Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, Art: Michelangelo’s David

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Friday, May 28, 2010

        Walking into the Accademia today, the modern day tourist will be struck with the immense size of the colossal nude statue and the significant skill that such a masterpiece would require; however, most people are unaware of the subtext. Michelangelo’s statue has a background story that is almost as fascinating as the beautiful statue itself. Michelangelo’s famous statue, the David in the Academia is a masterpiece that evokes a political message, an embodiment of Renaissance ideals, and Michelangelo’s unique neo-Platonic theory about art.

            From 1501- 1504 Michelangelo carved the David, a masterpiece that is arguably the most famous statue in the world, and it all began with a single block of marble. Michelangelo wrote in his diaries about the challenge: “When I returned to Florence, I found myself famous. The City Council asked me to carve a colossal David from a nineteen-foot block of marble — and damaged to boot!” (“David”). Michelangelo is referring to the condition of the marble he would be carving. The marble block is one that Agostino di Duccio had tried to carve in 1463 and rejected. Viewing the finished statue from the side, the viewer realizes that Michelangelo would not have chosen this marble piece himself. Michelangelo would have chosen to work with a thicker piece of marble; the marble piece used for the David is more typical of a Quattrocentro sculptor (Tolnay, 12). Agostino was probably trying to finish a model planned by the old Donatello, but after Donatello died the people orchestrating the project in the Opera del Duomo probably concluded that the project should be stopped (Hartt, 508).

            The finished project, the David, is a statue that continues to inspire visitors from around the world with its powerful pose that evokes the story of David in a unique way. Statues of David typically depicted him in the moment after battle. In Michelangelo’s depiction, however, David stands calmly, ready for battle, but tense with expectation as his taut muscles indicate. He gazes to his left towards Goliath, the ugly beastly man he is about to vanquish with the stone in his right hand and the sling in his left. The figure shows the body of a boy of sixteen who does hard physical labor, so he has well-developed musculature (Hartt, 509). However, critics still contend that the body for such a young man is much too well-developed, and that Donatello followed the Biblical story more accurately with his depiction of David (Vossilla).The pose is similar to the Hercules dating from 1492-1494, and the two sides of the figure stand in sharp contrast. The bulk of the statue’s weight rests on the right leg and the leg is vertically aligned. The left knee is bent and this alignment of the leg is in conjunction with the bent left arm, and both of these effects make the entire left side of the statue more open. The contrast between the openness between the left side of the statue and the more closed right side of the statue relates to a moral distinction outlined in the Middle Ages comparing the two sides of the body: “the right, under divine protection and full assurance; the left, vulnerable and exposed to the powers of evil” (Tolnay, 12).

            Michelangelo also carves the body of David in a highly innovative way. From his early years, Michelangelo was concerned with how to accurately render the body in artistic depiction, and he had the good fortune to study all of the old masters including Giotto, Massacio, Donatello, Pollaiulo, and Signorelli who constantly worked on trying to convey the resting human figure or the human figure in motion. Therefore, having the opportunity to study all of these masters provided a sort of jump start to his exploration of anatomical depiction (Schevill, 508), and his virtuosity in the rendering of the human body is clearly evident in the depiction of David. Attention to anatomical detail in the David is painstaking: the veins, muscles, and bones are clearly delineated. Even though the statue is motionless, it conveys the purpose of the body, a body possessing strength and energy for the ensuing battle (Tolnay, 12). The masterpiece can be considered a symbol of incredible beauty and grandeur (Hartt, 509).

            The powerful depiction of David relates to the political meaning behind the piece. The David embodies the virtues of Fortezza (strength) and Ira (anger). Early Renaissance writers in Florence considered Fortezza to be the most important civic virtue because the state remained resilient during the constant political fighting and the protection of the state was something to be praised. During the Middle Ages, Ira was frowned upon for being vicious and problematic, but later Renaissance writers realized that anger is necessary to drive a bold man to action. Just as Hercules was a symbol of strength in ancient times, the David now became the symbol of Florence in modern times. Vasari plainly states the statute’s political relevance: “In the same way that he [David] defended his people and governed them with justice, so those who govern this city should defend it courageously and govern it justly” (Tolnay, 14).

            In addition to the statue’s political significance, the statue clearly embodies the aims of the Renaissance in Florence. The Renaissance was a period of time after the Middle Ages in which interest in classical culture peaked. The philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient philosophers were more fully explored along with other classical writings, and artists began exploring new styles of painting. Humanity and intellectual freedom became the focus of that time period overshadowing religion as the cornerstone of individual life. The David is a completely naked human figure that serves as a symbol of humanism, and the extremely accurate depiction of human anatomy demonstrates the push towards scientific exploration during the Renaissance (Tolnay, 14; “Renaissance”).

