The Art: David
The Artist: Michelangelo
About the Work:
It’s Michelangelo’s David. You’ve seen dozens of photos of the statue before. Perhaps you’ve even visited it in person. And yet, for all it’s popularity, nobody has viewed the sculpture of this legendary giant-slayer as the artist intended for well over a century.
You see, the angle at which visitors to Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia view, and ultimately take photos of David is actually the side view. In 1873, when the statue was first brought to the gallery, the true front was positioned to face a column so that the broader view created more of a Hellenic feel as people walked down the hallway towards it. And so it has remained for over 140 years.
This may not seem like a big issue. After all, the current orientation was chosen to optimise the impact of Michelangelo’s masterwork. Yet for all their good intentions, the gallery designers’ decision to change the statue’s perspective has radically altered the common interpretation of David entirely.
From the side, the 17-foot figure cuts an impressive, confident figure. With his sling draped over his shoulder, David look as assured of victory over his enemy, Goliath, as he does in other famous depictions of the biblical battle.
For us humans to interpret the reality of David in person, we would need to be able to see through the column that he’s facing. Technology, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about such limitations. In the late 90s, a team from Stanford University used laser imaging to scan the sculpture, rendering a digital model from which much of our newfound understanding derives from.
From the front, David looks far less confident. His eyes are wide and focused on a distant threat. The muscles between his eyebrows draw up, and his nostrils flare. He is tense, and it doesn’t just show on his face. The positioning of his legs look somewhat relaxed from the side, but from the front, the stance is aggressive. David is preparing for battle.
Then, there’s his penis. The question of why Michelangelo would craft such an unassuming endowment is now answered: it has contracted as he prepares for battle.
Why he is uncircumcised is another question entirely.
All considered, David is far more nervous than we realise. It just goes to show how deceiving looks really can be, if we don’t take the time – or have the opportunity – to study them properly.
This isn’t the first time David‘s position has been the topic of ire. Famously, the issue was being discussed all the way back in the 1500s.
When the sculpture was to be placed in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, some argued that it should look towards the south, towards Rome, where the Medici – enemies of Florence’s government at the time – had been exiled. They thought the statue’s glare was so terrifying that it would keep the Medici at bay.
Others thought the opposite. In the Bible, Goliath arrives from the south, so they believed having David face that way would somehow incite further trouble.
Ultimately, he did end up facing south. The statue was attacked twice as part of Florentine riots, and the Medici eventually returned to power in the 1520s.
Will David ever be moved so that art enthusiasts can see the statue as Michelangelo intended? It seems unlikely, at least while it remains at the Galleria dell’Accademia.
But at least we know the truth.