Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Naked Truth

No one can leave Florence without having encountered Michelangelo's "David," whether it be the original marble statue in the Accademia Gallery, or the exact marble replica outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, where the original stood from its unveiling in 1504 until it was transferred to the Accademia in 1873, or the bronze replica that has stood at the Piazza Michelangelo, across the Arno and down the hill from San Miniato, for the past century. And should you somehow manage to miss all three of these giants, if you have the gift of sight, you cannot escape his image, in whole or part, in plaster or bronze miniatures of various sizes, on postcards, calendars, posters, magnets, neckties, scarves, boxer shorts, bath towels, chef's aprons. The single most popular work of art in Florence, if not the whole of Italy, "David" is certainly among the most famous nudes in the history of sculpture, with the Venus de Milo, Discus Thrower, the Artemision Bronze of Poseidon (or Zeus), Hermes of Praxiteles, and Rodin's Thinker his only conceivable competition.

Have you ever wondered why Michelangelo carved this Old Testament figure as a nude? I used to think it was simply a matter of returning to ancient GrecoRoman artistic standards and ideals, which was, after all, what the Renaissance was for the most part about. Since coming to Florence, however, I find there may be more to David's nudity than meets the eye. It's just possible that the artist is trying to communicate a truth about God and faith.

It's worth mentioning here that Michelangelo wasn't the first artist of his time to carve David in the all-together. That distinction goes to Donatello, who, my careful readers will recall, was responsible for several of the great sculptures adorning the Church of Orsanmichele: St Mark, St George, St Louis of Toulouse (now in the Basilica of Santa Croce). In fact, Donatello made two sculptures of David. In the earlier version, Donatello depicted the young shepherd, who he carved out of marble, wearing in a kind of leather armor and wrapped around with a cloak of animal skin; he looks not unlike the even-earlier St George, except that David's stance is less confrontational than the soldier saint, more relaxed, graceful. The contest, after all, is behind him; Goliath's severed head lies at his feet. It was Donatello's second David, however, produced 35 years after his first, that made art history, as both the first free-standing bronze sculpture and the first monumental nude in more than a millenium. This second David is not as tall or as mature as his previous marble incarnation, and would be dwarfed sixty years later by Michelangelo's 17-foot version. He's a little more than five feet tall, dark where the other two are light, and, well, very effeminate. His long hair (today as dark as his body, but originally distinguished from it by, as it were, a gold leaf dye job) falls over his shoulders and down his back, and his chest and hips could be those of a girl on the verge of adolescence. His smile and stance are coquettish, and an enormous wing from the dead giant Goliath's helmet climbs up his inner leg - something one couldn't help but notice in the original, as it, too, was highlighted in gold - in a frankly indecent manner. Those goldie locks and that titillating feather are more noticeable now than they have been for centuries. The Bargello Museum, where many of Donatello's greatest works are on display, only last week unveiled a newly renovated David, the result of a year of cleaning and polishing by the most modern techniques, including laser. It was during the restoration that experts confirmed the evidence of gold flakes in the hair and on other parts of the composition, but rather than reapply the gold, the museum decided to make an exact replica of the original, and to present it as it would have looked in 1445, when Donatello delivered it to - who else? - Cosimo de' Medici, the first politically active member of the impossibly wealthy (and therefore powerful) family that was to dominate Florentine and eventually European politics for the next three centuries. The replica stands a few feet behind the original, and on a slightly higher pedestal. The Bargello doesn't allow cameras, and although we know that hasn't stopped me before, because the unveiling took place just a few days ago, security is a little tighter than it was at San Marco's for the Fra Angelico fresco, so I decided not to risk it. There are, however, plenty of images on the net. Just google "Donatello David" and see for yourself. It's not just me, right? It's kind of creepy.

Back to the theological. What is it about a naked David that communicates a theological truth? To understand that, let's look at the Old Testament passage that describes David's preparation to confront the outsized enemy of his people. In I Samuel 17, after King Saul learns that the young shepherd David has accepted the Phillistine champion's challenge to one-on-one combat:
Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.” Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine (1 Samuel 17:37-40, NIV translation).

Scripture tells us that David divested himself of armor; we aren't told that he put on any other clothes, therefore, we are meant to understand (a literalist would argue) that David went to meet the heavily-armored giant with nothing but the items described: his shepherd's bag, staff, sling, and five stones. He needed no other armor: the Lord was his shield and buckler; the Lord was his defense at his right hand. The fact that Donatello's victorious David (Goliath's helmeted head is on the ground at his feet) doesn't boast a he-man's physique serves to underline the fact that his victory is God's. With God on his side, even a naked sissy is a force to be reckoned with.

Michelangelo's David tells a slightly different story. Like Donatello's St George, this David is bracing himself for confrontation. His brow is furrowed as he looks to his left for his foe. (The Lord is his defense at his right hand.) His perfectly fit body is tense. His battle has yet to be fought. This David is even more exposed to danger than Donatello's, who is wearing a hat and what look like metal shin guards. This David has clearly decided to meet his enemy clothed only in his faith in a God who delivers who He loves. But David is bringing his best to the encounter. He knows in his heart that God will fight with him, but he knows as well that that does not absolve him from the responsibility of engaging in the conflict with all his mind and all his strength. His expression communicates to us that he has no illusions about the strength of his opponent; his nudity communicates to us, or ought to, anyway, his confidence in the victory. If God with him, who can be against him?

Alas, when we look on David today, we're not predisposed to see in his nakedness anything other than an absence. Unless, however, we can see him as he sees himself, clothed in God's might, he becomes, for all his beauty, slightly ridiculous: a man caught for eternity with his pants down.

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