Michelangelo’s fame was well founded after completing two early masterpieces, the Pietà in the Vatican, and the David, in Florence’s Accademia. Both speak to his creative genius. To comprehend his level of mastery, we need to start where he did, in the mountains. Michelangelo defined himself as a sculptor, not a painter. He believed he had sculpting in his blood, as his wet nurse was from Settignano, a Florentine region of stonecutters and stonemasons. His early experiences instilled in him a deep respect and love for the quarries. The Apuan Alps hold rich reserves of the best marble, where Michelangelo honed his skills at selecting the block that would become the Pietà.
He arrived in Rome from Florence in 1496 to sculpt a Bacchus for a cardinal; the work was complete but led to no further commissions. He languished for a year before French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères asked him to carve a Pietà for his tomb and the artist willingly agreed. He set out on the first of many trips to search for the perfect marble. He traveled first by horse, then mule, from Rome to northwest of Florence, to the famed Carrara quarries. The journey took eight or nine days, traveling about twenty to thirty miles a day. On some occasions he would search higher than 5,000 feet in the Apuan Alps for just the right stone. He was precise and relentless in his methodology. There was no lack of marble, and Michelangelo excelled at selecting the perfect stone to excavate.
It took a month to find the right area of the mountain with the help of experienced local excavators. Michelangelo was unusual in that he spent a great deal of time staying in the mountains to choose and supervise the cutting of the stone, preparation for transportation, and arranging for the hazardous journey to the studio. Most artists subcontracted this out or only stayed for a short time. He would search for a block uniform in color, without pits, veins, or other imperfections. The look of the stone was vital, however, the sound of the stone when struck was also important. To achieve the best results, the marble had to be fresh, as it becomes brittle and more apt to break with age.
He located an area that was pure and perfect. The origin of the Pietà stone can be traced to an area near Polvaccio. Quarrymen were part engineers, geologists, and mountain climbers. Now it was time to extract it from the mountain. Since time and materials added to cost, the artist had to know the spatial requirements of the finished piece before the quarrymen went to work. It was dangerous and hard labor. The slab is cut parallel to natural cracks using metal wedges hammered into the mountain or with wooden pegs soaked with water, creating swelling and allowing the marble to release. Wrapped in ropes on wooden planks, it was lowered slowly down the mountain on well-worn paths. A lizza is a sled used to transport the marble on wooden beams, secured with ropes, and slowly guided down on crushed rock. It was not uncommon to lose a load of marble, or worse, the workers, or amputate fingers.
The logistics of transporting marble over 250 miles from the quarry to Rome’s city center involved many people, oxen, ships, and materials. The costs of transporting the marble were greater than quarrying it. It could take two months to move it down the mountain, where it would be roughed out a bit to lessen the transportation costs. If not blocked out correctly, the marble could be ruined. The sculptor would be obligated to continue finishing the piece depending on how well the person blocked out the large piece, including what would become the top, bottom, front, or back of the piece. This roughed shaped marble would be hauled by a large team of oxen on a cart to the port where it traveled by ship south to Rome’s port, then continued on a land journey to Michelangelo’s studio in Rome. Six months passed before the block arrived in his studio.
He began to carve in August, 1498 and it took him a year to finish. He was twenty-three years old. To carve a multi-figure group from one piece of marble was considered, and still is, to be the highest skill for a sculptor. Greek sculptors were especially revered for their abilities to carve monumental single figures or multi-figures from one block, a term called ex uno lapide. The challenges are many, including flaws in the stone, cracks, and support weaknesses between figures. Joining figures after carving them in separate blocks was considered unprincipled, and the easy way out. Some ancient sculptures were thought to have been made from one piece of marble and were admired for their beauty and skill.
The Laocoön is a legendary Greek marble from about 200 BCE thought to made from a single block. This three-figure sculpture depicts a man and his two sons attacked by sea serpents as they writhe in agony. In 1506 the group was re-discovered in Rome by Florentine architect Giuliano da Sangallo, with Michelangelo beside him. It emerged from over a millennium buried in a vineyard close to Nero’s Domus Aurea. As a fabled sculpture described by Roman historian Pliny, the marble group was a major addition to Pope Julius II’s collection. Visitors can still see it in the Vatican. An examination revealed that the sculpture was made of up to seven different pieces, discreetly joined together. Still considered a classic despite it is not ex uno lapide, the sculpture has plenty of emotion and twisting figures as they realize the end is near. The discovery as well as other ancient sculptures influenced Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling in his posing and animation of figures.
