Ups and Downs of a City and a Hero

Looking at Florence in David's Light

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 12, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Every semester I take my students to Florence, which is always a breath of fresh artistic air. The city constantly offers new ways to meditate on old favorites, and this weekend, after 48 hours of studying images of David, I saw that their formal evolution in many ways reflected the spiritual growth of the city.

During the course of its rich history, Florence has accumulated many symbols, from the lion "Marzocco" to the lily, sign of its dedication to the Virgin Mary. But the best-known emblem of the Florentines is David, the Old Testament king and hero. The story of his heroic deeds marred by his grave errors resonates with the strengths and weaknesses of the extraordinary people of Florence.

Like David the youngest son of Jesse, the town of Florence was a relatively late arrival on the Italian Peninsula. Although founded by Julius Caesar as Florentia, the settlement had lain dormant from the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. Florence became a feudal stronghold only at the end of the first millennium, after being the subject of a tug of war during the barbarian invasions.

Her feudal shackles were struck off in the 12th century and the fledgling town went on to become one of the first important industrial centers in Italy. Without seaports or trade routes like Pisa and Venice, and lacking a venerable ancient pedigree like Milan or Rome, Florence thrived nonetheless. Like David, chosen fresh from the fields by Samuel, the Florentines felt that Providence had selected them for greatness.

It was a city of hard workers, constantly aiming toward excellence. From Dante to Brunelleschi, the achievements of the Florentines became known throughout the world.

David, "handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance," made the perfect model for a city still famous as an artistic jewel. As David's musical skills could soothe the agitated Saul, so the gifts of Florentine artists and writers have long entranced Western man.

Facing Goliaths

Florence was often beset by Goliaths. The Duke of Milan, possessed of superior fighting men and weapons, came close to annexing the little town to his domain. But he died suddenly on the very threshold of victory. Financial disasters and deadly plagues swept through Europe, but Florence remained steady and strong. Florentines danced and sang as their city became the cradle of the art and thought of the Renaissance.

The Florentines commissioned numerous images of David. The first life-size sculptural representations began with Donatello's marble version destined for the cathedral. He emphasized David's heroism with a diadem of curling laurel around his brow, but the figure itself, a series of slender gothic S-curves, underscored his youth and fragility. Painted and gilt, the statue revealed how rough stone could be transformed into refined beauty.

Donatello revisited the subject later on in life when he produced another David, this time for the Medici family. This famous bronze work represents David as a nude youth at rest after the battle. His handsome face shielded by a wide brimmed hat crowned with laurel, David stands in his ornately etched sandals on the head of the defeated Goliath. He holds the heavy sword of his vanquished enemy. This rough instrument of death, half his height, is the only object in dissonance with the elegant scene.

The Medicis placed this work in their palace courtyard. Passers-by peeking in would see this victorious figure, serenely meditating upon his fallen foe.

As one of Donatello's most sophisticated works, nude David reflected the artist's extensive study of Greco-Roman heroic statues and well as the Neo-Platonic thought popular among the Medici clan. The extraordinary youth of David suggests Cupid, the god of love. David then becomes a symbol of love conquering evil. The base bore the inscription, "The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. All-powerful God crushes the angry enemy. Behold a boy overcame the great tyrant. Conquer, O citizens!"

A few years later, the Medicis commissioned a second David from the sculptor Verrocchio. Although close in size to Donatello's, (about 5 feet), this work interpreted the hero in a markedly different fashion. Verrocchio's wiry, muscular David has also conquered Goliath, but the adrenaline still seems to course through his veins. With his sword at an angle and the quick turn of the head, as well as his fitted breastplate and light kilt, David is ready to face the next challenge. Both Davids boasted gilt hair and boots, again illustrating the young hero bathed in God's glory.

Another enemy

With the fall of the Medicis, the Florentine Republic emerged. To symbolize this new era in its history, in 1501 the city called upon its most glorious son, Michelangelo, to carve the largest most monumental David of all. Sculpted out of a 14-foot block of marble, this David is triple the size of the bronze versions (making one wonder how big Goliath must have been)!

Michelangelo approached the subject in a completely innovative way. Instead of showing David after the battle, Michelangelo captured David the moment before he confronted his foe. Wary anticipation of battle clouds David's face, creasing the brow of his otherwise Grecian countenance. Muscles tensed, head turned sharply, David is aware of the danger he faces, but stone clasped in hand, he pushes off with his left foot counting on God's assistance.

Like Donatello, Michelangelo represented his David in the heroic nude, but he eschewed the prepubescent images of his predecessors. Nor did Michelangelo employ paint or gold to describe the special place of David in God's divine plan. The polished marble reflected light, rendering David a luminous figure in salvation history. But for all that radiance, Michelangelo never forgot that David was not Goliath's physical equal, nor could he match the Philistine in experience. He did not wear armor because he had "never tried them before."

Despite his colossal size, Michelangelo's David displays an inherent awkwardness. His large head balances atop a thin neck while his disproportionate hands emerge from slim arms. His long torso and slightly gangly legs remind one less of the Apollos of antiquity than of the uncomfortable years of adolescence. The promise of greatness is there in his monumental stature, but he is still struggling with ungainliness.

Michelangelo infused his subject with greater realism not only in the attentively carved veins and muscles, but also by conveying the fact that even with God's grace there will be moments of uncertainty in even the most divinely favored missions.

Michelangelo's David was the last great version of the subject. Within a few years, the government fell and the Republic turned into the Medici Duchy. Florence would know years of tyranny and unrest, but the Florentine people would forge ahead and continue to make great contributions to the world.

David too, flush with victory over Goliath, could not see that his real opponent, sin, would soon fell him. When he coveted Bathsheba, the wife of another man, and then murdered her husband Uriah, the great promise of David seemed dissipated by wickedness.

But David, again calling on God's grace, offered one more heroic example: repentance. Seeking God's forgiveness, he turned his artistic talent into an instrument to guide others to conversion. His psalms still move modern readers for their beauty, especially Psalm 51, the plea for God's mercy.

In later years, statues of David were substituted by paintings, where somber colors depict the older King David. Having lost the battle with temptation, he plays his harp as he calls again on God's assistance. Above him, light filters through the heavens, bathing the troubled king in the warmth of forgiveness.

In taking David as its emblem, Florence embraced a figure whose journey from promising youth to the older, battle-scarred leader mirrored the ups and downs of the city's history. Combining insight with creative genius, Florentine artists depicted a hero whose struggles would resonate with all those bound on the difficult journey of the Christian life.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and at the University of St. Thomas Catholic Studies program in Rome. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.