Wednesday, May 20, 2015



When you walk into the Accademia in Florence, the first thing that 
strikes you about Michelangelo's statue of David is how gigantic he is. He is
raised on a 7' pedestal and he himself is 14 feet, 3 inches tall, more than twice lifesize.
He towers over every human being in the space and makes the viewer feel
like David looking at Goliath rather than another human being looking at David.
Not hard to imagine, then, how terrifying the statue was to Florentines when it was first moved in 1504 out of Michelangelo's studio near the Duomo to its location in front of Palazzo Vecchio.(See photo where copy stands today.) He seemed so real and so huge that Florentine youths threw stones at it, as if to subdue him into submission.(Piero Parenti's diary mentions the stone-throwing incident and the youths were taken to court and jail; see Paoletti.) It was a Pygmalion moment, where the artist had made a marble statue seem so real that there was fear David would suddenly come alive and overcome normal-size humans.
In 1504 no gigantic standing statue had been seen since ancient times, though the block of Carrara marble that Michelangelo used to carve him had been intended for a statue of a "gigante" in previous years. Of course the initial reason Michelangelo made him so large was because the statue was intended for a tribune of the Duomo, very high above the viewer's head and against the sky; the gigantic size would have compensated for the diminishing qualities it would have had in this position. Other artists, such as Donatello, had thought of making figures larger than lifesize, but none of Donatello's large figures have survived as the DAVID has.
        Michelangelo was competing with Donatello in his choice of subject matter and scale, and he was competing with ancient sculptors as well. Donatello had made two statues of David, one in
marble (1417), and one in bronze (1430), both of which are smaller than lifesize, two-thirds perhaps.

In both of Donatello's Davids, the Biblical hero has already fought the giant and Goliath's head lies between David's feet, the physical evidence of his triumph over the Philistine. The moment Donatello chooses is the moment AFTER the battle. What is emphasized is David's youth and his ability to crush his foe even though just a boy.

Part of the slingshot he used to bring down Goliath can be seen in the marble statue next to the stone lodged in Goliath's head. The curving sling lies discarded near his feet in the bronze; he holds a stone, perhaps the stone as trophy, in the left hand of the bronze.

 The sword in the bronze statue is Goliath's own weapon, used against him, once he is knocked out.        
Unlike Donatello's hero, Michelangelo's David has no clothes or shoes; he faces the giant with only his slingshot, held in his left crooked arm, and the stone held in his right hand.
The rest of the slingshot runs down the back of the figure and follows the curve of the torso so clearly that we understand it is meant to represent a piece of leather into which the stone would have been inserted, swung around, and one end unleashed, to land the blow to Goliath's head:
No head of Goliath appears, here, though, as it does in one other statue of David finished by the Renaissance master Verrocchio in 1475:

In Verrocchio's version you can see the wound on Goliath's forehead caused by the stone.
             Michelangelo chooses a different narrative moment to describe in his giant. He portrays the moment BEFORE the battle, when David is summoning up his courage to confront the enemy. To understand what the artist wishes to emphasize here, we only need to remind ourselves of certain sections of the text of the story in the Bible:

1 Samuel 17 King James Version (KJV)

"3 And the Philistines stood on a mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side: and there was a valley between them.
And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. (about 9 feet tall)
And he had an helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.
And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.
And the staff of his spear was like a weaver's beam; and his spear's head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.
And he stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them, Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? am not I a Philistine, and ye servants to Saul? choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me.
If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us."

Goliath is huge and threatens to enslave the Israelites if he can defeat the warrior they put forward. David is the youngest of his brothers and he is taking care of the sheep at home when his father asks him to take food to his relatives fighting on the battlefield. He hears the taunting of Goliath and can't understand why none of the Israelites want to fight the giant. David is brought before Saul, the king, and he tells Saul that when he (David) was guarding his sheep, he had to kill a lion and a bear to defend his flock.

"36 Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God.
37 David said moreover, The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the Lord be with thee."

