The Masterpiece: Michelangelo’s David
The European Renaissance began in Italy during the 14th century and by its end, in the 17th century, had spread throughout Europe17. It was an age in which art, science, and education dominated the European society. Enlightenment needed to be found in all forms. Scientists and artists alike made colossal advancements in every field of education and art. Among the many who wanted to achieve enlightenment and make their name known was a talented young artist named Michelangelo Buonarroti. Michelangelo’s David is an unforgettable display of the enlightenment achieved during the European Renaissance. The David is a masterpiece, in every sense of the word.
Michelangelo was born on March 6, 1475 in Tuscany, Italy3, near the middle of the Renaissance and during a period when the Medici family was wealthy, powerful, and served as “unofficial heads of state of the Florentine republic”15. In addition, the Medici were known to have “clawed their way to the top, sometimes through bribery, corruption and violence”10. At the time of Michelangelo’s youth, they were a force to be reckoned with. As a child and early adolescent Michelangelo studied art as an apprentice. By the time Michelangelo was a teen, he was talented enough to study in the house of Medici16, an honor for any artist of that time. During his early twenties, in 1501, Michelangelo was commissioned by the Opera of the Cathedral to sculpt the biblical figure David for the Florence Cathedral1.
Biblically, David was the adolescent youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem12. Davidwas the only person to volunteer to fight the nine feet, nine inch tall Goliath, a Philistine12. David’s astonishing victory over a much older and bigger Goliath has become a legend and symbol that continues to give people the strength to stand up to things or people whom they think are much bigger than they are. However, this is not the reason the Opera of the Cathedral wanted the David to be sculpted. The Opera of the Cathedral wanted the David as the second of twelve marble biblical sculptures to stand atop the multicolored marble Florence Cathedral4. They were meant to reinforce the power of the Church and give its followers faith by being displayed publicly. As a result, on August 16, 1501, Michelangelo signed a contract to complete the marble statue of David in two years.
Sculpting began immediately; however, the project was showered by a couple of setbacks. First, the block of Carrara marble had already been worked on by a previous artist who abandoned the projected several years earlier8. It is unclear how far the previous artist got on the David but it is known that a rough outline of the figure was already in place when Michelangelo began his work. Michelangelo had to overcome the previous artist’s view of what the David was to become and create his own work of art out of the rough outlined already in the marble. The rough outline and need for a statue meant the sculpture would not be a relief; it would be made in the round, a sculpture with a 360o view of the figure. Second, the block was stationed outside, in the open, and was extremely susceptible to all the elements of nature; therefore, a shed was built around the figure and allowed Michelangelo isolation with his work. These setbacks were small in comparison to the major debate that would take place upon the marble statue’s completion.
As previously mentioned, the sculpture was made of marble. The Florence Cathedral was covered with multicolored marble panels13; therefore, the use of marble naturally complimented the Cathedral’s building materials already in use. In addition, before Michelangelo’s David, many statues depicted David in bronze; this may have symbolized the bronze Goliath has been noted to have worn during his battle with David, who wore no armor12. The bronze may have further symbolized David’s triumph over Goliath because David kept Goliath’s weapons. However, marble is the suitable choice for Michelangelo’s David because it was to be one of a collection of twelve marble statues atop the Florence Cathedral4. In addition, the white marble from Carrara, Italy is preferred for sculpting because it is shatter resistant and gives a life-like look to sculptures of the human body14. The marble emphasizes the human quality of the David. Bronze would have made the David look like an inanimate statue. The white color and texture of the marble gives the David a more humanly look and feel. The light casts shadows on the white marble to emphasize his features, such as his eyes, hair, veins, and muscles. He is not a metal. He is a stone. The David is a strong, shatter resistant stone, just like David was in real life. David stood up to Goliath armed with only a sling and stones. He won the battle with one stone; therefore, the marble brings the David to life in stone.
