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15 Things You Might Not Know About Michelangelo’s David

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Few statues are as enduring and iconic as Michelangelo's David. But while much of the world could sketch this majestic masterpiece from memory, few know the quirks and curiosities that went into its creation.

1. IT’S A RELIGIOUS STATUE. 

At first glance, Michelangelo’s famed naked man may not scream “biblical hero.” But if you look closely, David cradles a sling over his left shoulder and clutches a rock in his right hand. These items and the statue’s name identify the subject as the David who faced down the vicious giant Goliath. Michelangelo broke from convention by not including the future king’s fearsome foe in his sculpture. In a further departure from tradition, art historians believe David depicts the legendary underdog before the great battle, in part because of the anxiety that’s clearly etched on his face. 

2. IT'S LARGER THAN LIFE. 

David stands 17 feet tall, nearly three times the size of the average man. 

3. HIS RIGHT HAND IS OUT OF PROPORTION.

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It's too big to fit perfectly with the rest of his body. This asymmetry is believed to be Michelangelo's clever nod to David's nickname, manu fortis—strong of hand. 

4. DAVID IS LEFT-HANDED.

You can tell he’s a southpaw from where the slingshot lies—but strangely, his body position is more suggestive of a righty.

5. THE STATUE IS CARVED FROM A SINGLE BLOCK OF UNWANTED MARBLE.

The block of marble that became one of history’s most famous masterpieces proves the old cliché about one man’s trash being another’s treasure. Michelangelo created David from a piece of marble that had been twice discarded by other sculptors. Agostino di Duccio gave up on a project using the block, after which it sat untouched for 10 years. At that point, Antonio Rossellino took a crack at the block but decided it was too much of a pain to work with. When Michelangelo finally got his hands on it, the marble had been waiting for 40 years for someone who was up to its challenge. 

6. DAVID WAS INTENDED FOR GREAT HEIGHTS. 

In 1501, the city government of Florence commissioned Michelangelo to create the piece as part of a series of statues meant to adorn the roofline of Florence's cathedral dome. But upon its completion, Michelangelo's patrons were so overwhelmed by David's beauty that they decided to scrap that plan and place it where it could be appreciated up close. In 2010, a Florence art project showed David as it was intended, perching a replica high on the Cathedral's exterior, as well as in every other spot that had been suggested upon its completion in 1504. 

7. IT EARNED RAVE REVIEWS FROM THE START. 

Sixteenth century Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari wrote of David, "Whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or in other times." With praise like that, how could the people of Florence tuck the statue up high on a rooftop? 

8. IT CEMENTED MICHELANGELO’S REPUTATION. 

Five years before David's debut, Michelangelo's Pieta made him famous. But it was his David that defined the 29-year-old High Renaissance artist as a master sculptor. Four years later, in 1508, he would begin work on his greatest painting achievement in the Sistine Chapel

9. DAVID PULLED INSPIRATION FROM ANCIENT ROMAN ART. 

Specifically, it's believed that Michelangelo based David's pose on depictions of Hercules, a hero with deep ties to the city of Florence who had even appeared on the Florentine seal for centuries. By creating such a glorious statue in the Roman tradition, Michelangelo helped ensure the work was instantly embraced by the people of Florence. 

10. FOR DECADES, DAVID WAS A POLITICAL SYMBOL. 

After much debate, David was placed outside Florence's government offices in the Palazzo Della Signoria, creating a strong connection in the public's mind. In 1494, the powerful Medici family was exiled from Florence, and as such this new republic was under constant threat from both the returning Medicis (who regained power in 1512) and the surrounding states, making Florence feel like the biblical David. It's said the statue's wary gaze was knowingly pointed toward Rome. 

These political overtones led to the statue being attacked twice in its early days. Protesters pelted it with stones the year it debuted, and, in 1527, an anti-Medici riot resulted in its left arm being broken into three pieces.  

11. IT HAS WEATHERED MODERN ATTACKS, TOO. 

On September 14, 1991, Italian artist Piero Cannata snuck a small hammer into the statue's home at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. He approached the towering statue and promptly smashed off the second toe on his left foot. The museum's visitors leapt into action, converging on David's attacker, preventing him from doing any further damage and subduing him until the police arrived. When asked why he'd do such a thing, Cannata claimed that a model for the Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese, who was a rough contemporary of Michelangelo, had asked him to do it. 

12. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE DAVID. 

Since David is one of the world's most popular pieces of art, there are reproductions of it on t-shirts, mouse pads, and just about any medium you can imagine. But even full-fledged replicas exist—and Florence has two of them: While the real David sits in a museum, a full-sized copy stands in its original place in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, and a bronzed replica towers over the city from its perch on Piazzale Michelangelo. 

13. DAVID IS OCCASIONALLY CENSORED. 

Fans of The Simpsons will recall a plot where the locals of Springfield demand that David put on some pants. While this request was used as a comical extreme of censorship, it mirrored actual events in the nude statue's past. 

In 1857, the Grand Duke of Tuscany surprised England's Queen Victoria with a replica of Michelangelo's David. It's said the prim royal was so scandalized by the piece's nudity that a detachable plaster cast fig leaf was created to preserve the modesty of this marble man and protect the gentlewomen who might visit him at the modern day Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 

14. TOURISTS ARE HARD ON DAVID. 

Over 8 million visitors a year tromp through the Galleria dell'Accademia to take in the sight of David. Unfortunately, studies show that all this foot traffic creates vibrations that amount to little, near-constant earthquakes that are tearing at the marble and through recent restoration work of the centuries-old piece. 

15. DAVID’S OWNERSHIP IS A TRICKY QUESTION. 

David has stood on display at Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia since 1873. But as more and more tourists were drawn to take in the wonder of David, the Italian government began to itch to define the national treasure's ownership. In 2010, the Italian government began a campaign to solidify its claim to the iconic marble statue. 

Does the statue belong to the city of Florence or the nation of Italy? An ongoing court case is burrowing through the history of both to decide. Florence mayor Matteo Renzi declared, "This is a new instance of David versus Goliath. Our battle is for a different way of managing the cultural patrimony of a city that lives off culture." Perhaps it's time to point David's eyes to Rome once more.

All images courtesy of Getty Images.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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