A rare collectors’ edition of the “Diva David” magnet set is displayed on my refrigerator door. Michelangelo’s masterpiece has a nice set of accessories including a feather boa, kinky boots, a legally blonde Chanel suit and little dog and a low-cut evening gown. How did this item of kitsch end up in my otherwise tasteful kitchen? Well, specifically, it’s a gift from Victor Coonin, author of the recent book From Marble to Flesh. The Biography of Michelangelo’s David. But the real question to ask is: what sequence of events led to this Renaissance statue being sexually objectified so as to be featured in such an ignominious manner? If you understand how David became a cultural but also sexual icon, you’ll never look at a pair of David underwear or a naked David apron as “just kitsch” again.
On the matter of Michelangel0’s David, I feel like a bit of a secondhand authority: I am the editor Coonin’s book, and I developed the Kickstarter campaign that raised over 7000$ to print it. Although I had little to do with the content of the text, I got to know it pretty well. My favourite part of this book is the fifth chapter, which addresses the reception of Michelangelo’s statue in the present day, including issues of sexuality (both gay and hetero) and censorship. If you’re in Florence, Prof. Coonin will be giving a talk on this topic on October 15, 2014 – see below for details.
In this article I will just touch on some of the interesting elements mentioned in this chapter of Coonin’s book. What one needs to bear in mind is that before launching into a discussion of the David in the 21st century, we ought to look at his very long history (which Coonin does in the book). The sculpture was commissioned in the late 15th century to another artist, and completed by Michelangelo in 1503, when it was installed in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Originally it had been planned for placement upon a tall buttress of the Duomo. What was originally an image of a religious figure was turned into a political statement. Although admired by contemporaries and in the first century of its life as a great masterpiece, later centuries don’t seem to mention him much; there is a revival only in the 19th century, when he becomes essentially enshrined in a purpose-made space in the Accademia Gallery. This is the moment that makes the David such a desirable destination for millions of tourists each year, the beginning of the cult of the David that has resulted in the creation of a range of tacky souvenirs, from the simply kitsch to the totally creepy.
The David has been titillating publics since the day it was installed. After all, it’s the first over-lifesize standing male nude of the Renaissance, and it was put outside for everyone to see it in a public place. As Coonin demonstrates, the statue was originally fitted with “loin girdle”, a kind of metal faux-leafy covering that would hang just-so over the offending parts. Both the original and its 19th-century copy once wore fig leaves, as did the copy sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum whenever the Queen came to visit. But not just Victorians blush at this kind of glaring nudity: in 2013, a copy of the David was installed in the small Japanese town of Okuizumo, where residents demanded he be fitted with underwear.
Nowadays, most western viewers are not requesting that he censored; by contrast, many appear to be fascinated or drawn to the statue’s private parts. And many people think he’s sexy. This feature is so well known, it has even been asked on Yahoo! Answers.
And if you notice, “Lil’ Gay Monster” agrees that the statue is erotically attractive. He is not alone: the homosexual community has often adopted the David as their symbol. Coonin explains:
The reasons for this are multivalent and related to what makes Michelangelo’s David so iconic. The David is an exquisitely shaped masculine body, a confident display of nudity, a male statue with explicit and powerful sexuality, and a recognized masterpiece of world art. As such, it resonates deeply in straight and gay culture alike. As a tangible expression of idealized male beauty and a symbol of male desire, it has been used as a covert signpost as well as an outward symbol of gay liberation. (p.187)
Coonin also has discovered a number of instances in which the statue’s image has been used on AIDS awareness literature for a primarily gay public. In these and other instances, the David is adopted as a celebration of male sexuality.
The issue of penis size and uncircumcision also does come up in the book, for anyone wondering (pp. 105-8). And yes, people still wonder about this a lot, Instagram provides proof.
So my dress-up “Diva David” set fits into a larger cultural phenomenon of admiration for the sculpture’s apparent physical perfection and beauty, that was taken up by the LGBTQ community, resulting in him being fitted with a boa and kinky boots. There you have it. Now it is no less tacky, but it sounds much more important that way.
Is Michelangelo’s David Sexy?
Whether or not you think so, if you want to know more about the David‘s sex life, come to hear Victor Coonin’s talk “The Sexuality of Michelangelo’s David” on Wednesday October 15, 2014, at 6:30pm at the Museo di Antropologia on via Proconsolo, in Florence. The talk is organized by The Florentine. It’s free, but RSVP is necessary at sexydavid.eventbrite.it.
If you can’t make it to the event, it’s a good idea to BUY THE BOOK.