Michelangelo’s David (1501-04)

Michelangelo's David is one of the best known works in art history but its meaning remains uncertain. Thirty years after Charles Seymour proposed that Michelangelo did indeed "see a meaningful connection between himself at that time and the young David" interpretations still range between a narrative illustration of the biblical story of David and Goliath; a political allegory in which David represents the courage, or fortezza, of Florence; and, quite unusually, several more claims in support of Seymour that David represents the artist.1 The first is superfically true, the second possible, the third certain.

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Michelangelo, David (1501-4) Marble. Galeria dell'Academia, Florence

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In the Renaissance sculptors used a tool called a bow, or arco in Italian, to drill holes (left). Its modern Italian name, still linked to archery, is archetto. Michelangelo used the word to compare himself to David on a sketch of David:  ‘David with his sling / And I with my bow / Michelangelo.’ Thus some have long known that Michelangelo's giant masterpiece, David, is really a representation of the great sculptor himself with a sling in place of his sculptor’s bow.2 However, it is also part of the long, unrecognized tradition in Western art in which weapons are used to symbolize the artist's tools.3

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Diagram of a Renaissamce sculptor's drill or bow, known in Italian as arco

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David, who had never before been depicted as a giant and whose story makes little sense if he is, is a heroic “sculptor” and the slayer of a giant, Goliath. The vast block of stone Michelangelo was given to make David  was also known as The Giant, a block once reserved for Donatello but which he and others had been unable to finish. Narrow and challenging, it had lain unused for decades.4 In sculpting David, Michelangelo slew The Giant, the block of stone. The numerous cross-references to aggression, weapons and giants indicates the framework around which Michelangelo imagined the mental and physical challenge of creating great sculpture on a heroic scale. 

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Michelangelo, David (1501-4)

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David even has the frown of an artist.5 In addition my interpretation of Michelangelo's Archers Shooting at a Herm provides additional support that David is a self-representation: the archers and David are both nude with the same body type, both using weapons to represent artistic implements. Nor has the nudity much to do with the artist’s sexuality. David and other figures by Michelangelo are nude because souls and spirits, like the originally nude figures in the Last Judgment, were believed to be naked if they had a physical appearance at all – in both antiquity and the Renaissance. Souls did not wear clothes.6

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Detail of Michelangelo's David

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Like the Virgin in his Vatican Pietà - another "artist" - David's hands are vast. They are a sculptor's ideal hands, the ones he would have had for himself had he the choice. With a similarly over-sized head, David's figure personnifies his craft (hands) and conception (head). Michelangelo, still young, identified with both the youthful hero and the stone. His written poetry asserts that his mind was made of "stone" which may be why the poet-sculptor left the crown of David's head uncarved, a poetic grace note "cleaned away" by restorers in the 18th century.7 David is the first, truly heroic representation of a Renaissance artist.8

If you have time, read the entry on the Vatican Pieta to see how Michelangelo's oeuvre, like others, is magically consistent.9

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Michelangelo's David

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Notes:

1. Charles Seymour, Michelangelo’s David: A Search for Identity (University of Pittsburgh Press) 1967, p.8-9. Leo Steinberg listed David as one of Michelangelo's varied self-representatons. See Steinberg, "The Line of Fate in Michelangelo's Painting" in The Language of Images, ed. W.J.T.Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1980, p. 126; David Summers argues that David's frown makes visible "the soul of the sculptor Michelangelo". See Summers, "David's Scowl" in Collaboration in Italian Renaissance Art, ed. W.S. Sheard and J.T. Paoletti (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1978, p. 117; In writing about Giorgione's Self-portrait as David with the Head of Goliath, Woods-Marsden has described Michelangelo's David as a prototype for an artist's "creative struggle." See Woods-Marsden, Renaissance Self-Portraiture (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1998, pp. 118-9; James Saslow believes that all Michelangelo's works "are in some sense an emotional self-portrait." See Saslow, “The Unconsummated Portrait: Michelangelo’s Poems About Art” in Amy Golhany (ed.), The Eye of the Poet: Studies in the Reciprocity of the Visual and Literary arts from the Renaissance to the Present (Lewisburg and London: Associated University Presses) 1996, p.88, n.173 

2. Seymour, op. cit.,p. 7

3. See examples by many artists under the theme, Swords/Weapons as Brushes.

4. Seymour, pp. 8; The marble block which Michelangelo used for David was not, as Vasari claimed, just the badly-botched job of a second-rate sculptor. As Seymour relates, it seems to have borne in its design the work of Donatello, the greatest Florentine sculptor of the fourteenth century. "The young Michelangelo was given the challenge of completing what Donatello had imagined but had been unable to see finished." The stone's significance to Michelangelo would have greatly increased with that knowledge, allowing the young sculptor to feel at one with Donatello. See Seymour, p. 45

5. See Abrahams, "Art's Unknown Frown" (2013).

6. The male nude was always, in some sense, a surrogate for the ultimate human being, Christ, but it was also widely recognized that at the Last Judgement and final Resurrection, when all human beings would be reborn, they would be reborn nude. See James Hall,  Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 2005, p. xviii; and, for example, Signorelli's fresco of the Resurrection in the Capella Nuova, Orvieto Cathedral

7. Seymour, p. 24

8. Seymour noticed that David's knitted brow could be seen in Leonardo's Self-portrait and his drawing of Vitruvian Man (Seymour, p.54). He was on the right track. David's frown or "scowl" has at least once been recognized for what it is: a symbol of the sculptor in deep thought. Summers, "David's Scowl" in Collaboration in Italian Renaissance Art, ed. W.S. Sheard and J.T. Paoletti (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1978, p. 117. Summers notes a handful of other figures with a similar scowl but fails to recognize, along with others, that many frowning figures in art over the centuries are a self-representation of the artist. It can be found in self-portraits too. Giorgione frowns in his Self-portrait as David as does Michelangelo's St. Proclus, an earlier self-representation of the artist. Bernini used his own features for a frowning David too. The knitted brow will soon become a theme on this site. Others have wondered why Michelangelo's David, a Jew, is not circumcised. There have been a variety of explanations [summarized in Blech and Doliner, The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican (New York: Harper Collins) 2008, p.98], the simplest being that Michelangelo may never have seen a circumcised phallus (though it was an important enough detail for him to have found out.) The real reason is that it is once again one of those superficial lapses in logic included to let the sensitive viewer recognize that all is not well with a surface or narrative explanation. David is uncircumcised because Michelangelo was.

9. See also Baccio Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus (1525-34), a sculpture commission originally given to Michelangelo and which was always intended to stand opposite David outside the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 17 Nov 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.