The Pietà represents the dead Christ on the lap of his mother, a subject common in Northern Europe but rare in Italian art until this depiction. It is deeply moving and pensive. She appears calm and dignified as she supports her dead son with her right arm. Her head is bowed. Michelangelo portrays a deeply personal connection between the Virgin and her child. The cardinal died before it was completed, and later moved from his grave to St. Peter’s. Installed in St. Peter’s first chapel as you enter to the right, it is placed much higher than the artist intended. Unfortunately, it is now behind plexiglass after someone smashed it with a hammer in 1972. It was meant to be seen much closer to the viewer in order to appreciate the nuances of Mary’s expression and the limpness of Jesus’ body. Before it was moved to the Vatican it was on or slightly elevated from the floor and was placed where natural light would softly illuminate it from above. This would allow the viewer to observe Christ’s face, and enter into a mediation on the passion and resurrection.
It is his only signed work. Most likely he planned to inscribe his name while he crafted the piece. He signed it in Latin prominently along the sash on Mary’s chest. It says “Michelangelo the Florentine was making this.” To fully appreciate the Latin imperfect tense, he makes it clear he was actively in the process of making the sculpture. He left off the last letter at the corner of her veil so the viewer would need to complete the sentence, in translation, “Michelangelo the Florentine was making thi[s].” In Latin the verb is at the end, hence, “Michael Angelus Bonarotus Florentinus facieba[t].” It was an act of bravura and self-promotion. This caused biographer Giorgio Vasari to elaborate or invent a story whereby Michelangelo snuck back into the church to add his name when he observed a group attributing the artwork to a different sculptor. As famous as the sculpture is today, it did not make a huge splash in Rome or back in Florence. By 1500 Michelangelo was once again in search of the next commission.
He returned to Florence well paid and with a good reputation. Michelangelo was a proud Florentine, a believer in the Republic and its processes, and honored to serve his city. If timing is everything, he was in the right place at the right time to take on the commission to sculpt David.
Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence, had long desired to place sculptures high up on the buttresses. One such subject was David. By 1408 there was a plan to create twelve such statues to decorate the tribune spurs around the outside of the cathedral. A committee of men from the cathedral works, called the Operai, were the decision makers. Trade organizations ruled the commercial sectors by forming guilds for different business and crafts. These guilds became sponsors of major art commissions and buildings. The Cathedral was under the artistic direction of the powerful Arte della Lana, a wool guild. Florence was a town that derived income and fame from textile manufacturing and merchandizing. It was the most prestigious guild in the city. For this commission, Michelangelo had not one patron, but a group of men who would weigh in on the commission. The David was a public sculpture, meant for all to see.
The idea of finishing the buttress sculptures had languished for some time. In 1501 they revived the idea and awarded Michelangelo with the creation of the sculpture. There was one catch. The marble had been quarried eleven years before he was born. He would have to work on the old and brittle block quarried in 1464. The slab that would become the famous statue had long been transported to Florence awaiting a sculptor who could create what the Operai commissioned. Two sculptors had tried, and for various reasons did not get very far. One had roughed it out and another started with a few strokes of the chisel. It was a less than ideal situation. Flaws and pits in the marble were evident. The marble was nowhere near the quality of the Pietà. This block was three times larger than anything quarried before in Carrara, weighing about twelve tons. Michelangelo would have to work around the attempts of the other sculptors who had started to form the figure, plus the imperfections.
Michelangelo started in 1501, as usual, in great secrecy. He had a unique methodology, rethinking and re-working the marble in progress. He did not have a fixed view in mind and modified as he went along. The tools used in marble sculpture have not varied much in the centuries since the Greeks. Chisels with different end points such as flat, pointed, claw, or roundel are applied at different angles and with different pressure from the hammer or mallet. It was hard, physical work that required both dexterity and a light touch for finer elements. Sculpting is less about brutal force and more about precise small taps with the instruments. A metal rasp was used to give a smooth texture to the work, usually with a soft finish for flesh, or to attenuate the muscles.
