Michelangelo, David, 1501-04  

Michaelangelo’s David

Rookie sculptor transforms junkyard discard into high art !

What is it about David? Why do umpteen artists make images about him? Why did my mother get goose flesh when she saw the sculpture? Is David the little leaguer who hits the home run?, the hiker who climbs mount Everest, or Abe Lincoln, born in a log cabin, who becomes the president and frees the slaves? David, a brash young shepherd boy, clobbered the giant Philistine, Goliath, and saved his people with one stone and a small sling shot! David is the underdog, who beats the odds!

They called Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Il Terrible”. He was young, twenty-six, brilliant and arrogant, so arrogant that he didn’t sign his works1; he thought that people would know the creator, by looking. Just the man to attack a large marble commonly referred to as “Il Gigante”, lying in a churchyard. Agostino di Duccio had attempted to carve a David out of the stone thirty-five years prior. “Il Gigante” intimidated every sculptor there after.

From “Il Gigante”, Michelangelo created a David that is the epitome of male virility! He is big2, his muscles are bulging, his veins are popping. He is naked. David has overly large hands and feet, a wild puppy growing into adulthood. His body stands composed with confidence, his face, is gnarled with aggression, his right foot hesitates, David clutches a serpent, the sling that straddles his body; David is coiled to pounce!3 Michelangelo has conquered his first monumental work!

Michelangelo had to fit his David into the previously carved stone. His possible compromises have been the source of much speculation. But in his own words: “the best Artist has no concept which some single marble does not enclose within its mass”. The stone dictated the form4. For Michelangelo, making art was divine worship; the result of releasing a human from the stone5 was close to divine creation.

The artists of the high renaissance returned to the subjects and techniques of the classics, circa 450 BCE6, but with a twist. Classical stone workers did not give their subjects an emotional life. The figures stood dead-pan. The sculptures had “perfect” proportions based on the Golden Rectangle, a mathematical equation, derived from nature7. These were not sculptors, they were craftspeople, employees. Their goal was to execute the job, without ego, without signature. But the renaissance was a rebirth of the individual. Michelangelo’s works would show his choices, his genius, his ego. He would invent human proportion as it served him. His figures would be polished until their skin appeared lifelike. His creations would emote! And to top it off, he would attempt the technically impossible; He would carve huge voids into the lower third of the stone8. “Il Terribile” would use only ONE piece of marble per sculpture.

There is more then one way to execute a giant. During his life, Michelangelo, attacked the David theme several times. An early sculpture, now called the David-Apollo, does not reach the stature of the later David. Although the figure conveys more action, it does not emote, the gesture is unclear; the stone is less refined, the form is closed. The other Davids by Michelangelo tell the story from three different perspectives: the marble David is contemplating the event, a Sistine Chapel painting depicts David straddled over the philistine in the act of triumph, a later bronze David, conveys the postscript, David the conqueror standing proudly on his trophy, Goliath’s head. David gave death to “Il Gigante”, Michelangelo gave him life!

1. The only work that Michelangelo signed is the Pieta; his signature is on the Madonna’s breast.

2. The sculpture was originally placed outside at the Piazza della Signoria.. Due to destruction by weather and birds the David was eventually moved inside of the Galleria dell’Accademia and a copy was made and placed outside near the Palazzo Vecchio The viewing experience is complete different. Inside the sculpture is monumental. The figure is placed at the end of a narrow hallway flanked by the Captives. There is a glass dome above the figure creating a cascade of hallowed light. Out side the sculpture is dwarfed by the sky.

3. Snakes are the universal symbol for fertility.. Note: Genesis, Garden of Eden.

4. Subtractive process: the carving away of materials presents many challenges. Each kind stone, or wood, has different density and hardness. Marble is an ideal material because it is softer and easier to carve then granite but stronger then limestone or sandstone and it is available in a gazillion colors. The veins of the rock has to be worked into the design. Natural “flaws” can cause a piece to shatter. The artist has to pre- determine how the image will fit into the block; what parts will be closest to raw edges and what parts will be in the interior space. Aesthetic choices must be balanced with the practical. The design of the piece has to be weighted to “stand up.” Many artists of the time worked these sculptures using ONE block of stone. It would have been easier to use several stones.

Additive sculpture technique builds up the sculpting medium. In Michelangelo’s time, this was usually clay on top of a metal armature. The process allows the artist to change their mind frequently.

Additive processes accept greater protrusions, as there are no outside limitations. Larger spaces within the design can be physically supported internally. It is also possible to weight the bottom for physical balance. Upon completion, a mold of the clay sculpture is made and the piece is caste into metal or stone compound. Some molding materials allow multiple castings.

The only advantage of subtractive technique is the physical beauty of the material.

5. Nine years later, 1513-16, Michelangelo carves the Captives. They are the quintessential example of humans breaking out of stone.

6. Music is called classical in the 17th century

7. The golden rectangle was based on the number of ascending seeds in a sunflower or the chambers of a nautilus shell.

8. Negative space is the compositional space between solid forms in a work of art. It serves to unify the solid forms with the surrounding area. It was unusual for the David to have such large negatives in the bottom third of the sculpture. It is much harder to keep a sculpture upright if there is not tremendous weight on the bottom. Usually figures were draped creating a weighted closed form. The David is naked. Michelangelo had to balance the gestures to keep the sculpture upright. Henry Moore, a twentieth century sculptor, said that the holes in his works, connect the front of the work to the back. In Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of G-d giving life to Adam, the negative space between the fingers of G-d and Adam is the implied energy of life.

—Marjorie Masel
Copyright ©1998