Statue of David
The giant marble block that later became the famous David had a storied history. Forty years before Michelangelo got his hands on it, the five-meter stone had been quarried for use by sculptor Agostino di Duccio, then an assistant to the master, Donatello. Di Duccio envisioned an enormous statue of David suspended from a Florence cathedral’s buttresses, but after two years of hacking away at the rock, he gave up. (Like many of history’s finest quitters, he blamed his tools, and cursed the marble for being too difficult to work with.)
Di Duccio’s partially sculpted block sat untouched until 1474, when the sculptor Antonio Rossellino tried his hand at it, but it bested him after only a few months. (He too complained about the marble’s intractability.) Finally, in 1501, the daunting task of finding the David in that now-spoiled rock was assigned to Michelangelo, just 26 years old at the time. Adding to his already thorny challenge, he promised to complete the statue without cutting it down significantly or adding any new pieces of marble to it.
Michelangelo toiled at it for three years and created a masterpiece. In fact, his contemporaries were so enamored with the work that they refused to relegate it to the upper regions of a cathedral. Instead, a committee voted to have it placed prominently at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, the headquarters of city government. Amazingly, the Statue of David sat there for more than 350 years – at the mercy of the wind and the elements – until it was finally moved to its present location in Florence’s Galleria dell’-Academia.
The Mona Lisa
Arguably the most famous painting of all time, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has also proven to be one of the art world’s most enduring enigmas, particularly because the identity of his sitter – if in fact he had one – has long been a subject of contention. Part of the problem is that when Leonardo completed his masterpiece in 1507, after four years of work, he declined to give it a name. “Mona Lisa” – meaning “madam Lisa” in Italian – was a name given to the painting in 1550 by painter Giorgio Vasari, who surmised that the woman in question was Lisa Gherardini, the young wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. And while other guesses have been made since then, none have been confirmed.
Strangely, Leonardo kept the Lisa to himself, meaning that whoever commissioned the painting from him never received it. Loathe to part with what had become his favorite piece, it traveled everywhere with him until the end of his life. (Records indicate he probably retouched and refined it for more than 10 years after it was “finished,” further revealing the extent of his strange obsession with it.) After his death it was bought by the King of France and remained in royal hands for more than two hundred years. When the French Revolution turned the country upside down, the masterpiece was transferred to its current home, the Louvre. It was, however, “borrowed” by Napoleon Bonaparte, who used it to decorate his bedroom for a while.
Venus De Milo
If the Mona Lisa is the world’s most renowned painting, then the ancient Venus de Milo is the world’s most recognizable piece of art, hands down. Speaking of which, the famously armless statue wasn’t always a double amputee; when a Greek farmer named Yorgos Kentrotas unearthed the Venus among the ruins of the ancient city of Milos in 1820, he also found bits of a broken arm and a hand holding an apple.
The statue was promptly bought by a visiting French naval officer, and upon its arrival in Paris was installed in (you guessed it) the Louvre. Unfortunately the efforts to date the Venus were bungled when a decorative column was also found alongside her. Inscribed in Greek, the column read: “Alexandros son of Menides citizen of Antioch made the statue.” Trouble was, the city of Antioch wasn’t founded until 280 BCE and the French wanted to believe that the statue was made during ancient Greece’s golden age, some 200 years earlier. (Great art, they reasoned, flowered only under great systems of government.) the French were also in need of new art at that time, since Napoleon had been forced to return many of his plundered antiquities after his defeat at Waterloo. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that detectives finally cracked Venus’ age. Unfortunately, the result embarrassed museum officials since the statue only dated back to 80 BCE, long after the Greek classical age ended.
It is amazing to ponder that the artist behind one of the world’s most famous icons failed the entrance exam to Parisian art school 3 years in a row. Well, the plugging away as a sculptor’s assistant certainly did Rodin good, since he’d honed his skills by the time he got around to the Thinker. Originally designed to be a statue of Dante Alighieri, Rodin’s monumental work – which was to be known as The Poet – evolved into a representation of all creative people. Commissioned by Paris’s Museum of Decorative Arts in 1880, the work served as the centerpiece of a series of Divine Comedy-inspired statues. In it, Dante was placed at the top of a bronze-carved interpretation of the Gates of hell, looking down upon his epic poem’s characters.
The Thinker was first exhibited in a joint show with Claude Monet in 1889, and at that time it was a mere 27 inches tall. Rodin exhibited his first life-size enlargement of the piece in 1904, after which the most famous cast of it was placed in front of the Pantheon, in Paris.