August 2014

Book Review: “From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David”

Michelangelo, "David," 1501-1504. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Rico Heil.

Michelangelo, “David,” 1501-1504. Marble, 17′ tall. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Rico Heil

This summer I’ve found it more convenient to read eBooks for a variety of reasons, including convenience while I travel. I just finished reading a brand-new book From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David by A. Victor Coonin. I really enjoyed reading this book; it is written in a very engaging and approachable way. The book discusses the history of Michelangelo’s “David,” including the various locations where the sculpture either was intended to be placed or actually placed.

Additionally, the book discusses the famous sculpture’s impact on society and culture over the centuries. I especially liked the chapter which discussed the cultural impact which the David has had on artists, activist groups, and other types of people and communities. It was neat to read about ways in which the David has been recreated and also “cloned” in visual culture, including Banksy’s sculpture from the Banksy vs. the Bristol Museum exhibition in 2009.

I learned a lot of new things about Michelangelo’s “David” when reading this book. There are a lot of interesting tidbits and facts that have sparked my curiosity, and I intend to do a lot of follow-up research on the ideas that Coonin presented. For now, though, I want to highlight several things from this book that I found particularly interesting:

  • Before reading this book I knew that Michelangelo’s “David” originally was intended to adorn a spur above the tribune outside the Florence Cathedral, but I didn’t know that the original plan for the spurs included a whole sculptural program with twelve freestanding, life-sized figures of Old Testament prophets.1 (This is particularly interesting to me, given my own research on Aleijadinho’s twelve sculptures of Old Testament prophets outside Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos in Brazil.)
  • Four sculptures were created for the Florence Cathedral series of prophets before Michelangelo was born: Isaiah (1408) by Antonio and Nanni di Banco; David (1408-09) by Donatello; the gigantic multi-media sculpture Joshua (c. 1410) by Donatello; and a gigantic statue by Antonio di Duccio which probably depicted the prophet Daniel (1464-65). Donatello’s David sculpture may be lost, but some scholars think that it might be Donatello’s David in the Bargello Museum or perhaps another bearded prophet in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo collection.2  We We know Isaiah was placed a cathedral spur, but when Donatello’s David was completed, Isaiah was taken down and neither sculpture remained on the exterior. It could be that the life-size sculptures were too small to be seen when placed up high.
  • After Isaiah and Donatello’s David were made, an oversize sculpture (called the “giant” or “White Colossus”) of Joshua was made out of brick, clay and gesso (which was whitewashed to give the appearance of marble).3  This sculpture remained in place for several centuries, and we can get an idea of its original placement from a 17th century print by Israel Silvestre (see print detail). Several decades later, Agostino di Duccio created a similar giant (probably a figure of Daniel) out of terracotta in 1464-65 (which is now lost, but does appear on a view of the Cathedral printed in 1584).4
  • I knew that Michelangelo’s “David” was created from a discarded piece of marble (which was thought to be unable to be turned into a sculpture). However, before reading this book I didn’t know that the discarded marble actually was intended to be for the series of twelve Old Testament prophets, too. This marble was quarried in 1464 by Agostino di Duccio, and seems to have been roughly outlined into some anthropomorphic form before it ultimately was abandoned.5
  • In addition to the famous marble sculpture, Michelangelo also created a bronze David, but this sculpture was composed a bit differently. Although this sculpture no longer exists, we can get a semblance of Michelangelo’s working process for the sculpture from a study drawing. We also know more about the final appearance from a drawing of the sculpture by Rubens.
  • The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin really didn’t like Michelangelo’s David at all. He wrote, “What does Michelangelo put forth as his ideal of youthful beauty? A gigantic hobbledehoy, no longer a boy and not yet a man, at the age when the body stretches, which the size of the limbs does not appear to match the enormous hands and feet…Then we have the unpleasant attitude, hard and angular, and the hideous triangle between the legs. Not a single concession has been made to the line of beauty.”6
  • Michelangelo’s David was attacked in 1991 by Pietro Cannata, a mentally-instable visitor who came into the Galleria dell’Accademia. Cannata’s hammer (which had been hidden in his jacket) severed the second toe of the statue’s left foot.7
  • After New York City was attacked on September 11, 2001, the city of Florence offered to send a copy of the David to be placed at Ground Zero. This offer never materialized for some reason, but the gesture suggests how much the David has come to represent hope.8

My only main critique of this book is in the small size and low quality of the resolution for several of the images, which I realize may be an inevitable result of reading an eBook instead of a printed publication. Sometimes it was difficult to see what Coonin was trying to point out in the images because of their small size, and enlarging the images on my iPad made the pictures look very grainy and pixelated. But I did like that there were a lot of images and that they were in color. I assume (and would hope) that the images are more clear in the printed version of the text.

