The Accademia (Galleria dell’Accademia)
“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.” -Giorgio Vasari on Michelangelo’s David.
We understand. No truly, we do. This is a museum dedicated to late gothic and Renaissance paintings and sculptures. Overall, the museum is fantastic and there’s so much to see. But the real showstopper is The David. And we know that there are lots of other paintings and sculptures worthy of everyone’s attention, but it’s The David. Regardless of what you think or believe or feel, The David is objectively one of the greatest pieces of art in the world. With that being said, this post will focus less on the museum as a whole and more on the sculpture itself. Without an in-depth knowledge of The David, it’s easy to miss out on the extensive genius that sculpted it, influenced it, and, ultimately, led it to become perhaps the greatest sculpture of all time.
The Accademia is on the northern side of Firenze, just north of the Duomo. While there are plenty of signs throughout the city pointing you in the right direction (and let’s be honest, any sign pointing you in the direction of The David is obviously pointing you in the right direction), finding the Accademia is not as easy as finding the towering Duomo or Palazzo Vecchio. The best way to reach the Accademia is to start at the Duomo. Venture to the northern side of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore to Via Ricasoli. Follow the street for three blocks. The Accademia will be on your right.
Thrown or Not Thrown
The story of The David begins with the biblical story of David and Goliath. To quickly summarize, the Israelites and Philistines are at war. Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, challenges the Israelites twice a day for forty days to send out a champion of their own to decide the war in a single battle. David, hearing that Goliath has defied the armies of God, accepts his challenge. Armed with a staff, sling, and five stones, David meets Goliath, clad in armor and wielding a javelin. David hurls a stone at Goliath, striking him in the center of his forehead. Goliath falls and David cuts off his head, bringing victory to the Israelites.
The David’s right hand is holding one of these stones. Scholars have debated whether The David has already hurled the stone and killed Goliath, whether he is preparing to hurl the stone, or whether he is preparing a second stone (in case the first one didn’t do the job). Great art is ambiguous. It asks difficult questions and makes the viewer think, not only of the larger ideas conveyed through the artwork, but also of the artwork itself. Once you have gotten over the expected (and required) twenty or so minutes of pure awe at the sculpture, ask yourself: is the stone thrown or not thrown?
An interesting thing to note about Michelangelo’s The David are the abnormally large hands and feet. Initially, The David was intended to be displayed in one of the buttresses of the of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, to serve as a symbol for the city. This could explain the size of the statue’s hands and feet, as viewers would have to look upwards in order to view the full scale of the statue. However, as was the case in “Thrown or Not Thrown,” many scholars have debated the reason behind these large features. Some think this is an indication that David is still an adolescent who has yet to grow into a man (which, speaking as a man who has gone through the awkward pains of puberty, I can attest to the accuracy of not being entirely proportional in my adolescence). However, this is problematic as Michelangelo’s David is much more mature than he is depicted in the biblical narrative. He is fit and lean and possesses a “manly” body. The large feet would be more structural in nature, to provide a solid base to support the entire sculpture. The hands, however, are different: they invoke a sense of power and capability—the hands of an individual ready to slay a giant.
The David’s penis is a frequent topic of conversation. The subject of many postcards and tacky, men’s boxers, David’s penis is actually quite important. In order to understand this, one must understand Michelangelo. In his eyes, Michelangelo was chosen by God to create art. When it came to sculpting, Michelangelo never saw a simple slab of marble ready to be carved; he saw a sculpture trapped inside. His job was to reveal God’s creation. The surrounding marble was an obstruction, an inconvenience. Because Michelangelo was chosen by God, Michelangelo also assumed great power and freedom with his artwork, including The David’s penis. While David is a Jew, The David is uncircumcised, further displaying Michelangelo’s disinterest to historical accuracy.
The David is not without its opponents. In 1991, a man attacked the left foot of the statue with a hammer he had concealed under his jacket. What compels somebody to damage a piece of art like this, we at Cabeza Travel will never know.
The David took three years to complete, and on September 8th, 1504, it was unveiled to a crowd of gawking Florentines, at its original location, the Palazzo Vecchio. However, not only was the statue exposed to all sorts of weather, but also to the opponents of the then-current Florentine government, who often expressed their displeasure with what the statue represented by (ironically) hurling stones at it! In 1527 a bench was tossed out of a window of the Palazzo Vecchio, tearing off the left arm and hand of the statue. A young boy, presumably passing by, gathered the pieces and kept them until they could be reattached. That young boy turned out to be no other than Giorgio Vasari, the man who would come to write about much of Michelangelo’s life.
