As I write these words I am sitting in a beautiful flat in Florence, Italy. I am traveling in this country for only a week, but it is one week more than almost any other mother of young children I know might be given. My dear husband helped me plan this trip and encouraged me to go, thinking, I believe, it might be an important element in gaining strength after a nervous breakdown weakened me to the point, at times, of being a sort of living corpse.
Upon arriving in Florence, seeing Michelangelo’s 1502 statue of David was frankly not high on my list. I wanted to walk the entire city, see the Duomo, spend hours in the Uffizi, explore the architecture of churches and sit in a cafe with a cappuccino doing nothing. I have done all this, and each experience has been more sublime than the last. Florence is mesmerizing, and wraps one in a sense of timelessness that is a delicate spell one never wants broken.
Of course I knew I would see David. There are certain things a tourist “must do,” and to not see David would, for reasons odd and perhaps not very well examined, be for most people to not have truly seen Florence. He is just a part of the tourist’s check-off list, and I think for this reason I felt hesitant, or mildly uninterested.
David is also, in many ways, a joke. How many tee shirts have David doing something mildly obscene printed on them? How many people wake up and drink coffee out of their David coffee mugs? How many people use tote bags with David’s face wrinkled up on the fabric? Along with the Mona Lisa, perhaps no other image in Western art is so commercialized, so casually familiar.
So this evening I dutifully waited in line at the Accademia, where David lives in his own specially created cupola. It began to rain and I began to fantasize about the ridiculously expensive chocolates I had waiting for me back at the flat. However, the line moved, and I moved with it, first finding a huge room filled with unfinished marble statues carved by Michelangelo’s hand. This room alone changed my mind. One could see, in the unfinished pieces, a sense of vision, of struggle, and of comprehension far beyond our own in the shapes rising from the white blocks of stone. One could see, in a real sense, the machinations of Michelangelo’s mind, and his hands, in the works that will forever remain, to our benefit, “in progress.”
Nothing in my life could have prepared me for my first sight of Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Several hundred years ago, Vasari essentially closed the book on all that needs to be said of David, pronouncing after viewing it that the sculpture makes looking at others unnecessary. Donatello would rightfully disagree with that, but I certainly felt the defining finality, the pinnacle, of human genius when I saw that sculpture.
The experience I had when looking at David turned on an instant from tourist’s errand to something ephemeral, nameless, which is what great art of any kind inspires in one’s mind. David cannot be captured by description, or really even in explaining how evocative the sculpture is in its expression of human power, beauty, perfection, and, I believe, an underlying vulnerability.
An unsettling element of Michelangelo’s sculpture is that, unlike other works of great genius I’ve seen, such as certain paintings by Rubens (which I had just seen a couple hours before seeing David), Caravaggio, the sculptures of Donatello, or, in our era, Guernica by Picasso or almost anything by Matisse, I cannot find a human touch in David. One element that has always connected the works of geniuses has, to my eye, been both the newness of fresh invention or vision, but also an essential revelation of the artist’s humanity; it is this that connects us to him, lest we lose the thread altogether, and the genius of the artist stands solely separate from us.
In David I felt this separateness. I could not comprehend how such a masterpiece was made, where it came from within Michelangelo’s mind; his capacity seems so beyond us as to make him strangely inhuman, even as he creates art with the most humanizing expression.
Not only then was I overwhelmed at the perfection of David, I felt too this strange contradiction. I felt lost in David. There was no artist to look to; it was as if the sculpture was lifted, fully formed, from his marble DNA.
This is one reason I believe David is a cultural joke. We don’t know what to do with him. We don’t know what to do with his perfection, or with the seemingly god-like grace that placed him in our presence. Better to make him small, and live on coffee cups, than worry about the sources of our own ignorance, and the mysteries we can never break through, though they keep struggling to be understood, rather like Michelangelo’s unfinished statues.
Yes it is true there is nothing more to be said about David. But upon seeing him, a lot of us keep trying. This is his nature: first, the silent wonder. Then the exploration. He is a marvel, a great gift to behold, as much as we can really see him.