Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Florence 2012 Journal: Analysis of Michelangelo's David

Analysis of Michelangelo’s David

On the Wednesday of our third week here, I went to the Accademia Gallery. The Accademia is the institution that houses the world-renowned statue of Michelangelo’s David and has done so since 1873.

Michelangelo was commissioned by the Florence Cathedral building committee to carve a civic statue out of the marble left over from a previously abandoned commission. This came shortly after the death of Lorenzo the Great in 1492 and the political upheaval that ensued. Out of this came a power shift from the Medici’s to the Florentine Republic and to ‘shore up its legitimacy’[1], they commissioned several civic monuments that would serve as aesthetically pleasing pieces of art but also propaganda. The choice of David was not surprising as he had long been an inspirational hero to the Florentines. The white marble statue was carved in between 1501-1504 and was originally placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. The biblical figure stands tall at 17 ft and weighs approximately 6 tonnes.

Michelangelo’s David is first and foremost an embodiment of his fascination with the human form, much like another Renaissance figure held high in esteem – Leonardo Da Vinci. His close study of such meant that the statue is in keeping with what was an ongoing progression of naturalism and perfection of the human form during the Renaissance. Furthermore, he can be argued to seemingly mimic the status of men in the 16th century in ‘representations of Machiavellian Masculinity’[2] because with naturalism you portray not only the physical truths but socio-economic truths of the time, too. As I have already discussed this in part was crafted for propaganda purposes. Therefore, the messages that are trying to be put across are that of a strong David, akin to the strong Florentine male and the Florence Republic who together have conquered Florence. This version strayed from the previous depictions by Donatello and Verrocchio in that he is not shown after the battle with Goliath’s head at his feet, but before the battle waiting for Goliath to approach. The fact that David’s expression is so easily readable proves Michelangelo’s expertise in the naturalism of expression.

The statue had certainly been influenced by the Renaissance tendency to imitate statues of classical antiquity, particularly the ‘Contrapposto’ pose that was distinctively classical for the Florentines. However the 16th century perception of what classical art consisted of was sometimes wrong, a prime example being the imitation of the ‘blank’ eyes. These were not stylistic features of sculptures in ancient Greece and Rome, it was simply a result of the paint fading – they were all initially in colour. Furthermore, Michelangelo is claimed to have admired the Greco-Roman statues particularly for ‘the skilful and precise rendering of the heroic physique’[3], of which the influence is obvious. Conversely, Kleinder asserts that there was another influence, the influence of Hellenistic statues: ‘David is compositionally and emotionally connected to an unseen presence beyond the statue, a feature also in Hellenistic sculpture’.[4]
In conclusion, despite the varying periodical influences and the progression of Renaissance styles, Michelangelo’s David was clearly in a league of its own. As in the eyes of Michelangelo’s contemporary Giorgio Vasari, it was held up as an unsurpassable masterpiece:  ‘without any doubt the figure has put in the shade every other statue, ancient or modern, Greek or Roman’.[5]

[1] D. Rubel, The Bedside Baccalaureate: The Second Semester (Sterling, 2009), 349.
[2] P. Bautista, Manifesting Masculinities in Central Italian Renaissance Art: Artistic Theory and Representations of the Male Body (ProQuest, 2008)
[3] F. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: Volume D (Broadman & Holman Publishers, (2012), 611.
[4] F. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: Volume D (Broadman & Holman Publishers, (2012), 611.
[5] C. Mamiya, F. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: v. 2 Western Perspective (Wadsworth Publishing, (2005), 502.

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