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).
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.
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.
Art historian and Rhodes College professor Victor Coonin seeks the answers to those questions in his biography of Michelangelo, From Marble to Flesh: A Biography of Michelangelo’s David. 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.
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.
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.
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.
For more about the book and the author, Victor Coonin:
Photos are courtesy The Florentine and Wikipedia Commons.
More on art and life in Italy: