The most famous man in Florence is Michelangelo's David. Six days a week tourists pack Via Ricasoli, often spending hours in a slow-crawling line for an opportunity to see the Carrara marble colossus in person. Forward movement in the line can often seem non-existent, especially as the tour buses begin to unload alongside the Piazza San Marco. These day-trippers arrive with priority entrance tickets that preempt those who may have already spent hours in the strengthening sun. A long wait becomes longer, and you must feel sympathy for those who voice an oft-heard observation: surely this could be handled more efficiently?
This is undeniably true; David was not crafted to live indoors, away from the rain, the wind, and the relentless sun. In fact, he was supposed to be placed among a throng of prophets on the roof of the Duomo, standing watch over the city. When completed in 1504, the plan was altered, and David was erected in the Piazza della Signoria, right in front of the main entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, the administrative center of the newly-founded Florentine republic.
Piero de Medici had been driven out of Florence in 1494, and after a brief experiment with theocracy under Savonarola, the city experienced several years of democratic government. Unfortunately, Renaissance Florence had enemies: the other northern Italian republics, the exiled Medici, France, and even the Pope hoped to gain control of the city. When Michelangelo finished his work, David was seen as an appropriate symbol of the Republic's defiance, a plucky hero who had vanquished his adversaries. The seventeen foot statue was a marble symbol of Florence's determination to preserve its autonomy.
The experiment, unfortunately, did not endure. The Medici returned, supported by the armies of the Pope. In 1533, Alessandro de Medici was named Duke of Florence, an action that served as the death knell for democratic rule in Florence. To commemorate this transition, the Medici commissioned another statue – Bandinelli's Hercules crushing the head of Cacus. Like David this new statue could also be seen as a warning, but this time its gaze was turned inward, against the opponents of the Medici. The vanquished Cacus, a fire-breathing monster out of Roman mythology, symbolized the Republic. Hercules represented the Medici, returned to power after defeating their enemies.
Today both statues stand in tandem before the doors of the Palazzo Vecchio. The original David was moved into the Accademia in 1873, replaced, in 1910, with a copy. Bandinelli's Hercules, never as loved, has been forced to take his chances outside. Together, the pair remind modern Florentines of their glorious defiance, and serve as a potent warning to those who would wish Florence harm.