The life in Michelangelo’s David can also be seen by the nudity of the statue. The David wears no cloths. The only slight hint of clothing is the cloth that hangs from his back, the cloth David used as a sling to throw the rock at the mighty Goliath. The absence of clothing adds life to the statue because nudity is the natural form of life. In recent years, the nudity of the statue has caused some controversy13. A fig leaf has often been placed on replicas of the David’s genitals for a more “appropriate” view of the statue. If clothing or a fig leaf were added to the sculpture, the natural, innocent state of the David would be lost behind the clothing. Clothing was invented by Adam and Eve, who had not realized they were naked until they ate the apple from the Tree of Knowledge5. Thereafter, Adam and Eve covered their genitals with fig leaves and were considered sinners. The David is shown in his natural, innocent state because he saved his people from the mighty Goliath. He was a hero; therefore, depicting him nude would also incorporate him as being innocent of sin. In addition, the David’s genitals are also shown in a very natural state. The David is shown to be uncircumcised, the natural way for a man to be; however, biblically, David says of Goliath, “Just who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”12. This implies that David himself is circumcised. The David is probably uncircumcised due to the social expectations of the period in which the David was sculpted. The lack of clothing and fig leaf has made the natural, innocent, nude form of the David more realistic.
The body language of the adolescent, athletic looking David also brings about its life-like qualities. It has been debated whether the sculpture is a depiction of David immediately after or before his fight with Goliath and, judging by his stance, it is hard to tell. The David stands with most of his weight on his right leg; the line from the top of his head to his right foot highlights his stance. His head is turned to the left, staring angrily ahead. The David looks tense. His muscles are taut. His left hand is pulling at the cloth on his back. His right hand does not hang loosely at his side; it is slightly bent at a 30o angle. Upon further inspection, both arms are very tense. Veins pop out on both the hand and forearm. The right hand is clutching a rock, no doubt to throw at the mighty Goliath. In addition, the left foot looks as if it is about to be raised. Could this be the stance of a man about ready to throw a rock? The left hand is bringing the sling down to be loaded, he right hand clutches the rock, the left foot is about to be raised in a throwing position, and the eyes stare at the target. If Michelangelo’s David is a depiction of David just before he throws the rock at Goliath, his body language remarkably shows it.
Furthermore, the David’s expression leaves one to think about nothing but the hatred he must be feeling. His curly hair sits atop a face shrouded with feeling. The lips look disgusted. The nose slightly winces. And those furrowed eye brows could make anyone cower. Their anger leaps out at the person David is looking upon. Even the wrinkle beneath his eyes emanates the wisdom to know his target, his enemy, the one who must die for his people to continue to live. He is sure of himself and knows his next battle will end in victory. The fury that is felt in the finished David’s expression is trembling.
Michelangelo’s David was finished in the early months of 15044, about six months behind schedule. Its magnificence stunned all who laid eyes on it and solidified Michelangelo as a true artist. The finished statue, without its base, stands at a massive 16’96”6. Its height highlights its importance, strength, and is crucial for its placement above the Florence Cathedral. In addition, its excellence also brought about a big controversy. The Opera of the Cathedral wanted the David to stand atop the Florence Cathedral; however, after its completion the detail and excellence of the statue caught the attention of the local government4. By this time, the Medici had lost most of their power and were exiled15. The new leaders wanted the statue to be placed in the Palazzo Vecchio to remind their supporters that the unscrupulous Medici were gone and that good will always prevail against an enemy that may seem stronger. A committee of Florentine artists was put together to decide where the David should be placed. It is unknown whether or not Michelangelo’s opinion on the placement of the statue was ever taken in to account; however, the irregular proportions of the David’s upper torso and head suggests that Michelangelo made the statue for the purpose of being situated atop the Florence Cathedral where the proportions would look more correct13. The committee decided the David should ultimately be placed at the public entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio13, the political hub of Florence, for the purpose of encouraging the exile of the Medici4.
In 1873, the David was removed from the Palazzo and taken to the shelter of the Accademia delle Belle Arti, an art gallery in Florence, where it still resides today13. The David has left a lasting legacy of the Renaissance’s need for enlightenment by beautifully depicting the human body and has been reproduced numerous times, including a replica that now stands where the original David stood in the Palazzo Vecchio. In addition, it has been the subject for many writings, including Machiavelli’s The Prince2. It is a masterpiece. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines masterpiece as “a work done with extraordinary skill”7. This is a gross understatement of Michelangelo’s David. Michelangelo’s ability to create a beautifully detailed sculpture filled with symbolism and emotion from a nearly discarded block of marble is a feat only he could accomplish in a very short period of time at such a young age. In fact, it has often been asserted that “Michelangelo did in fact see a meaningful connection between himself at that time and the young David”11. Michelangelo put himself in his work. His skill made the David the definition of the word masterpiece.
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