Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reflections on Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo's DavidOn our final day in Florence, Nan and I visited the Galleria dell'Accademia, home to the original statue of David by Michelangelo. The photo to the left is of the copy in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which we passed several times while wandering around Florence. This did little, however, to prepare us for seeing the original in its permanent location.

I experienced the same rush of emotion when I first spotted David at the end of the hall devoted to Michelangelo's sculptures as I did when I saw Van Gogh's Starry Night in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. There is something about being in the physical presence of artworks that one has known about their entire life but only previously seen in photographs that is incredibly life-affirming. Yes, it really does exist, and yes, it really is as beautiful as you imagined.

Every photo I had ever seen of David had been taken from the front, and I could never figure out why his hands were positioned as they were. Was his final scrap of clothing flung casually over his shoulder? Did he have an itch he was scratching with that over-sized right hand? As with most displays of sculpture, it was possible to walk completely around David, taking him in from every angle, and that solved the mystery for me. David's sling is slung across his back, the handle end in his right hand and the pouch with the stone in it in his left.

All the descriptions I had ever read, including the one on the plaque in front of the statue, said that David's facial expression was one of confidence in victory, similar to the expression on Donatello's earlier David, who while also naked is wearing a war helmet, holding a sword and standing with one foot on the severed head of Goliath.

When I saw the sling, I suddenly realized that this was completely wrong. David was not contemplating his victory, he was at the moment of attack. His weight was on his right foot, his concentration was focused to his left, and his sling was at the ready. It was easy to imagine him stepping quickly and confidently to his left, at the same time releasing the pouch in his left hand, swinging the sling powerfully around his head and letting fly the fatal stone. The expression on his face is not victorious at all but rather the grim determination of one about to commit a necessary murder.

As I stood there restructuring my thinking, the genius of Michelangelo was apparent. In one statue he had managed to capture the beauty of the human form and the menace of its physicality, the peace of a body at rest and its anticipated motion to violence.

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