Overall, however, I highly recommend this book. From Marble to Flesh can appeal to all kinds of people, not just art historians. Coonin writes in an easy-to-read manner, but also takes time to define any art history term that is necessary for the reader to understand. I’m excited about all of the things that I learned in this book, and I think anyone interested in Renaissance art or cultural studies will be excited about this book, too.

Thank you to Alexandra Korey and The Florentine Press for providing a review copy of this book.

1 A. Victor Coonin, From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David (Florence: Florentine Press, 2014), 26, ePub for iBooks (vertical orientation).

2 Ibid., 34-37.

3 Ibid., 38.

4 Ibid., 48-49.

5 Ibid., p. 63.

6 Heinrich Wölfflin, The Art of the Italian Renaissance: A Handbook for Students and Travelers (New York and London: 1903), 54-56.

7 Coonin, 16.

8 Ibid., 320.


Roman Imperial Cult Statues

Lately I’ve been doing some research on cult statues of Roman emperors, in order to get a sense of the imperial cult and the imagery that was used within the cult. My initial interest in the imperial cult was prompted by seeing the posthumous portrait head of the Emperor Claudius at the Seattle Art Museum. The museum label and website explain that this sculpture probably was made soon after Claudius’s reign (instead, during the reign of Nero) and probably was part of an oversize, full-bodied cult statue for the then-deified Claudius:1

Posthumous Portrait of the Emperor Claudius, 54-68 CE. Seattle Art Museum

Posthumous Portrait of the Emperor Claudius, 54-68 CE. Seattle Art Museum

The imperial cult is somewhat similar to a religious cult, but it not wholly religious in nature. Instead, the imperial cult also served the political function of creating solidarity and uniformity across the Roman Empire, despite cultural or language barriers.2 In order to learn what constituted an imperial cult statue, from a visual perspective, I read portions of Polly Weddle’s doctoral thesis, “Touching the Gods: Physical Interaction with Cult Statues in the Roman World.” One of the main things that I discovered was that cult statues could appear in a variety of visual styles, so style is not an signifier to indicate an imperial cult statue.This makes sense to me, since Roman emperors employed various artistic styles throughout the Roman era. If the portrait head of Claudius was a cult statue, one can see how this more-so veristic portrait is quite different from the idealized cult statue of Augustus as Jupiter that is in the Hermitage:

Statue of the Emperor Octavian Augustus as Jupiter, 1st quarter of the first century CE. Height 185 cm. State Hermitage Museum. Image via thisisbossi on Flickr (used via Creative Commons License; no changes made).

Statue of the Emperor Octavian Augustus as Jupiter, 1st quarter of the first century CE. Height 185 cm. State Hermitage Museum. Image via thisisbossi on Flickr (used via Creative Commons License; no changes made).

In addition to style, I have learned that context is very important in determining whether a statue is supposed to receive cult. In addition to cult statues, honorific (but non-idol) statues called andriantes (or sometimes andrias) by ancient writers could be placed in temples as well.4 As a result, it seems like one must rely heavily on ancient writings descriptions in order to determine the cult nature of an object. The physical placement of such objects (within the cella) could also help indicate a cult function.

In Weddle’s paper, she explains that the practice and worship of imperial images tends to be modeled after the worship of “old” or traditional gods in the Roman pantheon.5 However, it appears that, for the most part, deified emperors were not placed on fully equal terms with the great Olympian gods.6 This difference between emperors and Olympian gods may explain why some aspects of cult sacrifice appear to the different. The ancient vocabulary used to describe such sacrificial rituals seems to suggest that the sacrifices are performed on behalf of the emperor, rather than to him.7 However, there are instances of sacrifices being made explicitly to imperial images.8 We know from ancient writings that that people made offerings were made to the statues of the emperors, in order to induce goodwill.9

From what I can tell, it is hard to identify a lot of intact cult statues of emperors today. The practice of replacing the heads of old statues of emperors with new heads may have been relatively common.10 Another issue may have been the combination of mixed mediums for statues, which seems to be the case with the cult statue of Domition (possibly Titus) at the Archaeological Museum in Ephesus (Selçuk):

olossal Statue Head of Domition (or Titus), 1st century CE. Archaeological Museum of Ephesus (Selçuk).

olossal Statue Head of Domition (or Titus), 1st century CE. Archaeological Museum of Ephesus (Selçuk).

