In Rome, Michelangelo lived very close to the Column of Trajan, where he could not help but be awed by the sophistication of ancient Roman technology. The column is formed of 20 colossal marble drums, each weighing 32 tons. To lift a 32-ton marble drum to the top of the almost finished column was an engineering feat worthy of a Roman emperor, but it was not within the capacity of any Renaissance builder. There is no avoiding the tyranny of weight.
It is well known that Filippo Brunelleschi devised a number of ingenious hoisting machines such as the crane used in constructing the dome and lantern of Florence Cathedral. But none of these devices would have been adequate for the task of lifting Michelangelo’s David to its intended location on a buttress of the cathedral. It was, I would maintain, an impossible task, and Michelangelo knew it.
The sculpture’s static weight is 8.5 tons—about the same as four cars. Many strands of thick Venetian rope might have been used to lift it to the buttress, if enough rope could be obtained, which was doubtful, and one couldn’t be absolutely certain that the rope would be strong enough. If the sculpture swayed too much or was jerked in the course of being hoisted up, gravity would increase its dynamic force, which the ropes would be unable to withstand. If it were successfully maneuvered into place, one could not be certain that the buttress would sustain the concentrated weight or that wind stresses would not threaten its stability.
It was possible to conceive of other methods by which to raise the sculpture, involving the erection of scaffolding or auxiliary structures, but Michelangelo knew that none would succeed. It was an impossible task. In that wonderfully irrational way that so endears the Renaissance to us, the artist and the cathedral officials may have entertained the idea of hoisting the statue, but at some point they must also have realized that the task was financially unreasonable and beyond the unproven technology and resources available. I would like to suggest that Michelangelo realized the impossibility of the job from the earliest moment, even before he began carving the figure. This realization, in effect, liberated him.
Given the familiarity of the David, it is difficult for us to appreciate just how novel it is. Despite many highly regarded precedents in Florentine art for the representation of David, Michelangelo carved a unique work: an oversize, illogically nude figure with almost no identifying attributes. One could hardly imagine a more peculiar means of representing the young shepherd boy of the Bible, nor a more inappropriate figure to adorn the cathedral. I believe David looks as it does because Michelangelo, realizing that it would not be placed on the cathedral buttress, was free to carve a completely original work. And that is precisely what he did.
With the David, Michelangelo became a creator of marvels and a famous artist. He was just 29 years old at its completion and would live another 60 years, and yet he would never again be unemployed—partly because of this extraordinary achievement.
Michelangelo’s career was characterized by a series of works that declared his genius and authorship, thereby stimulating tremendous demand in a world that prized originality. Yet it might all have happened differently if he had merely carved a decorative finial for the cathedral buttress. Rather, knowing he was free of that contextual imperative, he carved a self-consciously original work of art.
But if the David was not destined for the cathedral, where would it go? Michelangelo had little say in determining the sculpture’s ultimate destination, but that scarcely mattered to him since he had already accomplished his primary purpose: he had created a masterpiece. It was now up to the citizens of Florence to find a suitable location for its display.
In the public hearing held to discuss the placement of the sculpture, only the woodworker Francesco Monciatto argued for placing it where it was originally intended—on the cathedral buttress. The proceedings opened with the preamble that included Michelangelo’s prescient warning that “the installation must be solid and structurally trustworthy.” That, in effect, ruled out the cathedral buttress, and no one other than the woodworker seriously entertained the idea.
In short, Michelangelo created “the Giant”—less a David than a stunning work of art whose primary subject is itself. As such, it escaped the usual parameters governing most Renaissance art: context, tradition and precedent, patronal control, and audience expectation.
Thus, did an impossible task give impetus to a unique sculpture and an unusual artistic career.
William E. Wallace is Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of several books about Michelangelo.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 52 under the title “How Michelangelo Made David into a Giant.”