How a Rejected Block of Marble Became the World’s Most Famous Statue

Florence, Italy Statue of David by Michelangelo
© massimo lama/

At the start of the 16th century the Opera del Duomo—the committee of officials in charge of the decoration and maintenance of the Florence cathedral—had a tricky unfinished project on its hands. A document from 1501 refers to a massive barely begun statue, “a certain man of marble, named David, badly blocked out and laid on its back in the courtyard.” The stone was a leftover from a long-running decorative project: in 1408 the committee had decided to decorate the roofline around the dome of the cathedral with massive statues of biblical prophets and mythological figures. The first two, put into place in the early 15th century, were a statue of Joshua sculpted in terra-cotta by Donatello and painted white to look like marble, and a statue of Hercules, sculpted by one of Donatello’s students, Agostino di Duccio.

A statue of David, the Biblical hero who slayed the giant Goliath, had been ordered in 1464. This commission went to Agostino, and a huge slab of marble was extracted from the Carrara quarries in Tuscany, Italy, for the project. For unknown reasons Agostino abandoned the project after doing only a little work, mostly roughing out around the legs.

Another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was hired to take over the project in 1476, but he backed out almost immediately, citing the poor quality of the marble. (Modern scientific analyses of the marble have confirmed that it is indeed of mediocre quality.) Left without a sculptor but too expensive to throw away, the massive slab sat out in the elements for a quarter century.

In the summer of 1501 a new effort was made to find a sculptor who could finish the statue. The 26-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was chosen and given two years to complete it. Early in the morning on September 13, 1501, the young artist got to work on the slab, extracting the figure of David in a miraculous process that the artist and writer Giorgio Vasari would later describe as “the bringing back to life of one who was dead.”

In 1504, as Michelangelo finished his work, Florentine officials concluded that the statue was too heavy to place in its intended location on the roofline of the cathedral. A committee of artists, including Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, met and decided that the statue should be placed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In 1873 it was moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and a replica was erected at the original site.

There are several aesthetic aspects of the David statue that may be connected with the tortuous process by which it was commissioned and created. The figure, although muscular, is slimmer than the bodybuilder-like physiques that are typical of Michelangelo’s other works. This may be because the marble slab was narrow, having been cut with the thinner statues of Donatello and Agostino’s era in mind. The absence of David’s traditional accoutrements, a sword and the severed head of Goliath, may be because there was no room to carve them in the block of marble or possibly because they would have been invisible once the statue was put in place on the cathedral roof. Likewise, David’s disproportionately large right hand and prominent facial expression may have been exaggerated to ensure that they would be legible to spectators on the ground.

WRITTEN BY:  The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 

The Battle of Zama – Hannibal meets his nemesis

Zama battlefield © Wood Brothers

Our long cycling journey following Hannibal’s trail has come to an end, appropriately where the Carthaginian general met his first and last major defeat – at the Battle of Zama.

Hannibal had been recalled to Africa to defend his homeland against an invasion by the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio. For nearly 20 years Hannibal had waged war from Spain to Italy without seeing his native land. Coming home must have been an unusual experience for him after spending most of his adult life – 15 years – fighting Romans in Italy.

His native land probably looked as foreign to him as it did to us as we rode from the capital of modern day Tunisia, the port city of Tunis, about 150 kilometres south-west to the town of Siliana and then to the village of Jama, thought to be right in the middle of the battlefield.

Jama overlooks a wide and rolling landscape of olive groves and brown farming land, surrounded by hills. When we arrived the local villagers were walking or riding donkeys down to their local fountain to collect water – ruined, empty Roman water cisterns in the village attest to a once far more convenient water supply.

Their simple, whitewashed, dusty homes were more like huts than houses, with empty spaces in the walls instead of windows and surrounded by marauding chickens and sheep. Life here appears to have changed little since Hannibal’s day. And yet in 202 BC a battle that changed the course of history was fought here between two of the greatest generals of antiquity.

Unlike at the battles of Cannae, Trasimene and Trebbia, for the first time, Hannibal was outnumbered in the cavalry department. Most of his valuable Numidian allies had defected and with them his crack horsemen. But he had about 80 war elephants and according to Polybius had assembled an army of 50,000 men, against Scipio’s 45,000.

On the eve of the battle Hannibal requested a meeting with Scipio and the two men met face to face. Perhaps unusually, Hannibal was not very keen to fight and tried to negotiate peace terms but they were flatly refused by the Roman general.

According to Livy, Hannibal was still giving orders to his men when his elephants were surprised by the sudden advance of the Romans and because of the loud trumpet calls and war cries the animals panicked, trampling Hannibal’s own men. Those elephants that did attack the Romans were allowed to harmlessly pass through the Roman ranks thanks to Scipio’s battle formation that left wide alleys between the ranks to allow the beasts to harmlessly go by.

