Seeing Michelangelo’s David
Just got back from Italy. The highlight of my tour was seeing Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell ‘Accademia in Florence. We had an art-history professor as a guide, which increased my appreciation and my understanding. We should all have a Simone to take us around Florence. (This wordpress program doesn’t let me italicize these works of art, but consider it done.)
Depictions of David, as in David and Goliath, were common in the Renaissance, just as were pietas and madonnas with child. (I think every artist must have had to paint or sculpt those three subjects.) Most of those representations of David portray him in the moment of his triumph, after he’s slain Goliath with his sling shot and cut off his head. He’s often shown with one foot on Goliath’s severed head.
Part of Michelangelo’s genius was choosing to portray his David in the moment before the action. David is just a lad, maybe 15 or so, watching the giant Goliath galumphing toward him, big heavy footsteps, mean scowl on his huge face, carrying in his massive hand something lethal like a deadly club or mace. And there’s David, slim, not yet in his full muscular manhood, inexperienced, armed with a sling and a few stones.
Take a look at a close-up of David’s face. A little frown line between his eyes, he looks wary, he looks like he’s concentrating, maybe you can imagine a hint of fear in his eyes. But his stance is all confidence, his body relaxed and yet still you feel the tension of ready muscles. There is a stone in one hand and in the other is the bag of the sling. The strap of the sling crosses his back (I had never seen that strap sculpted in the marble before – it’s on his back). All he has to do is slip the stone in the bag and swing that strap – he waits, and waits, until the perfect moment and then he slings that stone, catches Goliath in the forehead, and down he goes. Then David grabs a sword and chops his head off. (A lot of non-Michelangelo depictions show the stone embedded in the severed head’s forehead.)
So much more dramatic than sculpting David and his slain foe after it’s all over. The David is so very beautiful, and all the more captivating for the professor’s telling us how unique Michelangelo’s “telling” of the David and Goliath story was. Hope you get to see it, too.
We also saw Michelangelo’s Pieta which is in the Basilica at the Vatican. I remember it as being rather golden from the way it was lit, but photographs of the statue show it in luminous white. The Mary is huge, big enough for her dead son to drape across her lap, but that’s okay. I’ve seen other pietas where Mary is much smaller in relation to Jesus, and that more realistic depiction of size didn’t add a thing to the whole. I choked up and struggled not to cry in public like an idiot – I do that when something, music or painting or sculpture or ballet – is extraordinarily beautiful.
Seeing those two sculptures was among the most memorable moments of my life. It makes me wonder what works of art have been meaningful to other people. I’d like to hear.