Saul gives David permission to confront the giant and offers him a suit of armor to wear as protection
but David takes it off, preferring to go without. He goes in the direction of Goliath who disdains him because he is just a boy. David is brave in his reply to the giant:

"45 Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.
46 This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.
47 And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord's, and he will give you into our hands."

His words are forceful because he believes that armed with nothing but faith, he will prevail. It is the power of those words that Michelangelo desires to convey in his huge, naked man who stands up against the well-armed giant. David knows that inner strength can conquer the largest and best-equipped enemy.
In Michelangelo's version David's head turns to the side as if looking at Goliath on the field of battle. David is naked because without armor. His left leg is in motion as if about to move toward the giant. The tension of confrontation is captured beautifully here in the raised veins of his hand and in the crooked arm and bent leg.

Unlike Donatello,Michelangelo makes David's head and hands extremely large in proportion to the rest of the body. He wishes to emphasize the ways in which David will defeat the giant, through his brains and his skillful handling of the slingshot. The nakedness is meant to show his vulnerability, since he is no
longer the boy-child of the earlier Davids but rather has the pectoral muscles of a 21-year old male;
he is a youth, but is not the child of the biblical story. Michelangelo wishes to show his own skill as
a carver of marble here, too. He is putting forward in his David a nude athlete who surpasses the nude athletes carved out of marble in ancient times. He is especially aware of the Doryphoros, the Spear-bearer, created by the Greek sculptor Polykleitos in the 5th century B.C., a statue known to all as the CANON, the model for all ideal sculptures:         

Both statues make use of "CONTRAPPOSTO," the balancing of right and left sides.
If you draw a vertical line down the center of the body in each, one side is at rest, the other side is in motion. In both the right arm is extended, at rest, and the right leg bears the weight of the figure. The left arms are both bent and the left leg is flexed at the knee in movement in both. The head is turned from the frontal torso to convey naturalness, but it is the tension between the right and left sides that makes the viewer see the statue as alive.
       Polykleitos thought that the proper proportion of body length to head size should be 7 to 1, that is, the measurement of the entire length of the body would be the measurement of seven of the head size. Michelangelo follows that principle, but his body is so much larger than lifesize that he is purposely doubling the canon of the Greek. Instead of the spear that the Doryphoros would have held in his left hand, the weapon of the biblical hero has been reduced to a mere scrap of leather, doubling our awe in his achievement.
         Both statues also show us uncircumcised males, not odd in the Greek athlete, but very odd in
a statue of a Jewish hero who confronts the "uncircumcised" Philistine.       
David, here, is Michelangelo's own conception of David as an ancient hero-athlete in Renaissance-Christian mode rather than David as an Old Testament Jewish hero-king.
          David is also shown not triumphant, nor unaffected by the battle he is about to enter. His face,
as carved by Michelangelo, is riddled with worry:
His large eyes with incised pupils (in the shape of hearts) and his furrowed brow are clearly visible
from the side view of the head when one walks to the right and looks up. The deep-cut hair curls
contribute to the feeling of anxiety; they reflect the body tensed and curled before action, like many small springs. His David is not a God, though monumental. He is human and afraid of the challenge, but the closed lips and stare imply his determination to carry out the task. His firy spirit will see him through.
When visitors come to see him today, they revel in the beauty of the male human body in colossal
form; they are nourished by the beauty that Michelangelo has conceived in white marble. But the David he has created astonishes not just because of his size but because of the sense, even now, that he will, in the next moment, come alive and step off the pedestal to fight the giant. The ideal male warrior, being ready to take on a greater adversary, reminds us of the human capacity for triumph over all daily challenges. If he were without spirit, we would not be moved by his apprehension. But in his David Michelangelo gives us a sense that we are all capable of divinity, of being greater than ourselves, of summoning up our inner strengths. Michelangelo knew, as an artist who created divine works, that his own talent tested the limits of human endeavor in every dimension. We look up in awe at David's giant proportions because he reminds us of the colossal nature of the human spirit. That spiritual strength has a giant's physical manifestation. We are inspired by seeing our own potential on full display.        


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