On a side note, it is also interesting to note how other deified people can enter the imperial cult – not just emperors. One such example is Antinous, the lover of Hadrian who drowned in the Nile and was subsequently deified. A colossal statue of Antinous was created for acrolithic cult worship; the extant head for the Antinous Mondragone is in the Louvre collection:

Antinous Mondragone, c. 130 CE. 95 cm (31 inches) height. Louvre. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Antinous Mondragone, c. 130 CE. 95 cm (31 inches) height. Louvre. Image courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikipedia

Another great example is a representation of Antinous as Osiris from the Louvre (read more information on the syncretic relationship of these figures HERE). I’m not sure if this statue functioned specifically as a cult statue, but it definitely was associated with the cult:

Antinous as Osiris, c. 130 CE. Originally from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli, Louvre Museum. Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikipedia

Antinous as Osiris, c. 130 CE. Originally from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, Louvre Museum. Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikipedia

Do you have a favorite cult statue of an emperor? What else do you know about the way that Roman emperors were represented in cult statues? Do you know anything else about the placement and function of such statues?

For further reading:

Takashi Fujii, Imperial Cult and Imperial Representation in Roman Cyprus (see reviews HERE and HERE)

S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor

1 Museum label for “Posthumous Portrait Head of the Emperor Claudius,” Seattle, WA, Seattle Art Museum. August 9, 2014.

2 Museum label for “Emperor Cults and Temples at Ephesus” Ephesus Archaeological Museum, Ephesus, Turkey. June 2012.

3 Polly Weddle, Touching the Gods: Physical Interaction with Cult Statues in the Roman World, PhD thesis, Durham University, 2010, p. 13. In Durham e-Theses, accessed August 18, 2014,

4 Duncan Fishwick, “The Statue of Julius Caesar in the Pantheon,” in Latomus T. 51, Fasc. 2 (AVRIL-JUIN 1992): 332.

5 Ibid., 45.

6 Fishwick, 331.

7 Weddle, 224.

8 Ibid., 225.

9 Ibid., 67.

10 Ibid., 184.

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Petra, the Siq, and the Hellenistic “Baroque” Style

Facade Al-Khazneh (The Treasury), Petra, Jordan, c. 2nd century BC- 2nd century CE. Image courtesy of Bernard Gagnon on Wikipedia.

My little sister recently returned from a study abroad in the Middle East during which she was able to visit, among other things, the ancient ruins at Petra in Jordan. I’m so glad that she got to visit this site; I hope to be able to go here myself one day. Although it is difficult to date the rock-cut tombs found at Petra, they are thought to have been made sometime between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century CE, when the local group the Nabateans were at their wealthiest. Although some textbooks and scholars find that some of these rock-cut tombs (particularly the famous Al-Khazneh (“The Treasury,” shown above) and Al-Deir (“Monastery”)) are examples of Roman architecture, others feel that most of the buildings in Petra were built before the Roman annexation in 106 CE.

One of the things that I find most fascinating about the famous rock-cut tombs of Petra is the architectural style. Al-Khazneh and Al-Deir exhibit stylistic characteristics that harken back to Alexandrian architecture and the Hellenistic style. In other words, the architecture is very dramatic in its presentation, which has led some scholars to refer to the Hellenistic style as the “ancient Baroque.”1

This drama is especially apparent to me at Al-Khazneh due to the dynamic broken pediment, as well as the emphasis on movement. I see a lot of movement in the upper area of the facade, which contains a rhythm due to the pattern of projecting and recessing architectural segments. This movement is mimicked in the lower part of the façade, in which the frieze projects and recesses as it winds atop Corinthian columns. Additionally, the deep porch on the lower level creates an interesting contrast of light (hitting the Corinthian columns) and dark (shadow in the porch recess), which reminds me of the tenebrism found in Baroque art of the 17th century.

I was anxious to see my sister’s pictures of this building after her trip, and was surprised to discover another element that adds to the drama of this building: the surrounding landscape. Al-Khazneh and other rock-cut tombs are located next at the end of a natural winding rocky cleft called the Siq. When one approaches the structure by walking out of the Siq, there is not only a dramatic baroque element of light and dark contrast, but the theatricality of a natural curtain being unveiled from the façade itself. I think this is baroque presentation at its finest:

Partial view of façade Al-Khazneh (The Treasury) from the Siq (Canyon), Petra, Jordan, c. 2nd century BC - 2nd century CE.

Partial view of façade Al-Khazneh (The Treasury) from the Siq (Canyon), Petra, Jordan, c. 2nd century BC – 2nd century CE.

Given the theatricality of this style and its geographic location, it is no wonder that Steven Spielberg used Al-Khazneh as the location for the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade! I can also see why this dramatic building is associated with legends that pirate loot and pharaonic treasure were once held here (which accounts for the “Treasury” nickname for this building). To complete the dramatic effect, visible bullet holes can be seen on the exterior (shot by Bedouins at a stone urn (the “tholos”), in hopes of releasing the legendary stored treasure. Perhaps the bullet holes add a bit of visual “movement” and texture to the façade today as well!

1 Alina Payne, “Beyond Kunstwollen: Alois Riegl and the Baroque” in The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome by Andrew Hopkins and Arnold Witte, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010), 8

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.