My mind boggled as I wandered the hall at the Galleria dell’Accademia among a bazillion tourists all trying to snap pictures of this 17-foot tall statue. I knew that it was tall, but I had no idea it was that tall. It seems ridiculous to describe it as lifelike, but when you get in its presence, it seems lifelike, trust me.
As I wandered around the hall, I heard two separate tour guides use the same phrase:
…represents the Renaissance triumph of humanism
Had no idea what that meant until I got back to my hotel room and looked it up on Wikipedia.
Renaissance humanism was a response to the utilitarian approach and what came to be depicted as the “narrow pedantry” associated with medieval scholasticism.Humanists sought to create a citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging in the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions.
Uh, ok, not sure what that has to do with the statue of David. But reading on…
Humanism was a pervasive cultural mode and not the program of a small elite, a program to revive the cultural legacy, literary legacy, and moral philosophy of classical antiquity.
Classical antiquity. That’s when it started to make sense to me. In other words, before The Church.
But wait, isn’t this statue a reference to the Biblical story of David? You know, the underdog who slew a giant with nothing but a sling and a stone?
Reading the history of the statue, again, on Wikipedia, you learn that the statue has always intended to be of David. It was commissioned by the rulers of Florence. The story of David was a popular Biblical reference among the citizens of Florence because they were a small city-state landlocked and surrounded by stronger city-states. So the local population could relate to the story of David. The marble was bought specifically for a statue of David and multiple artists were commissioned to create the work and were dismissed from the project for various reasons. I believe Michelangelo was the third artist to inherit the stone and the commission.
So Michelangelo is hired specifically to depict the story of David and yet this work is supposed to be a triumph of Renaissance Humanism. How does that happen?
Again according to Wikipedia, the pose is one associated with ancient Roman statutues. The posed is called contrapposto, which is where the weight is on one leg and the body is slightly twisted so that the line of the hips and line of the shoulders are neither parallel with the floor nor parallel with each other. OK, so the pose is similar to classic sculptures from the antiquities, thus fitting into the Renaissance Humanism vibe.
But what about the story of David? If you read various interpretations of this statue, what they will tell you is that, traditionally, statues of David depict him after his battle, with the head of the slain giant at his feet. That’s how you know it’s David. But in this statue, interpreters say that this is David before the battle, at the moment between the thought of committing himself to the battle but before taking the action of fighting. Thus, no giant head at his feet.
Hmmm ok, fair enough. But where’s the rock? Where’s the sling?
This is an especially relevant question when you consider that the statue was originally going to be placed on top of a building. That’s why David’s right hand and head are bigger and out of proportion to the rest of his body. That was so you could see them from looking from the ground to the top of the building.
The sling is held in his left hand and extends down his back to the rock in his right hand. In other words, the sling is behind him and would be impossible to see from the ground.
Likewise, the rock is in his right hand, but his hand is wrapped around it. Some people say the rock is evidenced by the veins in his right hand, suggesting that rock is being held tightly, resolutely. Uh huh.
Here’s what I think.
Michelangelo, having accepted good money to produce a statue depicting the story of David, fully intended to create a male nude statue in the ancient Roman classical style. So what does he do? He composes the statue so that all of the elements of the Biblical story are hidden as much as he can possibly get away with and still claim that the statue is of David.
And now I understand why the tour guides say this statue is a triumph of Renaissance Humanism. The mostly-hidden sling and the mostly-hidden rock are just a cover story, or maybe a fig leaf, to hide Michelangelo’s true intentions. Another reason, in my book, to call it a masterpiece.