Michelangelo’s David, the 17 foot, iconic, tour de force located in the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Florence, may be the most recognized art work in the world. Surely, the only competition is Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The unfinished slaves, however, though not quite as famous, may be even more influential in the history of sculpture and ideas. I will discuss that in Part Two of this post, in several days.
It’s hard to know how to start talking about a work that has been reproduced so much, that it’s almost become, if not a cliche, at least, a symbolic ideation of itself, rather than a real object. I can tell you, that not having seen it in person for forty years before this trip, my memory of it was mostly about it’s monumental size. And at 17 feet, monumental it is. What I had forgotten, and was unprepared for, was it’s sheer, utter beauty. There is something about the proportions, the pose, the combination of languor, wariness and fierce attention, the balance of elegance and physicality, that is just impossible to capture in reproductions. It’s the ultimate idealization of youthful manhood at a major tipping point. And again, there is something so ineffable that suffuses this work. The only word I can think of to describe it, is beauty. That is not a word I use in the traditional sense very often. But the David is truly an apotheosis of youthful beauty.
Michelangelo was not the first artist to have worked on this piece of marble. Two others had previously been commissioned to do the work and been fired. As well as being exceptionally tall, the giant slab of marble was relatively narrow from front to back, making the blocking of the composition extremely difficult. The stone sat untouched, though partially worked, for twenty five years before Michelangelo was hired in 1501 at the age of 26. He had just finished the Pieta, which resides in St. Peter’s Basilica, and was considered the masterpiece of his early years. The Pieta is done in a significantly different style than the David. It is much more highly polished, intricately worked, and detailed, than most of his later work was to be.
The David , along with other statues of the Prophets, was originally meant to be put on the roofline of the Duomo, the major Cathedral of Florence. Everyone remarks on certain proportional exaggerations, like the oversized hands, particularly the right one, the enlarged head and neck, and the longer left leg. For me, the oversized right hand and head, lends the figure an air of almost gangly adolescence. Michelangelo was theoretically conceiving a work to be looked up at from a great height, not seen floor level, as in a gallery. However, I find these exaggerations to have an emotional resonance that is crucially important, way beyond just the element of spatial adjustment that was necessary. Anyway, here it is from different angles.
After almost two and a half years work, the commissioning authorities realized that the statue, weighing over six tons, could never be raised to it’s originally intended location. Instead, it was placed at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, in effect, the town hall of Florence, in the Piazza della Signoria. David, slayer of the larger Goliath, was created to symbolize the defense of the Republic and her freedoms, against enemies far and near. The head was oriented towards Rome. His appraising look of focused aggression about to be uncoiled was a clear political statement.
Most earlier representations of David show him after slaying the giant. They are victory celebrations. Michelangelo’s solution is totally unique. His David is shown before action, the sling held casually over his shoulder. The contrapposto stance, the weight all on one leg, so the hips and shoulders are thrown into opposition is a remnant of ancient sculpture. The tendons and veins stand out so tautly in the oversized hand, the neck, and between the pinching brow, that the threat of action seems imminent, if only barely conscious. Focused appraisal, nano-seconds before the brain sends the impulses to the muscles to act. It is this combination of violent potential united with calm, that radiates. And it is radiating from a 17 foot figure. The monumentality is never lost, nor is the subtlety. The David is a piece that literally takes your breath away, and leaves you bathed in the astonishing radiance of its calm and poise, before a gathering storm.