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Michelangelo’s David: Great Art Explained

Michelangelo was the first superstar artist. He was a
sculptor a painter an architect a poet and an engineer. An outsider touched by genius. His Statue of
David, the most famous statue in the world, personifies the aesthetics of
high Renaissance art, the politics of   Renaissance Florence and the technical 
virtuosity of Greek sculpture. The story of Michelangelo’s David is anything but
the story of a teenage boy king who slew Goliath. In one of his poems, Michelangelo wrote (old Italian:
“son d’esser bruto”): I know I am ugly.    His nose was broken and appeared crushed into his face 
which he said gave him “the look of a beggar”.   He was tortured by his appearance and alienated 
from his own body. Despite or perhaps because of   this, he would spend his life in pursuit of sublime 
perfection. He could do little about his own looks   but he would make sure his David would be the 
standard by which male Beauty would be judged. Michelangelo believed that he was a tool of God. 
He wasn’t creating a sculpture from marble, he   was simply releasing the figure imprisoned 
within it. Unfinished work by Michelangelo   gives us many insights into his techniques. 
Most sculptors would create a clay model and   then mark up their block of marble to know where 
to chip. But Michelangelo worked mostly freehand,   starting from the front and working back. To 
sculpt in marble you need the strength of   an athlete and the dexterity of a surgeon. Any 
slip-up can destroy years of work.  Michelangelo would start by what is called “roughing
out”. Taking the bulk of the weight off with a   point chisel and a large mallet, for getting 
it down to the general shape of the sculpture.   Then he’d use a tooth tool and a smaller hammer,
for more detailed work in modeling the form As he needed more details, he’d use finer and finer 
tooth chisels. He would use a drill to get into   the deeper crevices. Then he would refine using 
various smaller tools. Followed by finishing the   surface with a tool like the “rasp”, a sort of file. 
Finally he would polish the statue using abrasive   pumice stones, and then leather until it is smooth 
and glossy. If we look at his unfinished work here,   we can clearly see the sculpture emerging from 
the stone. The marks we see here were made by   Michelangelo’s own hands. The outer part show us 
where Michelangelo started to cut away the stone   with a large pick and a mallet, and in this area 
we can clearly see he has used a tooth chisel. Here on the chest we see even more detail, and the marks 
are fainter where he has used much finer tools. Michelangelo was 26 when he was asked to sculpt 
a colossal statue of the biblical hero David,   to be placed on the roof of the Cathedral in 
Florence, 80 metres above street level.   Only two years before he had carved the achingly 
beautiful “Pietà” in Rome, and he was already   considered a master. He was asked to use an old 
block of marble already owned by the cathedral   that had been sitting around for 50 years. Two 
other sculptors had attempted to use it but   the marble was flawed, and considered too narrow 
to produce a successful figure. One sculptor had   even carved a large hole out between, what were to 
have been the legs of his figure, but where others   saw flaws, Michelangelo saw opportunity. Because 
of the shape of the marble Michelangelo had to be   precise. There was no room for manoeuvre. David 
had to look to the side – as there wasn’t enough   marble to have him facing forward – David had to 
be in the “contrapposto” position, so that his legs   would fit around the large hole already in the 
marble. And he would have to be slender because   of the depth of the marble. The story of David and Goliath is the Biblical story of
the Philistine giant defeated by the teenage Israelite, armed only with his sling. The finale of the story is David cutting
off his head and holding it up to the cheering crowd. Traditionally David had been portrayed at the point of
victory. Triumphant over the dead Goliath. Florentine artist like Donatello and Verrocchio, depicted
their own version of David – standing over Goliath’s severed head. All statues are more than mere representations, but 
Michelangelo’s take on it would be revolutionary.   By removing the conventional attributes of 
the biblical hero, stripping him down, both   literally and figuratively, Michelangelo also 
removes a simplistic reading of it as just an   illustration of the story. And gives it a wider 
metaphorical meaning. For the first time in art,   David is depicted BEFORE the battle,
rather than the moment of victory. This changes everything. first and foremost Michelangelo’s David depicts 
rationality. David isn’t about to fight Goliath   with brute strength, but with skill and reason. 
David represents the humanist ideal of a man,   who can become a hero, by his intelligence and 
willpower alone. These are the virtues of the   “thinking man” considered perfection, during the 
Renaissance. Michelangelo catches him at the   peak of his concentration, as he contemplates 
the challenge ahead of him. David is no longer   the traditional self-assured boy. Now he is shown 
as an apprehensive man. David’s neck is tense,   his thigh muscles are flexed, his nostrils are
flared, and his brow is furrowed with fear.   He is just about to glide easily and naturally into action. 
He is tense but contemplates the challenge ahead of him,   with a calculated gaze. The rock is hidden inside
his right palm, the slingshot rests on his shoulder, and hangs down his back – almost invisible. 