            Once the statue was completed in 1504, the Florentines did not want to place the outstanding statue in its intended spot in the Duomo. Such a magnificent statue needed to be placed somewhere in plain view, so the public could admire the technical elements and revel in the awesome power of the symbolism representing the republic of Florence (Hartt, 508). Therefore, on January 25, 1504 a meeting was held to discuss where the statue would be placed. Thirty people attended the meeting and 9 locations were proposed for the statue including over one of the buttresses on the north side of the cathedral, in front of the west façade, where the lion of Florence stood, in the courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio, where the Judith stood, in the bay of the Loggia dei Lanzi near Palazzo Vecchio, in the central bay of the Loggia, in the New Grand Council Hall of Palazzo Vecchio, or in the Piazza di San Giovanni. Several factors influenced the decision of where the David would be placed. The statue has two perspective points from which it can be viewed that will be most striking for the viewer: looking towards the front of the figure which would embellish the stance of a hero symbolizing strength and power or the statue could be viewed from the left which could emphasize the gaze of the figure staring towards Goliath. Goliath symbolizes the Medici and David represents the republic that is ready to fight in order to sustain itself. The placement of the piece would also impact the overall meaning of the piece because in Palazzo Vecchio the piece would be interpreted as a symbol of government whereas in the Loggia it would be seen more as a beautiful piece of artwork (although it would still have political connotations). No matter where the piece was placed; however, the David would always be seen as a guardian of Florence (Sevine, 31-35). As the flag bearer of the republic, Piero Soderini was instrumental in discouraging the placement of the statue in a niche of the Duomo, so the statue could be used as a propaganda piece for the republic (Vossilla). Piero di Cosimo wanted the committee to ask Michelangelo where the statue should be placed, but no record exists that shows if anyone ever did ask him. Eventually the group decided under the influence of the herald (a figure who shared political sympathies with Piero Soderini) that the statue would be placed in front of Palazzo dei Priori. In the 19thcentury, the statue would later be moved to a specially designed museum for its placement, the Accademia, where the statue remains today (Hartt, 509).

            The final product, the David, reflects Michelangelo’s neo-Platonic theory of art and beauty that developed through the influences of Plotinus, Plato, and Marsilio Ficino. Plotinus was the first neo-Platonic philosopher. He wrote that the world is the cage for the soul and the One (God) constitutes ultimate reality. The Mind consists of concepts that attempt to grasp the One, and the world soul consists of the world of sensory experience that imprisons us. Plotinus felt that the soul is trying to reunite with God and love is the tendency of the soul to appreciate beauty, so art evokes love that will help people tear themselves from mundane reality in order to be reunited with God. Plato wrote about a dualistic worldview with a realm of Forms and our world of illusion in the sensory world, and he had a more negative view about art because he perceived it as a mere approximation of the realm of Forms. The object exists as a Form and then a concept tries to approximate it. Afterwards, an artistic depiction tries to capture the essence of the approximation, and since the artwork is farther removed it is farther away from capturing the true reality encompassed in the Form. Marsilio Ficino was a neo-Platonist who synthesized the ideas of Plato and Plotinus in his book, Immortality of the Soul.

            As a result of these influences, Michelangelo created his own concept of neo-Platonism that was a unique hybrid of Plotinus, Plato, and Marsilio Ficino. Michelangelo believed in a dualistic worldview in which our sensory world reflects the higher reality of God. Art is meant to capture an element of this divine reality in order to help bring the people of this world in touch with the divine world. Michelangelo’s letters to Vittoria Cologna explain how an artist was to convey this higher reality. An artist has: “at birth given the ideal of beauty” as Michelangelo’s sonnet 164 testifies, so using this unique gift as part of divine inspiration the artist is supposed to free the Form from the marble or the painter’s canvas. Freeing the Form is similar to what is supposed to be accomplished with the human soul. The human soul must be free from the bonds of the corporeal world and united with God (Vossilla).

            Michelangelo’s David is a beautiful statue that almost anyone can appreciate; unfortunately however most people do not have the chance to appreciate the history behind the piece, specifically how the statue was made, the political symbolism behind it, and Michelangelo’s theory of art that gains full expression in this piece. The attention to the details of anatomy is astounding, and it reflects the scientific and intellectual fervor of the Renaissance. The political meaning behind the statue is slightly less obvious, but a quick read of the Bible story will make its symbolism more readily apparent. David killed Goliath, and in the same way all enemies to the republic (i.e. the Medici) will be crushed if they threaten Florence. The statue reflects Michelangelo’s neo-Platonic worldview that the Form can be brought out of marble through the divine inspiration of the artist and bring the viewer in touch with divine reality. A piece encompassing all of these elements is rightly called a masterpiece.

Works Cited 

Bonner, Neil R. “Ealy Life.” Michelangelo. 14 Dec. 2001. 12 Mar. 2008 http://www.michelangelo.com/buon/bio-index2.html

Hartt, Frederick, and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art Painting Sculpture Architecture. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2003. 0-768. 

“Renaissance.” The Internet Ecyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. 14 Mar. 2008 http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/r/renaiss.htm

Schevill, Ferdinand. History of Florence From the Founding of the City Through the Renaissance. 1st ed. New York: Frederick Ungar Company, 1961. 0-535. 

Sevine, Saul. “The Location of Michelangelo’s David: the Meeting of January 25, 1504.” The Art Bulletin (1974): 31-49. 

Tolnay, Charles. Michelangelo. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975. 0-285.

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