Five hundred years later, the David’s nudity still startles. No fig leafs for Michelangelo, who not only would sculpt an anatomically correct man---the man would be perfect, and he would be 16 feet tall.
In the world of the 15th century the human physique was not yet widely celebrated. Doctors could not even examine the bodies of their living patients, and artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo were forced to visit morgues in the dead of night to study the human form.
Michelangelo’s David is not the slender stripling of Biblical legend but a handsome youth of princely mien. He gazes intently at his opponent---close-ups of his face show a hint of fear, but you can see a mind feverishly at work. The left hand, holding the sling, is raised to his shoulder, while the right, holding the stone, rests on his thigh. As if to emphasize the unity between head and hand, Michelangelo raised a vein that extends down the neck, past the right arm, to the hand; no such vein, of course, exists in reality.
The greatness of the David is more pronounced when one considers the limitations of working with marble. The weight of the material normally forces the sculptor to design a wide base that tapers toward the top.
Here the weight is borne by two relatively slender legs, so Michelangelo added support by the innocuous placement of a branch by the right calf. If the arms extended out from the body, they may have broken off long ago, but the placement of the hands on the shoulder and the thigh stabilize the structure while fulfilling the artistic vision.
If art provokes a reaction, the David is great art because of the after-shocks it produced not only in Florence but throughout 16th century Europe. It became the symbol of the Florentine republic and civil liberty. And today it still has the power to provoke…..and to humble.
© 2005 Stephen Yuen
Note the broad base on Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women, Florence