The Audacity of David
Travel Stories: Christopher Seneca was losing faith in the world. Then he went to see Michelangelo's masterpiece.
12.04.09 | 10:28 AM ET
Even at age twenty, I could still return to my mother’s open ears.
So I barged into her bedroom and told her how life had let me down.
“I expect too much from people,” I said. “Honesty, accountability, sensitivity—and they always let me down.”
“Well, in a few days you’ll be in Florence,” she replied. “You’ll see the David, and maybe you’ll finally find something that is perfect just the way it is.”
I bristled at this seemingly evasive non sequitur, reminding her that the David is a statue, and that my problems are not the result of art, but rather of human failings. “Yes,” she agreed, “but what you have to remember is that the statue was made by a single man. I think it’s something that you’ll understand when you see it.”
So it was settled—I had to see the David. Plenty of people go to Florence to view the statue, but I was searching for something more. Of precisely what I was seeking I remained unsure, my only guidance being that—much like true love, mortal danger and hardcore pornography—I’d know it when I saw it.
I carried with me this weighty sense of anticipation during my first two weeks in Florence. It helps to explain why, on the Wednesday afternoon when I finally arrived at the Accademia’s entrance gallery, I had a moment’s panic that prevented me from rushing right to David.
I walked around that first exhibition room a dozen times, and I still couldn’t even begin to tell you what I saw. I caught myself giving a second and sometimes third look to paintings that had failed to grasp my attention at first glance. At the end of a corridor hidden to my left stood the statue—the David—and I had become sure that it could never fulfill my expectations.
Nearly 30 years earlier, my grandfather had seen the marble masterwork and sworn that men and women of all ages sat captivated around its base for hours. Now, with the statue mere moments away, the combination of his enthusiasm and my mother’s certainty seemed unbearable. With so much suddenly riding on this statue, I prepared myself for the inevitable emotional letdown.
At least there was small comfort in the slaves awaiting me around the corner. Though by no means an expert on the museum’s layout, I knew that Michelangelo’s four bound, broken and unfinished sculptures preceded the David. Grateful for one final impediment, I crossed into the corridor with the expectation of seeing the slaves—only to find them overshadowed both literally and figuratively by the giant-killer looming in the distance. There stood David himself, suddenly spectacular before my eyes, basking in the afternoon’s sunlight.
And I immediately understood that this was perfection.
I may not have felt the impulse to sit and stare for hours, but that’s only because I was constantly moving, trying to take in the statue from all angles at once. This was the physical manifestation of genius. The best mankind has to offer.
Three years, two hands, one man, the David is Michelangelo’s alone. We refer to the statue possessively: It is “Michelangelo’s David.” His vision, fully present in the marble, a once-solid column brought to life with hammer and chisel.
We can only marvel at his audacity in undertaking this project. When you begin with perfection as your goal, anything less is an obvious failure. There is no room to slip, to crack, or to change your mind. Every inch meticulously envisioned, each detail flawlessly executed. Refusing assistance and sculpting in solitude, Michelangelo knew the result would be a reflection of his capabilities, providing all onlookers with the opportunity to pass judgment on his creation.
That he dared to take on perfection makes Michelangelo’s success sweeter, and his achievements even more extraordinary. It’s been 500 years since its creation, and looking at the David I still could not find a flaw. I persisted, certain that there must have been a mistake somewhere. Not erosion due to time, a scratch because of misuse, or grime resulting from negligence, but rather an error in craftsmanship.
I stood at the base of the statue, remaining longer than necessary, searching surreptitiously for imperfection. Gradually, my mindset shifted from inspection to awe. Each detail is painstakingly perfect. Michelangelo thought of everything, from hands and feet that would appear proportionally accurate when viewed from far below, to eyes that gaze outward but still allow the viewer within. Even if there is a mistake somewhere, I could not think of anything I wanted less than to find it.
It is important to remember that I am no great lover of art. A friend of mine tends to characterize even the most revered sculptures as “just OK,” and the truth is I’m usually more inclined to see things her way than to melt over every Madonna with Child.
But the David is more than just art. It is a transcendent tribute to the best humanity has to offer. In my mind it matters less that the statue is so phenomenal than that someone actually made it himself.
I am finally able to fully appreciate my mother’s words. I understand that if someone can create something so beautiful, there is hope. Hope against the eternal Goliath that is disappointment, dishonesty and despair.
Thousands of miles from home, an inanimate statue restored my faith in the living world. It may have been the subject who slew the Philistine, but it is in the sculptor’s victory that I found my inspiration. It is so comforting to be able to see firsthand the good that a human being is capable of creating.
It is clear to me once again that mother knew best.
But even so, this was definitely something I had to see for myself.