Michelangelo's "David" in the Academy
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
This marvelous creation in the world of art was begun when the artist was but twenty-seven years of age. It required three years to complete the work. It was produced from a gigantic block of marble eighteen feet long which for fifty years had been considered utterly worthless on account of its having a bend in the center like the elbow of an arm. This greatly hindered him in the work, but in utilizing the spoiled block, he was still further hampered by not being free to choose his own subject, that having been selected for him by the merchants of the Woolen Guild who gave him the commission and from whom the statue was purchased a year before its completion by the Seigniory for the city of Florence. Circumscribed as to his subject, and limited as to its attitude and proportions, the master-mind and master-hand of Michelangelo have produced a work which for boldness in modeling, and grandeur of conception, has rarely been equalled. There is about it no evidence of galling limitations, and the history of the statue could never be imagined from its appearance. Here we have a lithe, well-knit figure, exquisitely rounded and almost throbbing with sup-pressed animation, as though pervaded by the vitality and intensity of his very soul and yet there is nothing excited about the young hero, nothing eager, nothing impetuous ; but a quiet, watchful, masterly air, which, however, does not conceal the fact, which is clearly seen in the tightly knitted brow, that the whole body is braced for a supreme effort. Notice that the left arm is raised, and observe how it holds the sling in readiness while the right hand hangs at his side grasping the handle of his sling. Just a moment, only one, and he will send the pebble whizzing through the air to seek the life of Goliath.
No creation of Michelangelo's chisel ever won such praise from his contemporaries as did this statue, and for many years the Florentines would reckon special events as happening " so long after the completion of the David." Up to this time his fellow townsmen had been skeptical as to his ability as an artist, but when this work was produced his fame as the greatest sculptor of his time was assured. Vasari calls him a " miracle-worker, who raised the dead, spoiled block to new life," and asserts that Michelangelo's David is " superior to all ancient and modern statues whatever." It may be that this encomium was too extravagant, but if so, it was counterbalanced and neutralized by another which sprang from malice and envy. When the statue was exhibited at the gate of the Palazzo Vecchio, a position which was chosen for it by Michelangelo himself, at a council composed of all the great contemporary painters and sculptors - and what a brilliant and immortal company they were - Gonfalonier Pier Soderini observed that it had some excellent points, but he must confess that its nose was too long. Michelangelo, who was standing beside him and for whose ears the remark was intended, immediately mounted the ladder, chisel in hand, having first, unperceived by the critic, taken some marble dust in his fingers from the base of the statue, then placing himself in the right attitude he pretended to make the alteration suggested, at the same time letting fall the marble dust. Looking down to the Gonfalonier, he inquired if he were satisfied. " Bravo ! Bravo ! " shouted the critic, whose vanity had been pampered, " you have given it life ! " upon which, Vasari relates, Michelangelo descended the ladder with a smile of derision at the man who had criticized simply to give vent to his malice and who spoke with assumed authority upon a subject of which he knew nothing.
John Gibson, the sculptor, exclaimed when he first saw this David, " What a fine statue ! How grand the spirit, how perfect the execution ! "
In 1527 the left arm was broken by a stone thrown from one of the upper windows of the Palazzo Vecchio, by those defending it from an attempt of the Medici faction to force an entrance. You can see where the arm was mended.
There is a tradition that the sculptor in his old age was in the habit of sitting on a chair placed to the right of the entrance of the palace from which position he could contemplate his favorite work, and here he amused himself by chiseling a profile of the statue which may still be traced on the rough stone wall of the palace.
Having enjoyed so thoroughly some of the marvelous creations of the great master's stupendous genius, we will be interested to see where he is buried.