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The meaning of the artworks: the deep transformation in the museums

23 May 2016

Michelangelo's David: from religious and political emblem to a symbol of beauty and perfection.

You will surely agree that the natural place attributed by our imagination to an artwork is the museum. History, however, tells us that in most cases the artworks  were not conceived and designed for a typical setting like the museums' one. So the question arises: what kind of consequences we have when we physically remove the artwork from its original context?

Let’s think about one of the most emblematic works of the Renaissance, a symbol magnificence and perfection: Michelangelo's David. The city of Florence was planning to place the work in one of the external buttresses placed in the apse of Santa Maria del Fiore; remember  that the statue is over 5 meters, and depicts the heroic child armed of courage and sling, proponent of the Goliath’s defeat, the Philistine giant. It 'easy to imagine that a statue of such grandeur and majesty would have been clearly visible if placed at that height (with about 116 meters, the Brunelleschi's Dome is the largest ever built in masonry); moreover, the placement next to other 11 statues of heroes of the Old Testament would have given a strong religious imprint, especially to the eyes of the visitors who would have been forced to turn their look to the sky as in the sense of admiration.

The work, completed in 1504, was never placed in that buttress of the Cathedral, for three reasons: the other 11 statues that were supposed to create a "religious context" had not been completed in time; Furthermore, David was too heavy to be lifted up to the top (given the technology of the time); last but not the least, it seemed almost a sacrilege to remove the visitor from the great realism of the work given to him by a level of details never seen before (just think, for example, to the swollen vein in the arm, or his look).

It was held a council, formed by politicians and artists, to decide the new location: among the prominent names who contributed to the decision we include Sandro Botticelli, Filippo Lippi, Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugini, Lorenzo di Credi, Antonio and Giuliano da Sangallo , Simone Pollaiolo, Andrea della Robbia, Cosimo Rosselli, David Ghirlandaio, Francesco Granacci, Piero di Cosimo and Andrea Sansovino.

Some assumptions were made: Botticelli, by departing from the majority, expressed preference for a location close to the cathedral; others suggested a place at the side of the main door of the Palazzo Vecchio, symbol of the Florentine Commune; others suggested the Loggia della Signoria. Curious the proposal of Leonardo da Vinci to place the statue in a niche, behind the short wall of the lodge: it is said, in clearly polemic, that his proposal is one of the evidence of bad blood that was running with Michelangelo.

Filippo Lippi’s option prevailed: the work was placed outside, giving maximum prominence and authority, in front of Palazzo Vecchio (replacing the Judith by Donatello). The aim was to attribute to David the symbol of the new Republic force.

Note how the statue, the symbol of heroic resistance in front of enormous difficulties, was placed with his eyes turned towards Rome, to symbolize a warning to his Cardinal Giovanni de Medici (remember that the Medici family had just been exiled from Florence ).

As you might guess, there has been a deep transformation of meaning, from religious to political, despite the total absence of changes (aesthetic) to the work itself.

In 1872, due to the precarious conditions of preservation due to various problems (riots, bad weather, etc.) it was decided to transfer "the Giant" at the Academy Gallery, which it’s still the work’s home. The museum, with a quiet and tidy setting, has let the religious and politics interpretations we talked about before disappear, leaving the observer to the mere, albeit rewarding, contemplation of Michelangelo's artistic talent. Once again there has been a change of meaning: in this case it is the observer himself who, surrounded by a particularly conditioning environment (the museum) is totally focused on the technical and aesthetic characteristics of the work, dissociating it completely from its historical and social context.

And you, which meaning  do you prefer to attribute to the artworks? Do usually focus on your standards of beauty or analyze the historical, political and social environment in which the work itself was conceived?

We are curious to know!