This Day in Jewish History / Michelangelo Goes to Work

On this day in 1501, a 26-year-old Michelangelo began work on his famous statue of David, the future king of Israel. Experts agree that the physical proportions are perfect... if not halakhically accurate.

On this day in 1501, the artist Michelangelo began work on a statue of a young David. Only 26 at the time of the commission, Michelangelo (1475-1564) was the third artist to begin work on the statue, which was executed on a single piece of Carrara marble. It was to be one of 12 pieces depicting ancient heroes, a project commissioned by Florence’s woolen cloth guild, the Arte della Lana.  The statues were set for installation on the buttresses of the city’s cathedral, Santa Maria Del Fiore, with its distinctive brick dome.

Nearly two and a half years later, when Michelangelo was nearly finished with his work, it became apparent that it would not be possible to move the nearly six-ton, 5.17-meter-high artwork to the cathedral’s roof. After much debate, it was installed instead outside the Palazzo Vecchio, at the Piazza della Signoria. Unlike many earlier depictions of the young man who was to become king of Israel and Judah, David appears without the head of Goliath at his feet, although he does have a sling draped over his left shoulder. He is also uncircumcised.

In 1873, because of damage sustained from the elements, the statue was moved to the Accademia Gallery where it remains on display to this day. Its place was taken by a replica in 1910. Another well-known replica, a plaster cast, is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, and is equipped with a detachable fig leaf (also plaster) that in an earlier era was hung over David’s groin when royal visitors were in attendance. In 2005, two Florentine medical researchers who studied the statue concluded that it was anatomically perfect in almost every detail in its depiction of a young man about to enter into battle, and in its proportions. A hollow spot in the middle of David’s back is an imperfection, but Michelangelo himself was aware of it, writing at the time that “I lacked [sufficient] material.” As for the diminutive size of David’s penis, that too, said the doctors, was consonant with the high level of tension David would have had as he prepared to face his Philistine nemesis, a situation that would have caused “a contraction of the sexual organs.”