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The Pursuit of Beauty
“Nor has there ever been seen a pose so fluent, or a gracefulness equal to this; or feet, hands and head so well related to each other with quality, skill and design”
These are the words of Giorgio Vasari, Italian renaissance painter and architect best known for his biographical work “The Lives of the Artists”, describing the colossal marble statue of David.
The first time I ever saw Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, I was completely overawed by its immense beauty. Never had a piece of art left me feeling this way before. I couldn’t stop looking and marvelling. So often when one sees something that is so well known, and arguably David is one of the best known sculptures in the world, it can be disappointing, but not this time. It surpassed all expectations. Back then photography was not allowed in the gallery but fortunately I was carrying a sketchbook so I found a quiet corner and attempted to capture something of its beauty and not without controversy I might add. A fellow visitor had taken out her camera ready to take some illicit snaps. Pounced upon by one of the guards, she objected very loudly that if I was allowed to sit and draw it was unfair that she was not allowed to take photographs. I kept my head down, not wishing to draw attention to myself but fortunately I was allowed to continue much to this woman’s chagrin.
Although we have visited Florence a couple of times since that first time, we have never gone back to see David, so I was determined to see the statue again this year. And it was just as beautiful as I remembered. Although photography is now allowed in the gallery I sat and sketched again, giving me an opportunity to look and ponder why I find it so alluring.
Vasari attempts to define the reasons behind the marvel that the vision of David provokes in the observer with his words quoted above. He even goes on to say that this statue so far surpasses in both beauty and technique any other statue either ancient or modern, that one needn’t bother seeing other works in sculpture. I’m not sure I would go that far as there is always something worth seeing in art, but it is by far my favourite sculpture, or in fact any work of art. But it is hard to define why.
Without a doubt the workmanship is exquisite, the marble is smooth and beautiful, although it is white ordinary grade stone from Carrara rather than the superior statuario marble. The proportions to me are perfect, although it is often noted that the hands and head are disproportionately large, but that may be because it was designed for the roof of the cathedral and needed to be seen from a distance so important parts were emphasised. It represents the idealised image of a perfect young male body. The sheer size, especially when seen indoors is magnificent and the thought that this was sculpted from a single block of marble by one so young seems incomprehensible. But for me it is all this and so much more because its sheer beauty moves me beyond words.
I love the fact that Michelangelo claimed that any single block of stone already contains all the possible ideas for a work of art. All the artist has to do is sculpt the block to reveal the ideal form within. He said he was merely liberating the figures that already existed within the stone which he could visualise in his mind’s eye. Maybe that’s how it worked for you Michael my lad, but for the rest of us mere mortals not so much!
In the year 1501, aged just 26 years old, the young artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti obtained the permission of the Opera del Duomo (the overseers of the office of works) to work on a single block of marble that had been abandoned in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Florence, for the creation of the young biblical hero David. He was chosen over his contemporaries Leonardo di Vinci and the sculptor Jacopo Sansovino who also wanted the commission. He started work in September, standing on specially erected scaffolding and using steel chisels that he had made himself. By January 1504 just over two years later he finished. The completed statue, standing at 5.17 metres tall was intended for the roof of the Duomo but it was soon apparent that the finished work weighing over 8.5 tons could never be lifted and erected onto the roof. It was subsequently placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, home of the Medici family.
Originally situated outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the statue is now replaced by a copy.
It is a subject of debate whether David is represented before or after his victory over Goliath, however most scholars agree that this is probably David as he prepares to confront the giant Goliath. His brow is furrowed in concentration, his neck is tense, and his weight is on his right foot creating a feeling of potential energy. His sling is barely visible as though to emphasise David did not owe victory to brute force but to his intellect and innocence.
As soon as it was positioned in the Piazza Signora outside the Palazzo Vecchio it became a symbol of civic pride and liberty for the Florentine Republic. Surrounded by hostile enemies the city identified with the young hero who with the help of God had defeated a more powerful foe.
By the mid nineteenth century, cracks had started to appear on the left leg which was attributed to the ground sinking under the weight of the statue. In 1873 it was moved to the Galleria Accademia to a specially built tribune that allowed David to be bathed in light from all directions. In 1908 it was substituted in Piazza Signora by a marble copy. There is also a bronze copy that stands in Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking the city. Neither of these copies, beautiful as they are, have the same emotional impact as the original.
The bronze copy in the Piazzale Michelangelo
A copy was also sent as a gift to Queen Victoria and was put on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It also came with a detachable fig leaf which was put in place whenever the queen visited so not to offend her with the sight of David’s genitals. One does sometimes have to wonder how the woman came to have so many children if she was so offended by male genetalia!
Michelangelo lived a long and productive life, completing many masterpieces in his lifetime. I have been fortunate to see many of them including the awe inspiring Sistine chapel paintings as well as the incredibly beautiful Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, carved when he was only twenty four years old, two years before he started work on David. Arguably more complex than David, the Pieta consists of two figures with much drapery, and it is carved in superior marble, but stunningly beautiful though it is, it still did not move me like David. Maybe I will never know why.
Michelangelo, artist, sculptor, architect, and poet, died in Rome on 18th February 1564 just three weeks before his 89th birthday. His body was moved back to be interred in the church of Santa Croce in his beloved Florence, where he was given a state funeral on the orders of Cosimo de Medici who also provided the marble for an elaborate tomb designed by Vasari.
The Tomb of Michelangelo
I hope you enjoyed this bit of self-indulgence as I reflect on what is without doubt my favourite work of art. Do you have a favourite work of art? Do tell!
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