Used Piece of Marble
The original of the story of David’s creation is deeply rooted in incompletion. Vasari, the man who repaired The David’s arm, wrote that Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1501 at the request of some of his friends in order to work on a “spoiled,” seventeen-foot block of marble, given up on by Simone da Fiesole. He also writes that the “spoiled” block of marble was passed on by Leonardo da Vinci. However, there seems to be a different story accepted by many scholars. Rather than returning to Florence because of friends, Michelangelo returned because he accepted a commission to contractually work on the sculpture. There is no record of Leonardo initially being contacted to save the large block of marble, nor are there any records of a Simone da Fiesole even existing! The only accurate portion of Vasari’s story is that some artist did begin to carve into a huge block of marble and left it incomplete. Where that artist disbanded the project, Michelangelo picked up and created The David.
Four Days to Move
When it was decided to display The David in front of the city hall at Palazzo Vecchio, there came the issue of transporting it. The delicate act of moving the sculpture from Michelangelo’s studio to Palazzo Vecchio, though only a few blocks apart, took four days to complete. Using ropes, a sturdy wooden frame, and plenty of rollers, the statue inched it’s way towards the Palazzo Vecchio.
While Vasari’s claim that Leonardo rejected the piece of marble is questionable, there is no question as to the competition between both Michelangelo and Leonardo. Vasari may have even contributed to the growing competition between the two. In fact, during the decision-making process as to where the statue would reside, many of the most well-known artists and architects offered their opinion. Leonardo da Vinci, in what can be seen as an act of mild jealousy, suggested that the statue be placed in an insignificant plaza on the outskirts of Florence.
Michelangelo’s David is the first, large-scale statue to depict nudity since the Classical era. Much of the inspiration that went into the creation of The David came during Michelangelo’s time in Rome, where he would often frequent the Capitoline Hill (now the Capitoline Museum) and Vatican (today’s Vatican Museum, to be exact). There, he would have plenty of access to Classical Greek and Roman sculptures, including the colossal remnants of the statue of Constantine residing in the Capitoline Museum. Michelangelo, seeing the Greeks and Romans as capturing the purity of the human body, sculpted The David in contrapposto, which was a common, Classical theme in sculpture. Thus, David appears as if he’s in motion. Note how his right leg is weighted, his left leg forward; his hips and shoulders are slanted; his arms assume contrasting positions; and the turn of his head, they all capture perfect balance.
Face of Doubt
Much has been discussed of David’s face. With deep, drilled eyes, sharp lips, a drawn brow, and a prominent neck vein, David could be seen as having just slayed Goliath or preparing to do so. However, the statue appears to show David at the moment he has decided to fight Goliath, the moment at which he realizes what he has gotten himself into. That doubt is palpable and concerning. However, that doubt fuels David’s strength and enables him to slay Goliath.
Emblem of Firenze
When The David was finally unveiled, it received instant praise. Little attention was drawn to its religious meaning, but it was seen as a powerful symbol, especially for the people of Florence. To think, one of their own created this. When it was eventually decided to place the statue at the base of the Palazzo Vecchio, the doubtful yet stern gaze of David looked south towards Rome, the adversary of Florence. Just how David looked upon Goliath before killing him, Florence looks upon Rome. As such, David came to be an emblem of Florence, a patriotic and political representation of the strength and determination of the city.
While most of this entry has focused on Michelangelo’s The David, an important, treasure in the Accademia is the series of unfinished sculptures left behind by Michelangelo. They line the hallway leading up to the main attraction and act as an introduction, a precursor for what’s to come. They are struggling to free themselves from their marble prisons, their tension displayed in their desire to escape. Luckily for us, The David was able to be freed, leaving today’s viewers with an unimaginable feat of human capability.
There really are no words to capture the emotion felt when one lays eyes on The David. It is alive. At any moment it can step down from its six-foot pedestal and walk out the museum. It is that lifelike. Stare long enough and you can see him breathe.
But there seem to be two different ways we can view The David. The first is to say to yourself, “wow, look at what this individual created. I could never achieve something that great in my lifetime.” It is a defeatist attitude.
But The David is not meant to be seen that way. It is meant to be seen in the second way: “wow, look at what this individual created. If I dedicated myself to something, I can only imagine what great things I could create.” While it’s uncertain what Michelangelo would have wanted his viewers to feel when looking at The David, the second mindset is one we like to think he would have wanted to inspire in people.
Uncertainty will always be with us, through the entirety of our lives. But determination and inner strength is what allows us to overcome any obstacle that comes our way. You will have to face many challenges in your life, and they will vary in severity. And when the day comes, it’s important that you’re ready to face it.
So we ask: are you inspired to greatness yet?
Book your Accademia tickets online through the official website.
AUTHOR(S) AND LAST UPDATE
Corey Ryan, 28 May 2016
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