A few days ago I had the pure joy of spending about an hour and a half gazing at Michelangelo’s David in Florence, Italy. It was my longest encounter with the David, and my best. I moved (as the crowds flowed in and out) from one bench to the next, all around the statue, and then tried to drink in the sculpture as if it were the last time I would ever see it.
One of the greatest frustrations (even sorrows) of life is not being able to open the gates of perception and wonder to their fullest extent. I want to read Hamlet (again) for the first time, to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling (again) for the first time, to see Picasso’s Guernica (again) for the first time. The sad fact is that we bring our bent antennae to life’s experiences, and–try as we might–we can never quite reawaken the sense of wonder that characterized us in our young adulthoods.
To my mind Michelangelo’s David is one of the tiny handful of greatest artistic achievements in the history of humankind. Top ten, maybe top five. It ranks (for me) with Hamlet, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, with the Iliad and Paradise Lost.
How did he do it? We all have heard the Platonic notion that Michelangelo believed that his David or Pieta or Moses was enslaved in the actual piece of marble, waiting to be liberated by the sculptor? This is something more than metaphor and less than literally Michelangelo’s artistic philosophy, I believe. When I sat gazing at the David (like a lover at his mistress, as Jefferson put it) I had two thoughts. First, I believe that this is Michelangelo’s greatest achievement, that he recognized that this was his chance to do one thing perfectly–to get every tendon in the hand, line of muscle in the calves, dimple near the back of the shoulder, jut of the hip, absolutely right. And that he put all of his mastery into this project, as if there would never be another opportunity for him to show the world what he was capable of performing.
My second thought, however much it may seem a cliche, was that at any moment David might just walk off the pedestal and out the door. It has that much verisimilitude.
And I had a third thought. I admire Bernini’s David, which I saw at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, and the David of Donatello, which I saw in Florence…. But I do not think either one of them can really stand in the same league with Michelangelo’s David. They are beautiful, works of artistic mastery. If Michelangelo had not performed his David, I think we would have to give the palm to Bernini. And I admire the Baroque sculptor’s capacity to capture the intensity of David’s attempt to defeat a giant with only his sling.
But in the end there is only Michelangelo.