On this day in 1501 Michelangelo began work on the most iconic sculpture in history – his famous five metre nude of David. Completed over four years, the statue still draws in thousands of visitors to Florence every year to appreciate its depiction of youthful male beauty and the struggle between thought and action. In its day it was also a pointed political comment, with David – a symbol of Florentine freedom – turning his eyes in stern repose towards the Pope and Rome.
Its sculptor – along with his Florentine contemporary and rival Leonardo de Vinci – can be described as one of the finest and most influential artists of all time, and, with his love of many artistic disciplines, the archetypal Renaissance man. Born at the dawn of the High Renaissance in 1475, he was only in is mid-twenties when he earned the fabulous honour of being approached to complete David. His stratospheric rise to the top had began as a thirteen year old, when he had been picked to attend the humanist school of the great patron of Florentine arts and culture, Lorenzo de Medici. When Lorenzo died and the religious fanatic Savonarola took control of the city in 1494, the teenage Michelangelo was forced to flee with the exiled Medici family. He then spent his formative years working on commissioned sculptures in Rome, where his reputation as a young talent with a stroke of genius in his began to take hold. As one excited contemporary claimed, “it is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.” With the fall and execution of Savonarola Michelangelo saw an opportunity to return to Florence – his spiritual home and birthplace of Renaissance art – in 1499.