Matters of State

Alexander Nagel

  • Michelangelo’s ‘David’: Florentine History and Civic Identity by John Paoletti
    Cambridge, 388 pp, £70.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 1 107 04359 6

In December 1520, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux paid a visit to Florence on his way to Rome. Approaching the seat of government in the Piazza della Signoria, he stopped in front of Michelangelo’s 15-foot David. He didn’t see in it a symbol of the Florentine nation or even identify the figure. For the abbé, it was ‘a great phantasm of white marble, well worked and all of one piece’ (‘ung grand fantosme de marbre blanc, bien ouvre et tout dune piece’). Fantosme can be translated as ‘ghost’, though the word left it unclear whether the apparition existed in the world or in the viewer’s imagination. (Phantasms were associated with the imaginative faculty, or phantasia. Potentially leading to thought of a higher order, the constructions of the phantasia were also susceptible to demonic influence.) The abbé had no trouble seeing the giant statue as a material work of human art, made of marble and carved out of one piece, a distinction claimed for some famous ancient statues. At the same time, he had trouble keeping Michelangelo’s statue in the realm of bounded and firm things.

Michelangelo’s ‘David’.

He had probably never seen anything like the David, but his imagination would have been full of such figures. Medieval Christian artists depicted the naked statues of pagan antiquity in elaborate temples or great fora, presiding over populations, demanding veneration, vomiting devils or revealing themselves to be devils. They grimace, they bend over, sometimes they break apart under the impact of the triumphant Christian faith, which explained why so many of them were now in fragments. The David has long since lost its original polish – it did after all spend almost four centuries outside before being moved to the Accademia – but newly installed, with its belt of 28 gilt leaves, the gleaming white giant would have had more than a touch of the phantasm about it.

‘Status igitur unde statuae dictae’ (‘because they stand they are called statues’), Pomponius Gauricus wrote in his treatise on sculpture of 1504. Statues are works of art that stand by themselves, in the form of figures that enact the standing. This redundancy is at the heart of the uncanny effects of autonomy and animation regularly invoked in accounts of statues over the centuries. Sculpture in the round was not unknown in medieval art, but an implicit decorum demanded that it be contained by an architectural framework – embedded in portal decoration, for example, or set into niches and tabernacles. In the Christian imagination, the free-standing statue on a column was an emblem of pagan idolatry: a usually naked figure allowing access from all sides, often inciting raucous dancing en ronde – behaviour ungoverned by priestly authority or ceremony. To be able to see the divine figure from behind, violating a prohibition imposed by God on Moses, was a transgression associated with the Devil.

Michelangelo’s statue began dutifully as a work of cathedral sculpture, intended for a position high up on one of the buttresses ringing Brunelleschi’s cupola, at a safe remove from the populace, its back towards the building. It was projected as one in a series of prophets to be installed on the buttresses. Earlier in the 15th century, terracotta figures of Joshua by Donatello and Hercules by Agostino di Duccio, painted white to look like marble, had been installed on two of the buttresses. Working on his David in the Cathedral Works, right beneath the cupola, Michelangelo could look up at those models and assess how they met the challenge of being placed so high up. If the head of the David looks too large for the body, or the facial features seem monstrously exaggerated or strangely abstract, imagine it seen from below and at a distance – or, rather, imagine Michelangelo trying to imagine it.

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