Michelangelo’s David: More Than Meets The Eye

As someone who lived in Florence for a number of years and lead countless students, tours, friends, and family to see Michelangelo’s David, I have been asked a variety of questions regarding this famous statue. Did Michelangelo model him after the real David? What was David’s last name? Why is his…ahem, you-know-what, so small? Why does he have a mullet? And, finally, the question that forever changed how I thought about the David…What makes him so important and special? The context surrounding this question, posed to me by a 16 year-old student on a study abroad program I was working for, may help set the scene.
It was a scorching day in the middle of July and it was my first time visiting the Accademia with a group of students…60 or so. Between the blazing heat, suffocating humidity, disgruntled teenagers, throngs of anxious tourists, and a “reservation line” that wrapped around the building, the experience was less than ideal to say the least.

The line at the Accademia can be scary.

As we were making our way through the entrance, Olivia – the sweet 16 year-old girl with a heart of gold and zero interest in art history – came to me with her question…What makes the David so special, so important? She quickly told me that she meant no disrespect and genuinely wanted to know why. I took a moment to look around and take in the hundreds and hundreds of people – tired and sweaty, yet eagerly waiting their turn to finally see Michelangelo’s famed David and knew it was a fair question to ask. So, I did my best to explain to her why I thought the David was special enough and important enough for countless visitors from around the world to include “him” on their must-see list while in Italy. I mean…the David is arguably the most famous statue by the most famous artist in the world and many people do not even know why. Well, without further adieu, here are just few of the countless reasons why…

The man himself.

Everyone loves an underdog – By the time Michelangelo was born in 1475, two other sculptors had already begun work on the piece of marble that he would later use for the David. When Michelangelo finally got his hands on the marble block, it was awkwardly misshapen – tall and narrow, angled slightly to one side. It was in pretty bad shape and other sculptors had been unsuccessful coming up with a reasonable design. There would be very little room for error and no way to know if the marble beneath was white and pure or if a dark and damaging vein was hiding under the surface. But, Michelangelo loved a challenge and delivered some of his best work under intense pressure and difficult circumstances (Sistine Chapel? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?)

The follow-up album – The true test of an artist, an artist that will hang around for more than 15 minutes of fame and not end up on VH1’s One Hit Wonders or Where Are They Now, is the follow-up second album. Nirvana’s Nevermind, Led Zepellin’s II, and James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, are a few examples. Michelangelo’s first hit so-to-speak was the Pietá in Rome. The young sculptor made a name for himself and even went so far as to carve his name into the debut statue, declaring that he was in fact the artist of the well-received work. So, people wanted to know what this confident (cocky?) twenty-something year old would do next. He answered them with his “chart-topping” David. They never questioned him again.

Size does matter – This one is pretty simple. The David is huge. According to most sources, it is about 14 feet tall. It is preposterously true that the actual height of the statue is still debated. Essentially, it is nearly 3 times life-size. During the Renaissance, the statue was referred to as “the Giant” (“il Gigante”). The size was unprecedented in Florence; it was the largest statue in the city.

This ain’t your grandpa’s David – The short version of the story of David in the Old Testament is that the young David killed the much larger, stronger Goliath using only his sling and some stones, knocking him down and then beheading him. He is described as a young shepherd boy and artists before Michelangelo represented him as such and usually with a sword and the head of Goliath at his feet like a trophy.

Two previous Davids by Donatello.

Michelangelo instead created an ideal fully grown male, strong and ready to fight with nothing more than a sling and a rock. Many visitors fail to notice the inconspicuous sling behind his back or the rock tucked in his clenched hand. Michelangelo removed the traditional attributes used to identify David – no sword, no helmet, no armor, and no head of Goliath. He stripped him down, both literally and figuratively. By doing so, Michelangelo created a universally accepted hero, an ideal figure without identifying (or distracting) features who eyes an unseen enemy. Apparently, being nude has its advantages.

He is a perfect movie poster – Movie posters or DVD covers rarely show the last scene of the movie. Do we really want to know (and be shown) if the good guy or bad guy wins in the end? No, we don’t. I think Michelangelo may have had the same idea in mind. Everyone else before him showed David after the fight, victorious over Goliath. Michelangelo’s David is represented in the moments just before the epic battle. He is armed, he is ready, he definitely has his game face on. You have to imagine what is about to happen and you better get out of his way. The decision to portray him before the fight may have also been the result of something simply practical.

Note the intense gaze, the sling, and those amazing hands.

Michelangelo may not have had enough marble to include a head, or a helmet, or a sword for that matter. Either way, the David would look great on a movie poster.

Michelangelo paid attention in anatomy class – Just as the size of the David was unprecedented, so was the anatomical correctness. I am not just talking about the proportion of his body or even his beautiful face. I am talking about the incredible skill with which Michelangelo could make hard stone look like human flesh and bones. He carved veins, nails, pupils, individual ribs, and two exquisite knees (look again, “exquisite” is not an overstatement). If you look closely, the veins in the left hand (the one raised up) are subtle, while the veins in the dangling right hand are bulging and more well-defined. If you think about it, this is exactly what would happen to your own hands in the same position. Blood would run down to your lower hand, forcing the veins to fill and bulge. Coincidence? Not likely.

Note the veins.

Balancing act – Michelangelo liked the idea of playing with opposites or contrasts. As I mentioned, the David has one hand up and one hand down. That is just the beginning. He poses him in a classic contrapposto (counter-poised) stance with his weight shifted to one leg. This not only implies the possibility of movement and a sense of gravity, but it importantly is realistic. Stand up. Really. Get up from your computer and look how you stand. Better yet, if you are too lazy to get up, just find a full-length photo of yourself on your computer and check how you are standing. I guarantee you are standing with your weight shifted to one leg. It turns out Michelangelo had noticed too.

People will continue to ask questions about Michelangelo and his David for years to come. However, Olivia’s question will always be my favorite. After I finished my impromptu lecture for her on the David, I realized that a substantial group of interested onlookers had gathered around me. It was clear to me that, like my student, they wanted to hear a story. From that day forward, inquisitive Olivia stuck by my side, especially on trips to other cities. She would come bouncing up beside me seemingly out of nowhere (as energetic teenagers do) and say “Carrie, tell me a story.” And I obliged. I obliged in the fan-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena, at the Coliseum in Rome, and on a winding street along the Grand Canal in Venice. Yes, of course, anyone can enjoy or appreciate a work of art without knowing its detailed history. Just like anyone can enjoy a beautiful man or woman without knowing anything other than what is on the surface. However, as we all know, it isn’t until we ask important questions to get to know and understand the history of that person that we can fully appreciate and even admire them. The same can be said of Michelangelo’s David.

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