Hercules & David lost in gardens

Michelangelo statues vanish in France

Michelangelo sketches for the lost marble Hercules, and the lost bronze David
Facsimiles of Michelangelo's sketches for the lost marble Hercules, left, and the lost bronze David, right.

Florence, 1490. A teenager named Michelangelo Buonarroti visited the Medici sculpture garden, aiming to learn from Antiquity, by copying ancient statues. During the previous one thousand years it seemed like the ambition and skill of the ancients had vanished. In the days of the Roman Empire, marble sculptures were so common that it was said there were as many Romans made of marble as there were those of flesh and bones. As to the fine and expensive bronze statues, why bother to count them in a world when “there were three thousand statues erected on the stage of a temporary theatre”.
By the time young Michelangelo admired what remained of the past, his era was called the Renaissance, meaning rebirth, for its attempts at reviving the genius of Antiquity.

When his patron Lorenzo da Medici died, seventeen year-old Michelangelo declared “I am carving a figure for my own pleasure”. Of his own accord, having never sculpted a three dimensional marble figure before, he turned a large block of marble, cheaper than usual for having been out in the rain, into a statue of 2,33 meters (7,7 ft).

Not only was it taller than life, it was larger than almost any statue carved for the previous 1,000 years.

The stage was set for Michelangelo's ambition, rivalling with antiquity and surpassing his contemporaries.

What happened to Michelangelo's first masterpiece? Francis I, King of France, had already shown his love for art by providing an honourable retirement to an elderly Leonardo. He was now desperate to own a Michelangelo statue. Eventually the King got his wish when the statue of Hercules was shipped to France.

There are a few testimonies about the statue, like the 'description of the marvels of Fontainebleau', “what is particularly remarkable in this garden, is a most beautiful and large white marble statue, representing Hercules, that the past King had found in this castle and had raised on a pedestal. It is by Michelangelo”.

Then we hear that in 1713 the garden was redesigned. The reader will discover what happened to the statue.

Michelangelo also crafted bronze statues. Quite reluctantly at first, for the Pope had to force Michelangelo to produce his portrait. “I was forced to go there with a rope round my neck to beg his pardon. He ordered me to make his portrait in bronze, sitting, about seven cubits”. The reader will discover what happened to this statue.

What is less known is that while he was carving the colossal marble David, he also was modelling a life-scale bronze version of David, but with a different design. For the marble, Michelangelo was constrained, as the space between the legs was already carved, the block was shallow, so he had very little freedom to compose his masterpiece.

In bronze, however, there was no limit as to what Michelangelo could do.

His biographer stated that “the David was erected in the year 1504; this statue brought great fame to Michelangelo in the art of sculpture, and, as a result, he cast an extremely beautiful David in bronze”.

Like the previous masterpiece, Michelangelo's bronze David ended in a French castle's garden, where a poet praised its quality stating that “any sculptor says that it is worth its weight in gold, such is the quality of the cast”. The reader will then discover what happened during the French Revolution…

This is a preview of the chapter about the loss of Michelangelo's marble Hercules in Fontainebleau and bronze David masterpieces from the book Lost Treasures.