One day, the Fantiscritti quarry in Carrara extracted a block of marble that many artists were to cast aside, but which would finally become a genuine symbol of the beauty humankind is capable of creating. The chunk of rock, 5.8m tall, sailed the Mediterranean. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti meditated on the material with lyricism: “I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition.” And if we accept this idea, then it is easy to imagine the intense and defiant expression of David, waiting inside that block of marble as it journeyed up the Arno River to Florence.

David wouldn’t have turned out as it did if it hadn’t been for that specific block. It wouldn’t cause the same admiration among specialists, perhaps, and tourists wouldn’t stop before it, transfixed. The story could have been quite different: what set it on the right course was nothing but a series of coincidences combined with the determination of Michelangelo, still in his twenties.

When the sculptor found the block of marble, it had already been rejected by other artists on a number of occasions; it even had cracks and holes. Years earlier, a certain Francesco di Simone had attempted to sculpt it. What’s more, the geometry of the piece itself, which was tall and slender, complicated the task yet further. Some, such as Antonio Rossellino, took up their chisel and mallet only later to desist, leaving the marble even more beaten up.

When Michelangelo came to the piece, it was eroded by the failure of others. Over two decades earlier, the Duomo Opera has commissioned Agostino di Duccio to sculpt a representation of David; the artist set about the task but finally gave up. So it was that in 1501, Michelangelo took on the project, which had been abandoned for various years. He wrote in his diary: “When I returned [to Florence] I discovered that I was famous. The city authorities asked me to sculpt a monumental David from a block of marble that was damaged! And almost six metres tall.” He did not shrink from the task, however. For two years, he chipped away at the monolith until, at last, the biblical hero sleeping inside emerged and took on new life.

It had to be that block and no other because, apparently, the scars and damage to the marble conditioned the final outcome of the work. Michelangelo was forced to contend with them, to make the most of them, like the artist who eliminates a bad tattoo by building a larger, more beautiful creation from the original disaster. Despite the obstacles, he created one of the greatest icons of universal culture. He played with proportion: the figure’s right hand and head are bigger than they should be. Some experts claim that he sought to represent the importance of intelligence in David’s battle against the giant; others, however, believe that his aim was for the figure to appear correctly proportioned when viewed from a distance. David would come to exemplify the technical sophistication of the Renaissance.

The figure is not only a Renaissance icon for its artistic quality, but also for its symbolism. The world inherited from the Middle Ages seemed useless, impossible to transform into anything of beauty; nevertheless, like the block that became David, in the end it managed to flourish.