it was Michelangelo’s creative vision that shaped much of how we see Florence today. The piazza was built in 1869; in 1873 (the same year the real David moved to the Accademia), more than a few oxen towed a bronze replica of the famous statue up to the terrace. It is flanked on its base by bronze copies of Michelangelo’s four allegories from the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo.
Appropriately, instead of facing outward towards a pending threat, David now overlooks the city that made him. Grab a place on the wall, enjoy the view, and consider that some poor soul might still be standing in line outside the Accademia while you’ve already explored the heart of downtown Florence. And hey – if it’s late in the day and you have a few euros to burn, retrace your steps to Via Ricasoli and slip into the museum at 6:30 p.m. (just before closing). Not only should you be able to walk right in, you’ll have a full 20 minutes to bond with the big guy himself.