His approach to sculpture is visible in his unfinished work for the tomb of Pope Julius II. The Awakening Slave shows the twisted figure emerging from the block. Michelangelo expressed the need to free the figures from the marble, as if he envisioned them locked in the stone awaiting manifestation. The roughed-out marble contrasts to the more finished smooth texture of the captive’s skin. The qualities of the different chiseling tools are visible. His right leg crosses in front of the left, protruding out further from the block. The left arm is raised and twists above his head, which is thrown back. A half-finished sculpture lets us imagine his creative genius at work.
When completed, the David weighed about six tons. The quality of the statue exceeded the Operai and Arte della Lana’s expectations so much so that they called a committee of peers to decided where to place the sculpture, since it was too fine for its original location. Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Perugino, and other well-known artists gave their input. They agreed that placing it on the Cathedral up high would be inappropriate. After much discussion they decided to place it outside on the ground. The Operai and Arte della Lana abandoned the idea of continuing to complete the twelve buttress sculptures.
Michelangelo, David, 1501-04, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, photos Steven Zucker,
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
The giant was moved in 1504 to its final destination, outside the Piazza della Signoria. It was a feat to move the statue. A wall had to be broken down to get the huge David out of the Cathedral studio. Encased in a wooden crate, he was moved in an upright position very slowly along greased wooden beams by forty men. Normally it is a short ten-minute walk from the Cathedral to the Piazza, however, it took four days to creep along and safely move the statue. Michelangelo’s statue stayed outside in the Piazza for 369 years. A copy now stands there with the original in the Galleria dell’Accademia.
Multiple reasons account for the exceptional qualities of the David. It is not the subject, which was common and frequently represented in Italian art. The shepherd boy knocking down the giant Goliath with his sling, then finishing him off by removing his head, has many precursors in Donatello and successors in Titian, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Caravaggio. Michelangelo chose a different moment to represent, not the David standing with the head of Goliath, or swinging the sling, but before he makes his move to take the giant out. Goliath is somewhere in the distance, and David stands ready. This creates a tension and psychological intensity between the sculpture and the viewer. Muscles are flexed, ready to take decisive action, David leans back on one leg while his torso turns the opposite way. Much of the praise for Michelangelo’s version is because it is ex uno lapide. Michelangelo’s David is the first giant sculpture since antiquity to be carved ex uno lapide, and at seventeen feet tall, it created a sensation. His nudity also created a stir. Some gilded fig leaves were put in place over his genitals to save passersby from distraction. They were later removed.
Michelangelo was paid well for his time, earning 400 florins. A skilled worked might earn 50 florins a year; a government official 100-200 florins a year. David quickly became an emblem of civic pride. Michelangelo brought honor to his city and to his family, something that was central to his values. His dream was to carve another colossal ex uno lapide, but it wasn’t to be. Towards the end of his life, he attempted a four figure Pietà sculpture out of one block for his own tomb. He struggled to achieve this feat and left it damaged and unfinished.
Soon after the gigante was put in place the city was abuzz with a once in a lifetime event: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti, and Raphael Sanzio were all in the city undertaking artistic commissions. Raphael was on the edge of greatness, Michelangelo had just experienced fame, and Leonardo was at his peak. It was the only time all three would concurrently undertake artistic commissions in the same city. Soon Leonardo and Michelangelo would be pitted against each other designing and painting frescoes across the room from each other in the city hall. Unfortunately, Leonardo’s work is lost, and Michelangelo’s is uncompleted as he left Florence when he was called to Rome by Pope Julius II. His next commission would change his life and the artworld as he began the Sistine ceiling.
Coonin, A. Victor. From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David. The Florentine Press, 2014.
Hirst, Michael. Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame 1475-1534. Yale University Press, 2011.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, “Carving marble with traditional tools,” in Smarthistory, 2015.
The Victoria and Albert Museum, “How was it made? Donatello’s marble carving technique,” 2023.
Wallace, William E. Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and his Times. Cambridge University Press, 2010.