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Classic qualities in Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’

Updated on January 6, 2010


One of Michelangelo’s best known creations is the sculpture David (1501-1504). The 5.17 meter (17 ft) tall marble statue shows an alert David waiting for his enemy Goliath. It originally stood in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, but was later moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia.

            The statue of David depicts a huge David standing seemingly motionless and nude, at the early stages of the battle with Goliath. Michelangelo chose this moment of the confrontation unlike Bernini, who depicts a David moving to throw a stone with the slingshot at Goliath, or Both Verrochio and Donatello who sculpture David after the victory, standing over Goliath's severed head. (Antonio Paolucci, Aurelio Amendola, 2006)

           When thinking of sculptures, one of the first that comes to mind is David.  This statue was created of marble between 1501 and 1504.  David is a symbol that represents strength and anger.  The statue had intended political connotations for the ruling of the Medici family.  Michelangelo used David as model of “heroic courage” to demonstrate that “spiritual strength can be more effective than arms”.  Michelangelo insisted that David should stand as a symbol of the republic and act as a warning that Florence shall be governed justly and bravely”.  This was the first time since antiquity that a large nude statue be exhibited in a public place.

           Michelangelo's David is based on the artistic discipline of disegno.  It is said that under this discipline, sculpture is considered to be the finest form of art because of how it mimics divine creation.  Michelangelo worked under the premise that the image of David was already in the block of marble he was working on, in much the same way that the human soul is thought to be found within the physical body (Michelangelo's David).


            The splendor of the discipline of disegno.  David was already in that untapped block of marble Michelangelo worked with.  All that Michelangelo had to do was to find him. It’s poetic and emotionally stimulating. 

            Michelangelo had studied anatomy early in his life.  He worked on corpses to learn how the body worked.  This was important in the creation of David because of the intricate details in David’s muscles and overall body appearance.  The dedication to his creation is admirable.  To study cadavers to perfect your craft to me is beautiful.  Though David isn’t perfectly anatomically correct (The upper part of his body is larger in scale than his lower) it was believe that this statue was intended to be place on a high pedestal in a church.  So when one looks up, the body will seem perfectly proportional.  (Frederick Hartt, David Finn, 1987)

            David is also an example of the classical humanism ideas. Classical humanism is based upon Greco-Roman ideas and foundations, a major part of which is the fascination with the human body. David is extremely buff, a quality that was highly revered during the Greek and Roman eras, and he shows off the male body very well. He is in a slight contraposto stance, where the artist illustrates the natural counterbalance of the body through the bending of the hips in one direction and the legs in another direction.

            David's nudity facing Goliath is explained as a result of verses 1 Samuel 17:38-39. Saul supplied David with a warrior's dress and David wore it. However he could not walk with it and therefore took it off. It is most likely that David wore the warrior's clothes instead of his own shepherd's clothes and not on his clothes. Therefore, it could be assumed that after David took off the warrior's clothes he remained nude, for it doesn't state specifically that he re-wore his own clothes. It is important to understand that the artist, who was looking for an excuse to depict a beautiful nude young male hero, could, eagerly adopt such an interpretation of the Bible, while not the most probable scenario of the battle. (Frederick Hartt, David Finn, 1987)

            The well defined muscular build is the ideal form to our culture today.  Personally I strive to better myself to be physically strong and muscular in appearance.  Though David is a male model, he makes a gorgeous physical role model for me.   His facial expression is tense and determined, as it should be before the battle of Goliath.  Determination, fighting for what one stands for, is noble and stunning. 

            Unlike the David of Donatello, Michelangelo's David is not shown after conquering his enemy.  Instead, he is portrayed as an extremely athletic and manly character; the sculpture even depicts a worried look cast upon David’s face and the carved marble veins seem to pulse with anticipation as he contemplates the upcoming fight.  Cast over David’s shoulder is his sling, and the stone is clutched in his right hand.  Michelangelo's David depicts the ideal youth who has just reached manhood and is capable of great physical and intellectual feats, which is part of the classical tradition (Anton Gill, 2004).  Michelangelo’s David portrays one man in a very powerful and intelligent light, and even hinting that this one man may be some sort of demi-god. The statue even becomes a sort of icon to the people portraying the power of man.

            David is to emulate the Biblical King David.   Kind David, however, was circumcised.  Had Michelangelo title David after the name of an actual model or indeed Kind David?  Perhaps Michelangelo simply was emulating the human form as the Greeks in this period had; which believe that the circumcised penis was mutilated (Anton Gill, 2004).  Whatever the case may be, Michelangelo held true to his beliefs and didn’t fear what those would perceive on their own.  Staying true to oneself is commendable.

             In many facets David is a magnificent piece of work.  From the emotion he brought not only to those in Florence back in 1504, but what he draws from us more than 500 years later.  With a working sense of anatomy, a spiritual connection to his work, and possibly with some religious guidance, Michelangelo created one of the most well know and most acclaimed sculptures to date.


