By all accounts, Michelangelo was not considered to be physically attractive. His large head was even more noticeable because his stature was short. His nose was broken, flattened by Pietro Torrigiano ten years earlier. Well-dressed and handsome he was not.
Michelangelo decided that his David would possess all the traits he always hoped to see in himself but never did. His David would be all that men could be — beautiful and virtuous, handsome and brave. He would be calm in the face of battle. Confident in the moment he stared down Goliath, ready to win and knowing he had all the strength of his conviction behind him.
The Israelites had cowered at the 10-foot-tall Goliath. For 40 days the giant had strutted across the field of battle, bronze armor ringing, inviting any man brave enough to come fight him and decide the war in a single match. Goliath knew who would win.
So did everyone else. No one was willing to risk his life, even for the sake of the nation.
Until David, a young shepherd who had come down from the pastures, asked, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel?”
Talk of these brave words spread until King Saul heard of them and asked to see David. The young man asked the king for permission to fight Goliath. David believed he could kill him.
Saul, against his better judgment, allowed David to be sent out to face Goliath. David chose to carry only his sling and five smooth stones.
Goliath was enraged when he saw the boy they had sent out to fight him. “Come here little boy,” he thundered, “so I can feed your flesh to the birds!”
David stood his ground, eyes fixed on the giant rushing toward him. The odds were good that he would be quickly killed and forgotten. Nervous energy flowed through him, goading him to run. And he did run, but not away from Goliath. He ran toward him as he whipped around his sling. The rock hit the giant’s forehead and dropped Goliath to the ground.
Michelangelo wanted to stun the people of Florence with the majesty of his David, the brave shepherd who became a king. The sculptor planned to use the whole height of the block to make David three times life-size. David would stand contrapposto, his weight on his right leg, at the moment just before his life changed.
His head and hands would be large, like Michelangelo’s. For David’s face Michelangelo used as a model a sketch he had made of a good-looking stranger on the street. But Michelangelo modeled David’s hands after his own. Good hands, which could do astonishing work.
While Michelangelo worked, his mind full of thoughts of kings and giants, Florence was engaged in another long bitter war with Pisa, its longtime enemy. At least the city had gained a respite from Cesare Borgia, who had been distracted from Florence by planning a campaign to invade the Romagna, perhaps laying siege to Bologna.
Leonardo da Vinci had left the city suddenly to go to work for Cesare, who wanted him to build new weapons and fortresses. These were challenges of science and design that Leonardo couldn’t resist.
The Signoria, fearing it was only a matter of time before Cesare turned his sights back to Florence, sent Niccolo Machiavelli as an envoy to Cesare’s court. Machivaelli’s instructions were simple: admit nothing, promise nothing, concede nothing. Just keep an eye on the fiend and figure out what he’s planning. The Signoria knew if Cesare ever got his way he would bring back Piero de’ Medici to be a puppet leader of the city. Florence needed inspiration more than ever.
“You with your sling and I with my bow,” Michelangelo scribbled on one of his drawings of David, as if the two young men were one and the same. Michelangelo liked what he saw. He was almost ready to share his David with the world.