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.

  • Alexandra says:

    Dear Monica
    Thank you for the valuable feedback about the book. Indeed, the images in the ebook are small because it comes from a print layout in which some images necessarily had to be smaller than others to keep the pages down. Based on this first experience creating this type of ebook, for the next one we do we know we need to do a secondary layout before converting it, in order to have bigger photos.
    The book was indeed “born” as a print book and I can assure you that it is really gorgeous – we made sure the print quality is amazing, so even the smaller pictures look good!
    I am really glad you learned new things from this book. I found the same editing it. That an art historian can still learn a lot about the David from this book is the main reason we decided to publish it!
    Many thanks
    Alexandra

  • Val S says:

    This sounds really interesting. Thanks for the review and for giving us some tasty tidbits that just make me want more!

  • Sarah says:

    Was Wölfflin unaware that the size of the hands and feet were made to be larger because of David’s intended position atop the spur outside the Florence Cathedral? Would he have changed his assessment if he had known?

    Thank you for this review; well-written and engaging.

  • Hi Sarah! This book actually covers several different hypotheses regarding why David’s hands were made larger. As you have mentioned, it could be that the hands were larger in order to be seen from far away. Another suggestion is that Michelangelo was working within the limits of the marble which was already outlined by Agostino di Duccio (perhaps outlined to the extent that the hands’ proportions could not be altered to fit with the rest of the body). A third explanation could be that the hands needed to be larger in order to serve as a structural support for the rest of the arms (for example, the right hand is attached to the body and can serve as a support, kind of like a strut). Finally, Coonin also points out that the large hands could be interpreted symbolically, as indications of strength, wisdom and power.

    As far as I know, Wölfflin didn’t consider any of these aspects when he offered his critique. Perhaps he would have changed his assessment, or perhaps not!

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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.