There is no greater vanity than to value things for what they are called rather than for what they are. However, every age produces the kind of man who pays more attention to appearances than to facts.”
(Vasari, Lives of the Artists, 1568)
The line was already blocks long by 10 in the morning but I had reserved a ticket for Galleria dell’Accademia and walked up to the door. I had come to see Michelangelo’s David.
Once through the gift shop and past the desk for audio-guides you go through a door and then turn right into a long hallway. I caught a glimpse at the end but would not stare. I waited. On either side were four unfinished figures still trapped in the stone as well as their chains. They are The Four Prisoners. The prisoners were carved for the tomb of Julius the second, the pope who wanted to remind everyone, even after his death, that they were subservient to him. When his own statue was to be carved Julius suggested a sword rather than a book be held in his hand. At the end, under a dome specially built for him, was David.
Michelangelo’s David is a giant. He is 14’ tall and from his pedestal he dominates everything around him but you don’t get all of that right away. From the front he seems almost serene. His body is perfectly muscled but not tense. After a few minutes I walked to the right, to where David is looking. Things changed.
The toes on David’s left foot are gripping the earth. He’s getting ready to let it go. His brow is furrowed and his face is fixed in a gaze that is intense and aggressive without any bit of fear. His eyes look past you to what is beyond and bigger. His left hand holds the end of the sling. His right hand holds the stones. He’s not clenching them, he’s holding them like someone sussing the weight of something. The hands are monstrous, out of all proportion really. It may have to do with perspective, where Michelangelo thought we would be looking from, or, it may be that Michelangelo is saying that one day long ago David was the hands of God.
I think Michelangelo was the hands of God for the years of his life. As a boy he drew when he should have been doing his schoolwork. His father finally relented and apprenticed him to an artist under the munificent Duke Lorenzo d’Medici. As a young man he once made a crucifix for the Church of Santo Spirito in Florence out of appreciation for the prior who left some rooms for Michelangelo where he often flayed dead bodies to discover what was beneath. Beauty is not skin deep. The real stuff of beauty goes all the way to the core. Michelangelo understood this.
Though dissection of human bodies was both immoral and illegal in his day Michelangelo did more in the Vatican. Late one night the Pope walked in on Michelangelo, two grave robbers and one body. The Pope threw Michelangelo out of the Vatican but weeks later wrote him a letter: I’ve forgiven your sins. Come back to work. Imagine a life’s focus so great that the measure of our lives is not found in our scruples but in our life long passion and pursuit of our deepest purpose. Vasari, a student and friend of Michelangelo’s, a great artist of the Renaissance himself and a first hand biographer wrote…
“Meanwhile, the benign ruler of heaven graciously looked down to earth, saw the worthlessness of what was being done, the intense but utterly fruitless studies, and the presumption of men who were farther from true art than night is from day, and resolved to save us from our errors. So he decided to send into the world an artist…” (Vasari, pg 325. Lives of the Artists, Penguin Classics)
When Michelangelo had finished sculpting David, the Gonfalonier (master of sculptures) of Florence looked up and said the nose seemed a bit big. Michelangelo gathered his hammer and chisel and bits of marble from the scaffolding as he climbed. After clinking and clanking and letting bits of marble slip from his fingers while blocking the view he pronounced the work finished.
“Now you’ve really brought it life” the critic said.
Michelangelo had in fact brought it to life. The marble had twice been rejected by other artists as brittle and unusable. One had begun and left a hole through the stone where the legs would be. No one else would touch it. But, as Vasari said…
“Michelangelo worked a miracle in restoring to life something that had been left for dead.” (Vasari p.328)
At the end of the day I visited the Baptistery in Florence. A great domed building where the imagery of lives turned from death to life had been practiced for many centuries and the paintings and sculptures told the story with a beauty that words might not convey.
As they prepared to close the door I asked the staff for a good restaurant. The three of them debated for a minute or two and then the one with English announced
“Mossace’s. Very small but very good.”
The wine came in a jug that must have held 3 litres. The waiter said he would estimate at the end. The chef chopped steaks and pork-chops with the biggest knife I have ever seen and the mixed salad, the ravioli, the roasted chicken and eggplant was wonderfully satisfying. The crème caramel slid down.
The washroom was around the corner, down the alley and up a hallway. The train station was ten minutes away. As I waited for the last high speed train of the night to Rome I realized…my life is being restored.
Where are you coming to life? Where does your life transcend your flaws?