Florence: A Tale of Two Davids
Updated: May 7, 2021
"DAVID IS NOT HERE," read the crudely printed sign plastered to the side of the Accademia, along with a red arrow pointing in the direction of an entrance around the corner on the other side of the building. It was my first trip to Europe, long ago, during the height of the tourist season and in the most sweltering heat I'd ever experienced. Still I had managed to see the Convent of San Marco and its Fra Angelicos, the main cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, the Uffizi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, Palazzo Vecchio and the Ponte Vecchio. However, the endless lines of people trying to see David were such a trial, I never attempted them. I am not the only one who gave up, for one morning as I passed by, I saw that the Accademia had opened a large set of windows and positioned the statue facing out, with just a view of the upper torso showing. "Hi David," I said and waved. Then I stopped to really admire this most beautiful of statues, which was standing in a soft shadowy light. I thanked the Accademia for its decision. Like the mountain coming to Mohammed, David had come to the people.
On my subsequent visit to the Accademia with my colleagues from art history classes in Avignon, I really got into the imperfections, the overly large head (actually looks okay when you stand at the base of the statue and look up 17 feet) or that he is cock-eyed (yes the right eye is okay, but the left has wandered left) or that he has weak ankles (see links to articles on these issues below). I still marveled at the beauty of this work that seemed to have its own aura, which is why it is so easy to personify it. Yes, it is a statue, but yes, it is also David.
Around 1501, the Stone and Woodcutters' Guild had this block of marble no one could figure out what to do with. Several artists had already blocked out potential work but had decided not to continue. The Guild wanted to contribute a buttress to the great cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, so they approached a prominent young artist, who full of the brash confidence of talented youth, looked at the block of marble and said, "Yeah, I can do something with it." The 23-year-old sculptor was Michelangelo, and the block of marble became David. And David did not get lost among the other works buttressing the cathedral. The city fathers put him in front of the town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio, where today stands a copy of this Michelangelo masterpiece. And why that honored placement? Well, Florence in the early 1500s had gone through both the first reign of the Medici family and the holy terrorism of Savanorola, the priest and religious zealot of the bonfires of the vanities, into the flames of which even Botticelli threw some of his paintings. Out of this had come a republic, surrounded by enemies on all sides. What better image to represent a young, strong society that relied on its courage and its cunning to take on foes, than the stunning statue of this young man, who used his mind to ascertain that a well-placed rock could slay the largest of villains. Thus David became the symbol of Florence and a new era.
However, Florence had had another representation of itself as David, done some 50 years before Michelangelo's. The Medici family had commissioned the sculptor of that day, Donatello to create a statue, which you see here. It can be seen in the Bargello Museum these days, but once stood on a pedestal in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici. This David is a young shepherd, even wearing a shepherd's hat, which supposedly alludes to David's abilities as a musician and poet, though the cute pose and the boots make me think Donatello was making a smart-aleck fashion statement. However, art historians will point out that the frailty of this youth (could he really hold or swing that big sword?) represented that it was the force of the Almighty, empowering this slight youth, that slew Goliath. That was the prevailing thought of the mid-15th century, and it was quite a bit different from that of Michelangelo's time.
I had a third David experience. Somewhere in Italy there is now an old man with whom I had a confrontation back when we were both young and beautiful. Trying to change train tickets in Milan with no ability to speak Italian had gotten me into a completely wrong office. I arrived at the counter and handed my tickets to he who was the spitting image of Michelangelo's David - yes, tall, curly hair, firm jaw, and angry facial expression. It was a moment in time. He was screaming at me in operatic Italian, brow furrowed, eyes ablaze, and all I could do was look at "this most beautiful animal preparing to kill..." (Shaihk and Leonard-Amodeo). I wanted to say, "You look just like David," but decided to get away with my head still on my shoulders and the memory of his magnificent face.
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For more on David's beautiful imperfections see "The Deviating Eyes of Michelangelo's David" by Saad Shaihk and James Leonard-Amodeo https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1079389/
For David's weak ankles https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/magazine/davids-ankles-how-imperfections-could-bring-down-the-worlds-most-perfect-statue.html
Photos are all in public domain.
For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at amazon.com/author/marjorievernelle
She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on ofartandwine.com
© Marjorie Vernelle 2019