Giuseppe Rizzo is an art historian with a specialism on the life and works of Clemente Papi. Giuseppe works at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Although there are many copies of Michelangelo’s David in museums around the world, the full-size-replica exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum should be considered as ‘unique’. The cast was made by the plaster cast maker and Royal Founder Clemente Papi in 1856 in Florence, and was cast from the pieces that he had used to create the first copy of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in 1847. The V&A’s David was also the first copy to cross the Florentine borders, and arrived in England in 1857.
Why was the colossal statue of David reproduced for the V&A and how did it travel from Florence to London?
Until the 1830s the statue of Michelangelo’s David, exhibited since 1504 in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, was not considered to be a work of art that could be reproduced. However, owing to its poor condition after three centuries of exposure to Florentine weather, the sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini suggested that the original should be moved to another location and be replaced with a copy.
This idea won public support and in 1846 the Grand Duke of Tuscany Leopold II ordered the artist Clemente Papi to make a bronze copy. Papi started by making a plaster cast of the entire statue in 1847 and a bronze copy. This was used to test the visual effects of possible new locations for the original David in prominent places throughout the city, including the Loggia dei Lanzi to the Piazzale degli Uffizi and the Bargello Museum. None of these locations were found to be suitable, and so the plaster cast was stored and ended up in the Royal Academy of Art. [For a fuller account, see Giuliana Videtta Guest Post:Part-1]. However, Papi’s plaster cast was used to make the V&A’s David.
In 1855, the Grand Duke of Tuscany ordered Papi to make a second plaster cast copy of David, to give to Queen Victoria of England. The reason for this new replica was diplomatic- an attempt by the Grand Duke to counterbalance an export ban. The National Gallery of London had hoped to buy the altarpiece depicting the Madonna enthroned with Angels and Saints, painted by Domenico del Ghilrlandaio in 1486 for the Church of San Giusto degli Ingesuati, and transferred to the Church of San Giovanni Battista della Calza, Florence in 1830 [See link here]. The sale was blocked from being sold, and the painting ended up in the Uffizi Gallery in 1853.
The negotiations for commissioning the replica of David began in the Autumn of 1855 and on the 19th of November Clemente Papi provided the Royal Department of Finances with an estimate of 1,511.15 Lire for the costs of executing the plaster cast, and excluding the remuneration for both his work and that of his two young assistants, of 30 sequins each.
The cast was made within a few months in the workshop of the Royal Academy of Art. At the end of April 1857 the carpenter Gasparo Cappelli completed the construction of three wooden boxes, in which pieces of David were to be transported.
In July 1857, when everything was ready for shipping, Papi sent his and the carpenter’s bill for payment. The Royal Depositary accepted the amount requested by Papi in making the cast because it was considered to be precise to the hundredth, but had doubts regarding the amount of 1,1701 Lire requested by the carpenter, as this sum was considered excessive compared to the estimate initially agreed. Papi was asked to consult Gasparo Cappelli to reduce the price, but after an embarrassing controversy, the Royal Department proceeded to pay the sum of Lire 2,572.17. Now, all that was left remaining was to finish packaging and sending the boxes, which had remained deposited on the ground floor of the Rondò di Bacco at Palazzo Pitti.
On August 27th 1856 the General Directorate of Water, Road and Civil Installations of the State ordered Papi to send the three boxes containing the plaster pieces of Michelangelo’s David to Leghorn. They also entrusted Clemente Papi with the task of supervising, with due care, the operations necessary for the entire journey. After travelling 101 kilometres on the rails of the Ferrata Leopolda track, one of the earliest simple railways in Italy, the crates arrived three day later at the Station of the Royal Naval Academy of Leghorn [see photo]. There, they were handed over to the Marquis of Normandy, the British consul in that city. The cost of the journey was 155 Lire.
The boxes were loaded onto the ‘Cheshire Witch’ ship and arrived in London on the 27th September 1856. Since Queen Victoria had had no notification of the Grand Duke’ gift, the crates were brought directly to the Foreign Office and then sent on the South Kensington Museum. By the end of 1857 the giant statue, which was over eighteen feet high, had been installed in the newly completed ‘Brompton Boilers’, the first permanent building on the South Kensington site.
The V&A David was the first replica outside Florence, and back in the city, discussions continued as to whether a bronze copy should be installed. Many intellectuals and artists argued that a bronze copy would look too different to the white colour of the original marble and so would compromise the general view of the Piazza. Clemente Papi only completed the bronze cast of the colossal statue in 1866, and then it was exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867, before being displayed on the Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence from 1874. The original David was moved to the Academia Gallery in 1873 and the Piazza della Signoria was left without a plaster cast replacement until 1911 (photo).
Giuseppe Rizzo is an art historian and is employed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. He has degrees in Museology from the University of Florence and History of Contemporary Art from the University of Siena. He is currently completing a PhD thesis at the University of Heidelberg on the rise of ‘neo-renaissance’ taste in early Victorian England through a study of the 2nd Duke and Duchess of Sutherland’s Grand Tour and their commissions of Florentine bronze casts from Clemente Papi.
I would like to thank Johanna Puisto, Giuliana Videtta e Rosarosa Manca for involving me in this series of blogs. I also thank Francesca Moschi and all the staff of the Historical Archives of the Florentine Galleries for assistance provided in the consultation of documents, and Rebecca Knott for editing.
All references relating to the cast of Michelangelo’s David and its journey from Florence to Leghorn are taken from the documents preserved in the followed folder at the Historical Archives of the Florentine Galleries: ASGF, 1856, n. 49. Getto in gesso del David di Michelangiolo da spedirsi a S. M. la Regina d’Inghilterra fatto dal R. Fonditore Clemente Papi e Spese relative al getto medesimo; il suo imbarco a Livorno e gratificazione data al Papi per questo lavoro.
Marcella Anglani, La moltiplicazione del David, in Michelangelo. Il David, a cura di A. Paolucci, G. M. Radke, F. Falletti, «Art e Dossier», 202, 2004.
Museums, Equality and Social Justice, edited by R. Sandell, E. Nightingale, New York 2012.
Ri-conoscere Michelangelo. La scultura del Buonarroti nella fotografia e nella pittura dall’Ottocento a oggi, cat. exh. (Florence, Galleria dell’Accademia, 18 February – 18 May 2014), edited by M. Maffioli and S. Bietoletti, Giunti, Florence 2014.