Classic qualities of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’

            Mona Lisa (1503-1506), painted by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, was also known as La Gioconda, possibly referring to the subject’s husband, banker Zanobi del Giocondo. Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings are considered to be the best in the world and priceless which led the pathway to painters creating lifelike paintings with emotion. Overall, Leonardo Da Vinci has been described as the archetype of the "Renaissance man" and as a universal genius, a man infinitely curious, infinitely inventive, and infinitely influential to the modern world. The artist’s use of very deep space in the background with a close-in portrait is typical of Renaissance painting style (Bulent Atalay, 2006). The painting hangs in the Louvre, Paris. This figure of a woman, dressed in the Florentine fashion of her day and seated in a visionary, mountainous landscape, is a remarkable instance of Leonardo's sfumato technique of soft, heavily shaded modeling. The Mona Lisa's enigmatic expression, which seems both alluring and aloof, has given the portrait universal fame.

           The Mona Lisa, Leonardo's most famous work, is as well known for its mastery of technical innovations as for the mysteriousness of its legendary smiling subject. This work is a consummate example of two techniques sfumato and chiaroscuro of which Leonardo was one of the first great masters. Sfumato is characterized by subtle, almost infinitesimal transitions between color areas, creating a delicately atmospheric haze or smoky effect; it is especially evident in the delicate gauzy robes worn by the sitter and in her enigmatic smile. Chiaroscuro is the technique of modeling and defining forms through contrasts of light and shadow; the sensitive hands of the sitter are portrayed with a luminous modulation of light and shade, while color contrast is used only sparingly. (Roy McMullen, 1977)

           Around the world her presence questions, intrigues, and fascinates.  Who could she be?  Madonna?  Cher?  Brittney Spears?  None has perfected that image than Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”  Twentieth Century icons have attempted this feat, but none will last centuries like Ms. Lisa.  From music to movies to modern day art, she has survived it all, but what makes this simple woman last all this time?  “Mona Lisa” is easily recognized and “embraced” by contemporary culture.  In the 20th and 21st Centuries we see iconic images which are also recognizable, like the Mona Lisa, that symbolize love, power, and struggle.

            Just as Mona Lisa’s face has been used to sell everything from the “idea” of art to pasta sauce, “Winged Nike” has created a phenomenon as well.  This Greek image has continued through the sports company Nike.  The Nike Swoosh was developed from this statue and over the years has attached great people, moments, and success to its image.  A simple stroke of a brush has created the most recognizable label for athletics which signifies power and strength.  Michael Jordan, Lebron James, and Venus Williams have created and given iconic status to the Nike Swoosh.  It has not only become an image, but a culture as well. We will never hear the saying, “Just do it” and not attach it to the Swoosh again.

            Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries we can see simple images and relate them to great defeats and emotions.  A ribbon can be used to wrap a gift or hold pigtails in a little girl’s hair, but with a safety-pin and a certain color it encompasses much more.  Red, pink, and yellow are not just colors on a ribbon, but representations of AIDS, breast cancer, and remembrance of an American hero.  Wearing the ribbon is iconic in many ways.  It holds so many meanings and emotions to the person who wears it.  It reflects love, caring, and a fight for humanity.  Every color can be used and wearing them is as importance to every person. 

            Just as a ribbon represents an array of causes, so too does the iconic image of a peace symbol.  Who has not been witness to the simple sign or has personally given the peace sign?  From the 1950’s to the modern day GAP ad, this symbol signifies love, justice, and peace.  These iconic images reflect the hope to end war, poverty, and hunger for humanity.  Its symbol has evolved over the years to fit different situations, but overall has the same important meaning.  (Bulent Atalay, 2006)

             In short it is difficult to discuss such a work briefly because of the complex stylistic motifs which are part of it. In the essay ``on the perfect beauty of a woman'', by the 16th-century writer Firenzuola, we learn that the slight opening of the lips at the corners of the mouth was considered in that period a sign of elegance. Thus Mona Lisa has that slight smile which enters into the gentle, delicate atmosphere pervading the whole painting. To achieve this effect, Leonardo uses the sfumato technique, a gradual dissolving of the forms themselves, continuous interaction between light and shade and an uncertain sense of the time of day.

            From the early 16th Century to the 21st Century, the “Mona Lisa” has continued to survive.  Her face will be analyzed and pondered for years to come.  Without her presence Tom Hanks would still be at the Louvre in Paris without her help.  Nevertheless Ms. Lisa will “live” in lyrics, movies, and ads for the future.  Leonardo once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  Although Mona Lisa has “simplistic” characteristics, she holds mystery, class, and power which has and will continue to inspire the world for centuries to come.  The image that “Mona Lisa” has is iconic, like so has many symbols in the 20th and 21st Centuries she represents more than just the picture. (Donald Sassoon, 2006)


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