The Fig Leaf of Florence

We revere David today, but audiences weren't always so enamored.

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Even in the Renaissance, everyone was a critic. Before Michelangelo’s David was revealed to the Florentine public on June 8, 1504, a few jealous artists carped that there were flaws in the vast nude — the right hand was a touch too big, the neck a little bit long, the left shin over-sized and something about the left buttock was not quite right. And when the statue was being moved into the central Piazza della Signoria, a group of youths attacked it with stones, foring the city to mount a round-the-clock guard (although the vandals’ anger may have been provoked by local politics, not aesthetics).

But the most disconcerting criticism at the time came from the powerful Piero Soderino, one of the top magistrates in the Florentine Republic. According to a tale told by the contemporary biographer (and avid Michelangelo fan) Giorgio Vasari, Soderino went so far as to tell the famously irascible artist that David’s nose was much too large. Enraged, Michelangelo hid some marble dust in his palm, climbed back up his ladder, and pretended to do some more chiseling on the offending proboscis. While he did so, he let some of the powder fall from his hand. The prattish Soderino was fooled: He examined the unchanged nose and announced it was much improved and far more “life-like.”

The historian Paul Barosky adds a startling angle to this snout saga. In Florentine slang, he notes, the nose was used as a euphemism for another prominent part of the male anatomy. Could it be that in the famous 1504 dispute over David, the city official Piero Soderino had ordered Michelangelo to reduce the size of the other feature? We know for certain that many Florentines had been offended by the statue’s casual nudity; even Leonardo da Vinci, who like Michelangelo was a devoted admirer of the male physique, recommended that Il Gigante (as the statue was nicknamed) should be displayed to the masses with “decent adornment.” At any rate, before the public unveiling, Michelangelo was obliged to cover David’s genitals under 28 copper leaves. (The sling and tree stump behind his right leg were also gilded, and the statue crowned with a gold wreath.)

These extras remained until around 1550, when they were quietly removed. • 9 January 2008

SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Barolsky, Paul, Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and its Maker, (Philadelphia, 1990); Gill, Anton, Il Gigante: Michelangelo, Florence and the David, 1492-1505, (London, 2003).

 

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.
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