an enormous block of marble nicknamed "The Giant" and "David" had sat
unused for some thirty-five years. Agostino di Duccio had been given the
block to sculpt into a massive portrayal of the biblical David in 1464,
but the death of his master Donatello in 1466 had interrupted the project.
had been commissioned to continue, but his contract had been terminated.
Until 1501, the block sat in the church workshop, cataloged as a certain
figure of marble called David, badly blocked out and supine".
"Was da Vinci ever seriously a sculptor? To do
that, he'd have had to be able to carve marble. " - reader's comment
da Vinci was consulted to work on the marble, but he initially declined.
Times had been rough for the Renaissance man: he had fled French troops in
Milan the year before and spent the interim in Venice working as a
military architect before arriving in Florence. In the meantime, the
invading French had used "Gran Cavallo", his massive clay model of a horse
(larger even than Donatello's), as a practice target. He was currently
working on a cartoon of the Virgin while living at a monastery, and he
doubted he could take on the extra work.
When Leonardo heard that the contract was going to go to the young upstart
Michelangelo (who had recently completed the much applauded Piet?), he
changed his mind. Michelangelo had insulted him years ago by implying that
Leonardo was incapable of casting Gran Cavallo, which, worse, proved true
as the bronze promised for the statue was taken to be used for cannon to
defend Milan. Leonardo interrupted Michelangelo's contract, offering to do
the work for little more than room and board. After a week and a half of
the two artists bickering, Leonardo finally blurted, "He might give you a
sculpture that can stand, but I'll give you one that can sing!"
Michelangelo scoffed, but the Operai, the commission for overseeing the
works of the Duomo, were impressed. They had heard of Leonardo's many
inventions and weapons, so they decided to give the man a chance. Leonardo
had originally meant the singing to be figurative, but now he was stuck in
a contract that would prove to revolutionize the Renaissance world.
Leonardo buried himself in a study of automatons. Stories of Greek,
Egyptian, and Chinese machines that looked like men gave precedence but no
real mechanical inspiration. The Arab Al-Jazari three hundred years before
had built an emulation of a four-piece band that played on a boat as well
as a robotic servant for washing guests' hands. Leonardo himself had
sketched a series of gears to emulate sitting up and moving arms and legs
just a few years before as part of his work with the Vitruvian Man. The
impossible task gradually seemed doable.
"Very nice tale. As a side bit of trivia, it was
once pointed out to me by a young female Art Major that Michelangelo
(Leonardo in this case) made a mistake with his "David". The historical
David was a Jew and as such, would have been circumcized. The statue is
not. " - reader's comment
His first task was to plan the singing
David, making countless sketches in a variety of positions, finally
planning the David to have his face toward Heaven while stroking a lyre.
While assistants carved the marble, Leonardo studied music boxes and the
human voice, creating a series of leather tubes powered by a hidden
bellows and recorded positions of flaps on metal discs. Tiny levers and
tubes would run through hollowed holes in the marble. The final statue
(finished in 1507) was unable to produce recognizable words, but his
humming was described as "angelic" by all who saw it. David's arm moved on
a rotating gear, striking three notes on the carefully crafted enormous
lyre that rested in his hands.
The robotic David astounded Florence, spreading Leonardo's fame throughout
Europe. King Louis XII brought Leonardo to court, ordering as many moving
statues as the artist could produce until his death in 1519. His workshop
continued his work afterward, and multiple workshops sprang up emulating
their techniques. A fury for automatons ran through Europe, leading to the
Clockwork Revolution of the seventeenth century when labor-saving devices
were routinely created by out-of-work artists and architects. Self-rising
buckets from wells, continually pounding hammers powered by hot air in
blacksmiths' forges, and the sewing machine changed life as the
Enlightenment blossomed. With the adoption of steam power in the early
1700s, factories began to usher in the Industrial Revolution.
Michelangelo, meanwhile, returned to Rome after creating a bust of Mona,
wife of the wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, noted
for its cryptic frown, almost as if frozen in a sigh. In Rome, he worked
mainly on tombstones for the wealthy and powerful while his rival Raphael
painted the well received, but not revolutionary, ceiling of the Sistine