Art That Inspires: The Story Behind the David

For this month’s ArtSmart Roundtable on the topic of art that inspires…Yesterday as I was leaving the grocery store, I saw a bumper sticker that said “EARTH without art is just ‘Eh'”. That sticker reminded me of what kept going through my mind as I began reading Monuments Men and watched the movie, the story of the efforts to save Western art from the Nazis in World War II. It’s hard to imagine our world if those important masterpieces of Western art, from Vermeer to Rembrandt and Raphael to Michelangelo, hadn’t survived the thievery of the Nazis (in fact, a few didn’t).

Why the David still inspires | This Is My Happiness.com

One of Western history’s most famous and loved symbols is Michelangelo’s David. If you’ve visited the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, you know that seeing this monumental work in person is an experience. It’s one of the most popular sights in Italy and is a symbol of both Florence (even of Italy) and the Italian Renaissance. Even more important, the David is one of the purest representations of the Renaissance ideal of human potential. Yet even for those who have no background knowledge of the Renaissance, the David is considered a must-see.

Why the David still inspires | This Is My Happiness.com

While art is a deeply personal thing–what one person finds deeply moving, another person might find boring–the David is a work that universally inspires awe. But why? Is it its sheer size? I doubt it because Christ the Redeemer is almost 5 times the size of the David, yet the sculptures themselves cannot be compared in terms of quality or inspiration. Is it the quality of the work? Partly. Is it the perfection of the human form represented? Partly. Is it the idealized representation of male beauty and youth? Perhaps. Is it his stark nudity? I would say so.

Why the David still inspires | This Is My Happiness.com

Art historian and Rhodes College professor Victor Coonin seeks the answers to those questions in his book From Marble to Flesh: A Biography of Michelangelo’s David (available for purchase here). He sees the David as having a story, a biography, with several phases: origins, adolescence, maturity, midlife crisis, and the golden years.

Because the David had such an important impact on the society in which it was created, the idea of “life phases” makes sense, starting with conception– Michelangelo’s vision for the piece–and continuing with its execution and later role as a symbol of Florence’s power. Besides the fact that the David was the first free-standing colossal nude sculpture since Classical times, the David held particular importance for Florence as the symbol of the strength of the Florentine state in defense against neighboring enemies.

Why the David still inspires | This Is My Happiness.com

A copy of the David in Taiwan

In Coonin’s book, the last phase explores the role of the David in the present day, when copies of the David continue to pop up around the world and his image makes all kinds of appearances, even in tattoos. Yet after 500 years, the David, like no other piece of Renaissance art, continues to inspire awe; people connect to it more than perhaps any other work of its time.

Why the David still inspires | This Is My Happiness.com

A stamp with the David’s easily recognizable mouth

The success of Coonin’s From Marble to Flesh lies in his ability to make the David relevant and interesting to a modern audience without losing any of his credibility. Coonin wanted to write a book about the David that would make a scholarly contribution to the literature while being something that the average person could read. This is a worthy goal considering how loved the David is by so many people, most of whom have no interest in reading a dry book by an art historian.

Furthermore, unlike many historical texts, Coonin does not simply prove the relevance of a work for its time. Instead, by bringing the present day into the discussion and showing the David’s influence on modern-day culture, Coonin shows us why this sculpture from 1504 is still relevant in today’s world.

Why the David still inspires | This Is My Happiness.com

Tell me, have you seen the David? In your opinion, what is it about this sculpture that inspires such awe?

Here are some facts about the David:

The statue is almost 17 feet tall

It used to stand outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence but was moved inside the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873 to protect it from damage.

In 1910, a replica of the David was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where it once stood. This copy, which stands alongside several important works from the Renaissance and later, is one of Florence’s best known sights.

Michelangelo worked on the David from 1501 to 1504.

It was carved from one solid block of Carrera marble.

The marble had actually been worked on and was considered flawed before Michelangelo got his hands on it.

The David was originally meant to stand on the side of the Duomo.

Why the David still inspires | This Is My Happiness.com

For more about the book and the author, Victor Coonin:

For more about art that inspires, check out this month’s other ArtSmart Roundtable posts:

Finding the “Awe” in Awesome Art from Christina of Daydream Tourist

Travel in Art: Artists That Inspired My Destinations from Murissa of Wanderfull Traveler

How to find art that inspires when you think you’ve seen it all from Alexandra of ArtTrav

Photos are courtesy The Florentine and Wikipedia Commons.

16 Comments

  • Alexandra says:

    A truly excellent review, thanks Jenna!

  • I haven’t seen the David myself, but the first thing that comes to mind is how perfect and detailed he looks and how much confidence he exudes – he truly is an ideal of human potential as you mention. Great post, Jenna – it’s different, I like that!

  • Christina says:

    Great article Jenna! I like your opening reference to the Monument Men and the challenge of whether any art is so valuable and inspirational that it is worth a human life to save. The David is definitely one of those perfectly executed, enigmatic, universally-appealing pieces worth protecting. I bet he is tied with the Mona Lisa as the most recognized work of art ever!

    We always see images of David from the front, but I loved visiting him and being able to talk around. Michelangelo really created a three-dimensional man so it’s great to enjoy all the angles and views. I’ve always liked his furrowed brow and distant expression – perfect symbol of the Renaissance Florentines and more broadly, the embodiment of cautious preparation.

  • Kevin says:

    We will be in Florence next week! I’m sure inspired after reading this! I can’t wait.

  • Murissa says:

    I haven’t seen the real David, only the replica standing outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
    I remember I was shocked that the David was chosen as a symbol for Florentine Strength instead of my preferred statue of Cellini statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa.
    While there is a subtlety to David that seems to strike the human core something about the Cellini fascinates me much more. But I’m just weird like that lol

  • Franca says:

    I don’t know how many times I’ve been to Florence and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve actually never seen the original David but only the replica by the Palazzo Vecchio. Michelangelo was a genius in my view and I should pay more respect to his works and visit the real David next time I’m in Florence 🙂

  • We made a reservation to see the David the second that museum opened. We didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the other works in the museum. But my wife slowly circled the David for 30 minutes. She was obsessed. I think it’s amazing how perfect it seems to be.

    • Jenna says:

      Good idea to go when it opens. Art is always better experienced without a crowd trying to see it, too.

  • Gina says:

    The David was one of my favorite pieces of art I’ve seen while traveling so I loved reading all this extra info I didn’t know about it. Also, I had no idea that’s what Monuments Men was about – I’ll have to check it out!

  • Lily Lau says:

    David makes art so magical… and that “EARTH without art is just ‘Eh’” touched me 🙂

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