Scipio also used Hannibal’s famous encirclement tactics against him by first defeating the Carthaginian cavalry and then encircling the enemy infantry and attacking them from behind. Nonetheless it was a closely fought contest – Hannibal’s veteran infantry were holding the Romans until the enemy cavalry attacked them from the rear.

It was a conclusive defeat for Hannibal – he escaped the field of battle and returned to Carthage where he encouraged his fellow citizens to sue for peace. The Second Punic War was over.

And after a cycling journey that has taken us from Cartagena in southern Spain, up the Iberian coastline, over the Pyrenees, through southern France, over the Alps, through Italy and finally to Tunisia, our campaign is over too. Rather surprisingly, after Zama, Hannibal was not executed by the Romans. Instead he became a politician in the Carthaginian senate and after a few years fled to Bythinia in modern day Turkey. There he tried and failed to raise an even greater army with the help of local despots that could defeat his old foe.

In the end the Romans got sick of him and many years later when he knew the Romans were about to capture him, rather than give himself up, Hannibal took poison. He was 65 years old.

And after our long days of cycling, we feel about 65 too. We’re safely back in London now, which is a strange feeling after such a long cycling epic. A few days after its end our trip already seems like a dream. Pretty soon, rather like Hannibal’s war, our 10 weeks of adventures on Hannibal’s trail, will no doubt seem like a very long time ago.

By The Wood Brothers  BBC History 

The perfect pasta dish Sardinians refuse to share

Malloreddus is a dumpling-like pasta ubiquitous in Sardinia (Credit: Credit: David Farley)

Malloreddus alla Campidanese can only be found on the Italian island, making it the quintessential pasta dish of Sardinia – and the one dish every visitor must try.

Malloreddus is not a malady. It just sounds like one. This I learned when I was perusing the menu of Arco Café, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Soon enough, the affable Daniel Fiori, co-owner of the Sardinian restaurant, was sitting at my table explaining to me just what malloreddus is.

“It’s our national dish,” he said, if by ‘national’ he means Sardinia, and if that Italian island were an autonomous nation.

It’s our national dish

This dumpling-like pasta is ubiquitous in Sardinia, Fiori told me. “We make it with a breadbasket.” I cocked my head like a confused dog and Fiori went back in the kitchen, returning with a small wicker breadbasket and a fistful of dough. Rolling a small piece of dough to a string-like shape, he then flattened it out and curled the two sides together to create a dumpling. Then he rolled it down the back of the basket and showed it to me in the palm of his hand: the once-smooth dumpling now had grooves in it.

“The grooves capture the pasta sauce,” he said.

Malloreddus is a dumpling-like pasta ubiquitous in Sardinia (Credit: Credit: David Farley)

Malloreddus is a dumpling-like pasta ubiquitous in Sardinia (Credit: David Farley)


A few minutes later, I had a bowl of the malloreddus in front of me, slathered in a ragu of tomatoes, sausage and saffron. This is Sardinia’s most traditional dish: malloreddus alla Campidanese, a pasta dish named for Campidano, the fertile plain in the island’s south-west. “There are different types of pasta all over Italy, but this dish is unique. It’s 100% Sardinian.”

And he’s right: how many Italian dishes are laced with saffron? The spice, some food historians believe, was brought to Sardinia by the Phoenicians who arrived on the island from the Middle East a couple of millennia ago, revealing just how unique Sardinia and its cuisine is.

Mention Sardinia to any mainland-dwelling Italian, and they’ll swoon the second the name leaves your lips. To say that Sardinia has captured the imagination of Italians from the tip to the top of the boot would almost be an understatement. And just from a few bites of malloreddus alla Campidanese – the unctuous sausage, the chewy pasta, the tangy tomatoes and the hint of saffron poking through on my palate – it’s easy to see why. By the time I walked out of Arco Café, I decided I had to try the dish in its native land.

Sardinia has captured the imagination of mainland Italians (Credit: Credit: Montico Lionel/ Images)

Sardinia has captured the imagination of mainland Italians (Credit: Montico Lionel/ Images)


After a little research, I discovered that all is not well in Sardinia in terms of its malloreddus production. Specifically, the state of Sardinia’s wheat. Italy has always relied on Sardinia for its high-quality durum wheat (from which malloreddus is made). In fact, the island – particularly Campideno – is utterly fertile, its wheat fields considered to be golden by generations of Sardinians and the empires that have swept through the island. The fields are so prized, in fact, that they’re one of the reasons the island has been occupied by foreign invaders through the centuries. The Carthaginians, for example, had a rule that ensured the wheat fields stayed in full sunlight by threatening to kill anyone who planted a single tree. A few centuries later, the Romans exploited the land and imported its goods throughout the empire: the island wasn’t called ‘Rome’s granary’ for nothing. From the 3rd to the 1st Century BC, the Campidano’s seven people per square kilometre produced half of all the grain that was used to feed the Roman army.

