DAVID. When I was a child, we would sing in church this little chorus. “Only a boy named David”. The words went something like:

“Only a boy named David, only a little sling. Only a boy named David, but he could pray and sing. Only a boy named David, only a little brook. Only a boy named David and five little stones he took.”

mich_david
David

 

The chorus goes on to recount a refining moment in the life of a young Jewish shepherd boy as he defeated a Philistine giant named Goliath. Although David’s life took many turns after that battle, eventually he became a King of Israel but in those moments standing before Goliath, he was just a boy who trusted his God.

I am not exactly sure if those words ran through my head the first time I saw Michelangelo’s David. There is disagreement on whether the moments Michelangelo captured were those before Goliath’s defeat or contemplation after the giant’s death. The statue was intended as adornment for Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. It is said that Michelangelo believed David was present within the chosen block of marble and that sculpting was the act of giving life and the highest form of artistic expression; much as a soul exists within a human body. He was commissioned with the task to set David free of the marble restraint. A task he petitioned for at the age of twenty six, fresh from the favourable response received with his Pieta in Rome. Economics played a role in the arts even in 1464 and the Board of the Florence Cathedral together with those charged in bringing David to life, were compelled to consider the cost and transport of material. The block of soft marble chosen had been abandoned for twenty five years, suffering the effects of weather in the Cathedral workshop yard and shamed by previous artistic attempts to shape, but it could not be replaced.

Today one can look up, way up and see the result of Michelangelo’s vision. Towering seventeen feet and weighing 6.2 tons, his presence commands the space built specifically around him in the Galleria Dell’Accademia having been moved in 1873 from his much debated position of political and civic significance, in Piazza della Signoria. It is impossible to ignore David’s nudity. The impact of which exemplifies Michelangelo’s intricate knowledge of anatomy. Tensed muscles, popped veins, a brow furrowed in a concentrated stare. The dramatic S shaped curve of David’s torso, the angled shoulders in opposition to his hips and with the support of his body weight on his back leg while his front leg is relaxed, represents the Renaissance expression of contrapposto or counterpoise. This dynamic off balance creates in David humanness, a physical affinity with the visitor. Almost gently he holds his sling his left hand that is raised to his shoulder. The sling falls across the crease of his spine and is clutched at its end in his right hand, turned from the viewer. Larger in proportion to the body, his hands cup their weapon and his eyes are focused on an unseen distant target. Who is he looking at? What is he thinking?

The last time David and I shared a physical space and I stood looking up, a young woman beside me brought a shaking hand to her mouth in a vain attempt to suppress her emotions. She turned away quickly as I watched and I wondered just how a piece of abandoned marble possessed the power after more than five hundred years to bring one to tears.

I have seen Bernini’s David, and both editions of this topic by Donatello. I have stood before Verrocchio’s David and read of the changes made that moved the head of Goliath from between his legs to rest beneath the sword. I have stood in long lines of visitors waiting patiently for their chance to turn the unexpected corner in the Galleria Dell’Accademia and hesitantly advance the length of a church-like nave lined on either side by unfinished works of Michelangelo and realize with religious reverence they are approaching greatness. But any effort on my part to explain or describe David would be inept at best and inadequate in the least. You must experience him yourself.

Tickets to the Accademia can be purchased online from the official state museum website. It is really not necessary to stand in line, and with a little preparation tickets can be in hand for your visit. It would not be advisable to take in the Uffizzi Gallery and Galleria Dell’Accademia in the same day. You may find the result would be Renaissance art overload and this drastically reduces one’s enjoyment quota.

 

About the Author:

Charlene Thompson lives in New Brunswick, Canada. She loves Florence and writes this guest post about her experience.

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