Michelangelo’s David, a Carrara marble statue over 14 feet in height, is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture created between 1501 and 1504. It represents the Biblical hero David. You know, the guy who slew the giant with a slingshot. Is it the world’s greatest sculpture? Possibly. And possibly it was created by the world’s greatest sculptor. It glows, glistens as if from perspiration, but seems oddly pale. One might almost expect it to be warm to the touch. I viewed it with all proper awe and respect, but it might just be too perfect.
Oh sure, the right hand is disproportionately large because in the middle ages David was considered strong of hand, and yes, David is holding the sling in his left hand because he was left-handed. Consider the etymology: from middle English sinistre, “unlucky”, from Old French sinistra, “left” from Latin sinestra, “left hand” and in present day English, sinister. But David displays Michelangelo’s perfect understanding of human anatomy — all from another sculptor’s cast-off: a flawed block of stone.
There are other notable facts about the David. He was originally planned to be placed on top of the Duomo, but when interested parties (including Leonardo and Botticelli) saw the finished product they decided it would be a waste way up there. They formed a commission and placed it in the Palazzo Vecchio and it became a political statement — sort of like, hey you enemies, you don’t scare us! Some clown threw a chair out a window and broke the left arm in three places, but he stayed there until 1872 when he was moved to the Galleria. With train tracks laid in the street, it took three days for David to trundle on a cart to his present location.
But hold up a minute. The Hall of Slaves or Prisoners leads up to the David in the Accademia Galleria. Huge blocks of marble seemingly unfinished with figures writhing and straining against the grip and weight of the stone. Why did he leave these unfinished? Maybe he’s chipping away with his hammer and chisel and decides he can’t get these pieces quite right so he just quits? This from the guy who whacked the knee of a statue with his hammer and yelled at it about speaking to him? Nah, not our guy Michelangelo who believed that it was the work of a sculptor to release the statue already in the stone. These pieces seem to represent the human struggle to be free of whatever holds us back from completion and thus perfection. Remember that M. did not work from plaster casts or mark the blocks of stone in any way. He just went to chipping on a piece of stone and let the work emerge from it. David was a commissioned piece. And it is perfect. The Prisoners or Slaves are masterpieces of a different sort and are a personal message, a philosophy, if you will, of an artist.
Michelangelo was more than just possibly the finest sculptor ever. He painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling of course and drew and painted all his life. He was also a renown poet. From humble beginnings at his father’s quarry, Michelangelo learned to wield a hammer and chisel while working for a stone cutter, proving that humble tools in the right hands may render extraordinary truths across the centuries.