The Campidano’s seven people per square kilometre produced half of all the grain that was used to feed the Roman army

So, herein lies the problem: durum wheat production is dwindling. In the early 2000s, Sardinians cultivated 90,000 hectares of it. Now there’s less than 35,000. Farmers on the island still feel like they’re being exploited by Rome, as the government subsidies they receive are scant compared to farmers on the mainland. In November, a union of grain farmers in the Campidano and neighbouring region launched La Banca Etica dei Cereali, an organisation that demands no ‘foreign’ (read: mainland Italian) grain be used in the production of anything being labelled as Sardinian.

Is Sardinia’s most traditional dish under threat? I had to find out.

Mainland Italy has always relied on Sardinia for high-quality durum wheat (Credit: Credit: REDA&CO/Getty Images)

Mainland Italy has always relied on Sardinia for high-quality durum wheat (Credit: REDA&CO/Getty Images)


A few weeks later, I was standing in front of Michele Bacciu, executive chef at Cala di Volpe, inside a hotel of the same name, on Sardinia’s Costa Smerelda. He had agreed to show me how the dish is made. He rolled the balled-up pieces of dough down a ciurili, a rectangular board vertically beset with ridges and grooves (thus creating the shallow lines in the pasta), and explained the importance of malloreddus alla Campidanese to Sardinia. “It’s all Sardinia,” he said. “The tomatoes and wheat are grown here. The sausage is made here. And the saffron comes from here, too.”

He held out his hand, much like Fiori did back in New York, to show me the just-rolled malloreddus, looking not unlike a butterworm. Then he placed the small mound of malloreddus in a pot filled with bubbling, saffron-spiked tomato ragu. “The problem,” Bacciu continued, “is that the wheat we produce – not to mention the pecorino cheese we make here, too – big corporations from the mainland want to come and pay our farmers a low price for it, and ours is the highest quality.” He stopped and looked off into the distance. “We should keep our great products for us, for Sardinia!”

Daniel Fiori: There are different types of pasta all over Italy, but this dish is unique (Credit: Credit: David Farley)

Daniel Fiori: There are different types of pasta all over Italy, but this dish is unique (Credit: David Farley)


Depending on who you ask, the name ‘malloreddus’ either comes from the local word malloru, which means ‘bull’ because the finished pasta looks like a small bovine, or from the Latin word mallolus, meaning ‘morsel’. It’s unclear when malloreddus all Campidanese first appeared, but in many ways it makes sense that the island’s most popular dish is a hearty pasta made of beef (or lamb) and not seafood: because constant fear of invasion, Sardinia’s population retreated inland, turning its back on the sea, leaving the coasts largely unspoiled. Instead, farmers and shepherds cultivated their wheat fields and herds of lambs and cows far inland, thus developing a cuisine that largely relied on meat and not fish. Hence, a meaty ragu and a unique pasta shape became the most traditional dish of Sardinia. There are other Sardinian dishes that incorporate this pasta shape: for example, in the northwest of the island, populated by descendants of Catalonia, malloreddus ends up in a paella-like dish. But the ragu-topped version is the most popular.

A few days later, I met up with my friend and fellow BBC contributor Eliot Stein. Having lived on Sardinia for two years and written a couple of guidebooks on the island (plus countless travel articles), he’s nearly an honorary local. “Not only is it smart for the local farmers to want their ingredients for themselves, but it reflects a recent trend of Sardinians proudly embracing their Sarditá – their Sardinian identity,” Stein said as we dug into bowls of malloreddus at Il Pescatore restaurant in the small town of Cervo. “You have to understand that the island has been invaded and mistreated by most everyone who has ever sailed through the Mediterranean. And even today, many Sardinians feel like they’re not receiving adequate subsidies from their latest landlords: Italians.”

Malloreddus alla Campidanese is made with a rich ragu made from tomatoes, sausage and saffron (Credit: Credit: David Farley)

Malloreddus alla Campidanese is made with a rich ragu made from tomatoes, sausage and saffron (Credit: David Farley)


Stein, who was on the island for an assignment, said of Malloreddus: “It just tastes like Sardinia to me. It’s a hearty, rugged dish whose beauty lies in its simplicity. Every ingredient tells a story of the island’s history. It’s as Sardinian as nuraghimamuthones and canto a tenore. It’s the one thing people from all corners of this amazing island will agree on.”

And with that, we sat in silence for a few minutes, savouring the last few bites of our malloreddus alla Campidanese, the tomatoes, lamb sausage and saffron lurking in the grooves of the pasta, conspiring to create a taste explosion with each bite. I took a sip of wine hoping that next time I’m back in Sardinia there will still be plenty of malloreddus to eat.

By David Farley  BBC Travel