Why is Michelangelo considered one of the greatest sculptors of all time, and why is his statue of David considered one of his greatest works? Sure the master could chisel life into a block of marble, but so could Bernini who also sculpted a statue of the hero’s battle with the gigantic Goliath. The answer is that Bernini saw only 22 Bahman and not the days before. He shows a fierce David in the act of slinging the fatal rock at Goliath. Two other great masters, Donatello and Verocchio , also tried their hand at depicting David. But as the links make it clear, they saw the days after 22 Bahman and missed the days leading up to it. In their works, the severed head of Goliath lies the feet of a triumphant David. Michelangelo’s David is a great work of art because he alone had the sympathy and insight to look for David at a time when his skill and courage was unknown even to the hero himself.
There are two clues of this in the sculpture. Every tourist to Florence has seen the first clue: depending on the angle of view and lighting, David’s face shows the gamut of emotions from outright terror, resignation to fate, intense concentration, contempt, anger and aggression. These are not the emotions of someone who has just scored the biggest success of his life. We conclude that Michelangelo has chosen to depict the youth in the moment before anyone—including David– knew that he is a hero. Though we don’t see Goliath physically, emotionally we feel his menacing presence in the work.
After this we don’t need the second clue, but for unknown reasons the artist has left it there anyway even though it is subtle and hidden from casual view. To find it, go behind the statue and look inside David’s right hand to find what looks like the rock. David hasn’t thrown it yet!
Though we can judge modern art by the talent that went into it, it may take five hundred years and a revolution close to home to fully appreciate the genius of the artist. Tonight as I contemplate the upcoming confrontation on 22 Bahman, I am in awe of Michelangelo as much as I am in awe of our heroes to be.