Monday, September 10, 2007
On September 8, 1504, one of Michelangelo’s signature masterpieces, his David (above) , was unveiled to the wonder of Florence. For those interested in the full story, Anton Gill’s Il Gigante: Michelangelo, Florence, and the David 1492-1504 recreates the atmosphere and soap opera drama surrounding the David in full-blown Technicolor. I especially love the tale of how an archway had to be demolished because the David was too tall to pass beneath on its way from Michelangelo’s workshop to his public destination in the Palazzo della Signoria, now known as the Palazzo Vecchio.
If you go to the Palazzo Vecchio today, you see a reproduction of David. Pollution and weather took their toll on the original, forcing officials to move him inside to Florence’s Accademia Gallery. (David’s long history of restoration and conservation has become a case history of what NOT to do to a great work of art.) Even the reproduction suffers from the streaks of acid rain and the guano of the plentiful birds of the palazzo. Annie and I saw this reproduction in situ during our honeymoon in Florence years ago, wishing that the scaffolding behind him would go away and offer us a better snapshot. It was still important to see where the David once stood, just to get a sense of what a public role the figure played in the life of Florence as a community at that time.
Nothing, however, replaces seeing the original at the Accademia. Situated in such a way that you can walk around him and see him from every angle, the David doesn’t disappoint. Standing 17 feet tall and seeming even taller from the ground, David towers over you and takes all the oxygen out of the room. Annie and I sat there for maybe 20 minutes enjoying the experience in relative peace, until a tour group tromped in and broke the spell. To think that Michelangelo took a flawed piece of marble that had already been worked on and created such a figure makes it all the more amazing. Today, the ubiquitous nature of the David in popular culture has immunized us to its full impact. When I found the image above, which shows David from his “true front” or the angle from which Goliath would have seen him, you get a sense of the attitude (or “attytood” if you’re from Philadelphia, like me) revealed by his sneering lips and impudent eyes. In many ways, the David is to Florence what the Rocky statue is to Philadelphia. Michelangelo’s work, obviously, shows the hand of genius, whereas the Rocky statue is an embarrassment that stands as inconspicuously as possible at the foot of the PMA, but I think you can draw a parallel between Renaissance Florence, scrappy underdog to powerhouse Rome, and present-day Philadelphia, scrappy underdog to New York City. Maybe looking back at the power of public art of the past, such as David’s ability to unite a community spiritually, can inspire us to ask more of our public art today.