Michelangelo's David on the Duomo Roof

iStock.com/Daniel Chetroni
iStock.com/Daniel Chetroni / iStock.com/Daniel Chetroni

A version of this story originally appeared on The History Blog.

Michelangelo's iconic sculpture of David now stands in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, but that's not where it was originally supposed to go. Before it was moved to the Accademia in 1873, it stood guard outside the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence's city hall, for 370 years—but even that wasn't where it was first meant to be.

David’s history actually begins a hundred years before Michelangelo picked up the chisel. It was commissioned by the Overseers of the Office of Works (the Operai) of the Duomo, Florence's cathedral church, as one of a dozen sculptures of the Old Testament prophets which would adorn the roofline of the east side of the cathedral. Donatello made a Joshua out of terracotta for this project in 1410 (Joshua disappeared in the 18th century and has been lost ever since).

It wasn't until 1464 that the organization commissioned a David sculpture from Agostino di Duccio, a student of Donatello's. They gave him a massive block of Carrara marble, but he made little progress succeeding only in some rough blocking of the legs, torso and drapery before he gave up. Ten years later, another student of Donatello's, Antonio Rossellino, was given the commission. Daunted by Agostino's previous work and the many imperfections in the marble block that might prove fatal to the structure of so large a statue, Rossellino couldn't hack it either—so the huge block of marble just sat on its side in the yard of the cathedral workshop, exposed to the elements for another 25 years.

Finally, in August of 1501, the Operai gave the job to the 26-year-old Michelangelo. It took him just over 2 years to finish the 17-foot-tall statue. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece, but now there was a whole new set of issues to wrestle over: How were they supposed to hoist 17 feet and 6.4 tons of marble up to the cathedral roof? Also, given that the dozen Biblical figures plan never actually came to fruition, was the roof of the Duomo really the best place for this symbol of the Florentine Republic and its scrappy struggle against the tyrants who had sought to conquer it? Didn't a sculpture of such perfection deserve to be seen close up in all its detail, not from 80 meters (262 feet) below?

The Operai called a meeting in January 1504 of 30 Florentine luminaries and illustrious artists, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea della Robbia, and Perugino, to determine where the David should be placed. Botticelli thought it should go somewhere on or around the cathedral, but most everyone else thought it should go somewhere in the Piazza della Signoria. The debate continued to rage for months, until finally the Operai decided on the spot in front of the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria. It took 40 men four days to move the David, suspended from ropes inside a wooden cage pulled along on greased beams, half a mile from the courtyard where it was carved to its new home in Piazza della Signoria. There, David was placed with his powerful glare facing Florence's enemies in Rome.

Alas, no wooden cage or greased beams were used, but in November 2010, a fiberglass cast of the David was piled onto the back of a pickup, driven to the Duomo, and hoisted up to the buttress the original was meant to adorn. He seems quite teeny comparatively, but the extra-large proportions of his right hand and head make a lot more sense when you're looking up at him from such a distance.

The installation was the inaugural event of the Florens 2010 forum. Over the course of the week, fiberglass David was moved to the other locations proposed during the 1504 debate, like the Duomo's sagrato (the consecrated area in front of the cathedral) and the piazza next to the Duomo's workshop where Michelangelo worked on the sculpture.

You can see great footage of fiberglass David's Duomo adventure in this news story (in Italian):

A version of this story originally appeared on The History Blog.