Emphasising that David’s victory was intellectual.   His chest appears to pulse with anxiety. Like all of Michelangelo’s sculptures, the viewer sees David at a specific and pivotal point. It is not
meant to be the whole story. David is in motion. The position he is in,
is known as “Contrapposto” or “counter pose”. It was invented by the ancient Greeks,
and is a very natural and human way to stand. The red line show where his muscles are tense, and
the yellow ones where his muscles are relaxed. Most of the weight is on one leg, with the other leg forward, causing the figures hips and 
shoulders to rest at opposing angles.    Giving a slight “S-curve” to the entire torso, and
therefore giving the statue a more dynamic look. The story of David and Goliath would come
to represent the city of Florence itself. During the Renaissance, Italy was a collection
of city-states, each with its own ruler. The newly independent Republic of 
Florence, saw itself as “the David of Italy”. Holding out with unexpected strength against the Medicis, and the powerful and all-consuming
influence of the Pope in Rome.   This point was emphasised when David was placed in a
secular spot rather than its intended religious one. Commissioned as a  statue of the biblical story – in
Michelangelo’s hands it becomes something else entirely. The proportions of David are not
typical of Michelangelo’s work.  The figure has an unusually large head and hands. But
Michelangelo, who had dissected many cadavers   understood the human body better than any physician.
As per the commission, the statue was designed to be seen from 80 metres below. In 2010, a fibreglass replica was
temporarily placed in the spot originally planned for David And we can clearly see that the proportions
work perfectly when seen from below   Nudity was unusual at the time for a biblical 
story, but the Renaissance was a decisive time   for the nude in Western art. A renewed interest in 
ancient Greek and Roman art brought the human body   to the forefront of artistic innovation. During 
the Renaissance, achievement in representing the body,  became the standard for measuring artistic 
genius. It is far harder to depict a nude figure   than a clothed one. It is a myth though, that 
Renaissance Europeans were comfortable with   nude bodies in art, particularly when displayed in 
public. In fact, the city fathers had a garland of   28 gilded copper leaves made, to protect David’s modesty, and
in later years he wore a fig leaf, as this photo from the 1860s shows. Why is the Jewish hero David, not circumcised? Again, we can trace this back to the inspiration for the 
Renaissance: The ancient Greeks and Romans.   They regarded circumcision as barbaric, and there are 
no depictions of circumcision in ancient statuary.   Also, the Catholic Church denounced
circumcision in the Middle Ages. The Jewish figure of David has been placed into the Christian
context of Florence. A hallmark of the high Renaissance.   It has been remarked that David’s penis is rather small. 
This was considered an indication of modesty and   respectability, and shows that the biblical
figure is in control of his own urges. We can contrast  that with contemporary images of satyrs
and other figures which represented evil sexuality David  has a slight squint – it is rarely remarked on but 
his eyes point in slightly different directions.   This is a typical Michelangelo trick,
to pull us into the eyes of David. The pupils are carved out hollow, to capture the changing
sunlight, adding to the intensity of the gaze. Michelangelo calculated every angle and always
considered the position of the viewer. The details are extraordinary. My own favourite is the jugular vein, which is swollen.
This only occurs when people get excited or nervous.   Michelangelo understood this, over a century BEFORE 
scientists would describe the circulatory system.   The veins in the raised left hand are delicate, while the veins
in the hanging right hand are pulsing and more well defined. The way our blood circulates, this is exactly what would
happen to our own hands in the same position Every detail points to Michelangelo’s passion for human anatomy.   Michelangelo, who never wasted a minute of his 
life, worked morning noon and night on David,   alone and in total secrecy. At night he would 
attach candles to his hat. He rarely ate and   when he did sleep, he slept in his clothes 
which he seldom, if ever changed. In 1504 he  finally presented his giant to the cathedral 
committee. They were astonished at Michelangelo’s   skills, and agreed it was far too perfect
to be placed at such a height.  They decided to find a better location – and eventually
decided it should be placed in the political heart of Florence.   In Piazza della Signoria in front of 
the town hall where its copy still is today.  One member of the committee tried to persuade
them to place David in a less prominent place.   His name? Leonardo da Vinci. David is truly a colossus. At nearly
six metres tall and weighing six tons, it took four days and 40 men to move the statue 
half a mile from Michelangelo’s workshop.   In a gesture of defiance, David was
placed facing south – towards Rome. Michelangelo, then added the  finishing touches on site. Originally the sling and tree stump support were
gilded with gold, as seen in these reconstructions. David received a rapturous reception from the Florentines,   and right from the start it was hailed as a 
masterpiece – and a symbol of the Republic.   The Italian sixteenth century historian, Giorgio Vasari wrote: “After seeing this, no one need wish to look at any
other sculpture, or the work of any other artists”. in 1873 David was moved to the Accademia gallery
to protect it from environmental damage.  And in 1910 a full-size copy was placed in the square. The fig-leaf was eventually removed and 
David could be seen as Michelangelo intended. Statues have power beyond their initial reading. One man’s “hero” is another man’s symbol of oppression. Michelangelo’s David has had his fair share of controversies, but has always been on the side of the oppressed, the underdog. David represents the power to overcome
adversity, in the face of insurmountable odds. And we can all relate to that. Michelangelo would go on to create many
masterpieces. But his miraculous transformation of a   shepherd boy into the physical embodiment of 
Florence, would prove to be a defining moment   in his artistic career. He was an alchemist who 
turned marble into flesh and bone, and brought a   psychological insight and physical
realism to sculpture, never seen before.   He died in Rome in February of 1564. Still
working at the age of 88 years old, having outlived both his art rivals –
Leonardo da Vinci AND Raphael. He was brought back to Florence, to be buried in Santa Croce church. Just a stone’s throw away from his divine David.
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