Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Michelangelo's David

As you know, I'm just back from driving to Italy for the weekend in my mini - the way you do.  Whilst I was there, I took a day trip to Florence.

If you go to the Piazza della Signoria, then one of the statues that you'll see there, surrounded by tourists taking photographs, is Michelangelo's David.

Well, not the original.  This one is a copy.  It's still pretty impressive, but it's not the real thing.  Even though it looks like the real thing.  Or what's left of the real thing.  It's all very confusing.

The real thing is over in the Academia, for safekeeping. (And you have to buy a ticket.)  Here's a photo of the real thing.

There's quite a history to the statue, even before Michelangleo started work on the lump of Carerra marble from which it's made in 1501-4.

In the early 15th century, a series of statues of Old Testament figures was commissioned for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.  Donatello made Joshua in 1410 (in terracotta, painted to look like stone), and Agostino di Duccio started David in 1464 in marble.  He roughed out a block of Carerra marble, but stopped.  Ten years later, Agostino Rossellino had a chip at it.  In 1500, an inventory of the cathedral workshop lists the roughed-out figure as still sitting out in the yard, abandoned.

However, it was an expensive piece of marble, so other artists (including Leonardo da Vinci) were asked to take a look at it, and see if they could push the project on.  In 1501, the 26-year-old Michelangelo got the gig, and started work that September.  He was to work on it for more than two years.

In 1504, it was becoming clear that the six ton, fourteen foot tall block was never going to be able to be placed on the roof of the cathedral, as was the original intention.  If you have a look at the head and the hands, they are overly large for precisely this reason.  

It's not a statue that's meant to be seen in a gallery.  David was meant to be viewed from beneath and from a distance of about 40 feet.  The expression of stoical resistance as David looked out over the city, and the gesture of the hands, were all of vital importance in expressing the meaning.  So the head and hands had to be easily seen and 'read', hence the larger proportions and the sharp undercutting of the stone around the hair and eyes in order to give easy-to-read dramatic passages of light and shade,

His left hand holds the slingshot over his shoulder, and his right hand holds the simple stone that will overcome his enemy, the giant Goliath.

Photograph: Murdo Macleod

It is a hand that suggests tension, confidence, action, thought; a moment caught and a moment where we know the outcome but David does not.  It is also very real, very sensual and tactile.  Look at the muscles, the veins, the skin.  Imagine your own hand in that pose, holding a stone, such a simple action.  Michelangelo is making you feel the stone that's held in the hand, his hand, your hand.  What would it feel like to hold the simple stone that changed everything?  What does the moment before a life-changing action feel like?  

Like Bernini appearing to change the texture of hard, cold marble to soft, warm flesh over 100 years later....

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Rape of Proserpina (detail) 1621)

....Michelangelo also seems to perform some sort of miracle of transubstantiation.  Marble becomes some other sort of material, something pulsating with life and adrenaline.

Photo: Malgorzata Siudzinska

(You can also see here the finger that a young urchin snapped off whilst scrambling up the statue in the 19th century when the original was still in the Piazza della Signoria - at least, that's what a tour-guide told me when I was there.)

Anyway, back to the story.  After consultation with the top artists of the day, and much discussion and argument over various locations,  it was decided in June 1504 to install David next to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio.  It took four days to move the statue the half mile from Michelangelo's workshop into the Piazza della Signoria (during its journey it was pelted by stone-throwing crowds, as it was seen as a political symbol).

Various people scrambled up it over the years, attacked it, and stole the gilded garland from the head (the tree stump a his feet was also gilded at one point).  This, added to the damage done by the weather, led to the removal of David in 1873 to the Accademia.  The replica was placed in the Piazza della Signoria in 1910.

In 2003, the Italian authorities decided that David needed a spring-clean.  Any restoration of  a world treasure invariably causes howls of outrage and controversy, and this was no exception.  (Previously, David had been coated in a 'protective' layer of wax in the early 1800s, which was then stripped off in 1843 using hydrochloric acid, which also unsurprisingly removed part of the surface.)

However, the statue emerged unscathed from its distilled-water clean, ready for its 500th birthday in 2004.

So what is so potent about this, possibly the most famous statue in the world?  

There's something very powerful about the sheer size and the nakedness of it.  If it wasn't a nude figure, it wouldn't have the same impact.  It's about someone who is literally stripped right back to just being a vulnerable, naked human being, and yet they are empowered and ennobled by those very things, and their intellect, faith and ingenuity.  

The naked becomes the nude.

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