With the fall of Savaonarola, the signoria, Florence's governing body, quickly moved to assert the republic's survival in visual terms. It moved Donatello's David from the Medici palace to the Palazzo della Signoria, where the governing body met to conduct business. It also asked Michelangel to return to Florence in 1501 to work on a huge cracked block of marble that all other sculptors had abandoned in dismay. It was to be another freestanding statue of the biblical hero David, but Colossal in scale. Michelangelo rose to the challenge.
The completed figure, over 17 feet high -- even higher on its pedestal - intentionally references Donatello's boyish predecessor but then challenges it. Michelangelo represents David before, not after, his triumph, sublimely confident, ready to take on whatever challenge faces him, just as the republic itself felt ready to take on all comers. The nudity of the figure and the contrapposto stance are directly indebted to the Medici celebration of all things ancient Greek. Its sense of self-contained, even heroic individualism captures perfectly the humanist spirit. Michaelangelo's triumph over the complexity of the stone transformed it into an artwork that his contemporaries lauded for its almost unparalleled beaty. It was an achievement that Michaelangelo would soon equal, in another medium, in his work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling a the Vatican, in Rome.
The fate of David underscores the political and moral turbulence of the times. Each night, as workers installed the stature in the Piazza della Signoria, supporters of the exiled Medici hurled stones at it, understanding, correctly, that the stature was a symbol of the city's will to stand up to any and all tyrannnical rule, including that of the Medici themselves. Another group of citizens soon objected to the statue's nudity, and before it was even installed in place, a skirt of copper leaves was prepared to spare the general public any possible offense. The skirt is long gone, but it sumboloizes the conflicts of the era, even as the sculpture itself can be thought of as truly inaugurating the High Renaissance.