Michelangelo’s David is, of course, the most famous male nude figure in the world. It has been photographed, recast, and rendered into kitschy souvenirs. But despite five centuries of familiarity and more recent efforts to render the masterwork irrelevant or banal, this 17 foot colossus maintains its power to enthrall, inspire and move.
Its gestation was not easy. The work was originally entrusted to Agostino di Duccio (1462) and then to Antonio Rossellino (1476), but both gave it up as a bad job. The block of marble mined from the Opera del Duomo of Florence was flawed with veins, was too tall and too narrow, and otherwise unacceptable. Leonardo also turned down the job (no surprise there) and the marble slab was left in the courtyard of the Opera del Duomo until 1501.
When the David project was resurrected by the gonfalonier Pier Soderini, who was engaged in another artistic and intellectual revival of Florence, he approached Michelangelo. That artist – an incredibly difficult, arrogant, argumentative man – could not resist the opportunity to succeed where other artists had failed. He was only 26 years old and would complete the commission in two years.
David was originally commissioned to be one of a series of statues lining the roof of the Florence Cathedral, but David was placed instead in a public square outside the Palazzo della Signoria. Its reception was both rapturous and censorious. Soderini thought the nose too big – Michelangelo went up to the face and pretended to chisel away at it. Soderini was satisfied and Michelangelo secretly cursed him as a fool. Some conservative factions – and philistines seem to be with us in every age – threw stones at it.
Where to begin writing about this, perhaps the greatest achievement of Western art? That David is beautiful is a given, but what can we glean about the statue other than youth and beauty?
First, let’s see where this David is different from the David of Donatello and Titian. The first thing you’ll notice is what is missing – Goliath. There is no headless body, no foot resting on the severed head. Indeed, Michelangelo depicts David before killing the giant – his hand holding the stone that will kill Goliath close to his thigh, sling at the ready, eyes on his adversary.
Note, too, David is heroically nude, in the Classical mode. This David is not just the Biblical David, but also every hero from antiquity through to the present day. The statue is Perseus and Achilles and Hercules as well as David – he represents an ideal of young heroism.
Unlike most statues of antiquity (or those based on a Classical ideal), Michelangelo eschews the placid beauty of the face for one of handsome intensity. Seen from the front, David has a handsome and resolute profile. But approach the statue from other angels and the face alters – intensity turns to thoughtful composure to a face coldly assessing a great danger. It is this human dimension that elevates Michelangelo’s David from some chilly ideal of humanity and breathes life into the figure.
The head and hands seem to be slightly too large to accommodate the figure. The common view is that, since it was meant to be viewed from below, that Michelangelo made them too large to accommodate the change in perspective. I, myself, do not agree with this theory. Rather, I think the head and the hands are accentuated because they are the organs of thought and action.
Michelangelo’s David is such a part of our environment that it seems almost impossible to imagine the world without it. It is my favorite work of art, and a large porcelain copy is on my desk as I write these words. The figure of David provides both solace and inspiration, and remains an ideal – physical, spiritual and intellectual – to which we can all aspire.