Awe. That’s the feeling. And it is awe in a way that makes you realize you’ve actually seldom felt it. We say we do. “Oh! I was in awe!” Or “Oh man! That was awesome!” But, awe, in reality, is a rare and spectacular thing, and as it pertains to art, I would say I’d never really felt it until I saw the David.
It’s an experience that unfolds over a time. When you round the corner you spot him immediately, at the end of a long corridor, lined with a collection of other sculptures by Michelangelo called “The Prisoners.” It makes for a brilliant presentation, too, because the juxtaposition of those men seemingly trapped for eternity in the marble, make the David appear as though he has broken free—defeated the rock that rendered him prisoner and now he ironically holds bits of rock of his own in his hand as he stands proud and imposing. You notice this from some yards back, at the opposite end of the hall, and as you walk toward him the details become clearer to you. The tendons in his hands, the muscles in his arms, his ribs, the cuticle of his thumb nail, the slight shifted weight of him, as though he’d readjusted his stance moments before you walked in.
He is a human who once lived and is now stone, you might think, surely he truly breathes. And yet, no. He does not and never did. So this is a masterpiece, then. This … this makes sense.
And then there is his face. Michelangelo broke with tradition, here, and sculpted a David before battle, rather than victorious, and managed to capture everything he might have felt with little more than a chisel and file. Fear and bravery coexist in those marble eyes. Also strategy, determination, resignation and faith. One hand loosely holds the stones; over one shoulder sleepily rests the fatal slingshot. And there you have it. Young David, the Goliath slayer, flawlessly captured in marble so white he nearly glows in an ephemeral way, standing for hundreds of years to remind us that we too can slay giants if we settle into those feelings carved into his eternal face.
Beside the statue is a plaque, which borrows a quote from a Georgio Vasari “Nor has there ever been seen a pose so fluent, or a gracefulness equal to this, nor feet, hands and head so well related to each other with quality, skill and design.” and he eventually goes on to say people don’t even need to bother with looking further at other statues because this is basically as good as it gets, and the rest will be utter garbage.
And that, in a shock of revelation, becomes the paradox. Because in fact — maybe this David is our giant.
There is the obvious thing. His stature. Even without the pedestal that boosts him into the heavens, he is 17 feet tall–three times the size of the average man. But then there is the subtle thing. Largely considered to be the best there’s ever been or could ever be, David is arrestingly perfect. And when I read Visari’s comment, I went back for a second look. Yes, to take it in again, but also because that comment begged a daunting question, and I was hoping David, himself, might answer it for me. How, exactly, is an artist supposed to sculpt then? How does someone get up in the morning, grab their chisels and their tools and chip and file away at a statue, when a David is in the world? It’s the same question I ask myself as a writer. How do I write in a world where Shakespeare has lived? How does a painter paint, when da Vincis and Van Goghs, and Rembrandts hang boastfully on the walls of magnificent museums, urging pilgrims to travel thousands of miles to simply catch a glimpse of them? How do people go on building businesses and buildings and empires and dreams? It can be both inspiring and discouraging to encounter the otherworldly sort of high level achievement.
When the paragon already exists, where you do you find the point to try? Or even want to?
Fortunately, David did have the answer. And it was in those eyes. Because you have to. It’s about life, and to not do it feels like a phase of death. And you do it with all the fear and bravery, determination, resignation and faith of a young man staring at a Philistine giant.
Michelangelo is famously quoted as saying “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.” And there you have it, from the master behind the piece that might make you doubt why you should ever even go on. It’s not the pressure of perfection, or to be remembered 500 years from now for having left something unachievable behind. The point is to release, uncover or set free that vision we see on the blank canvas, the empty page or the chunk of marble hauled out of a quarry. To give oxygen to ideas, and a little elbow greased attention to dreams. We are called to set free what we see trapped in blank spaces, and hope it will serve to inspire others to do the same hundreds of years in the future, or maybe even just tomorrow when you show your best friend. So that the world, and humanity, will never run out of that sort of beauty. So as long as there are people, there is also effort and energy and something to strive for, and more awe left behind to be found and beheld by some random traveller, a half century from now, wandering about looking for a little inspiration to do something slightly unachievable.