When you look into the eyes of Michelangelo’s David, you’re looking into the eyes of Renaissance man.
As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.
This six-ton, 17-foot-tall symbol of divine victory over evil represents a new century and a whole new Renaissance outlook. It’s the age of Columbus and Classicism, Galileo and Gutenberg, Luther and Leonardo — of Florence and the Renaissance.
In 1501, Michelangelo Buonarroti, a 26-year-old Florentine, was commissioned to carve a large-scale work for Florence’s cathedral. He was given a block of marble that other sculptors had rejected as too tall, shallow, and flawed to be of any value. But Michelangelo picked up his hammer and chisel, knocked a knot off what became David’s heart, and started to work.
He depicted a story from the Bible, where a brave young shepherd boy challenges a mighty giant named Goliath. David turns down the armor of the day. Instead, he throws his sling over his left shoulder, gathers five smooth stones in his powerful right hand, and steps onto the field of battle to face Goliath.
Michelangelo captures David as he’s sizing up his enemy. He stands relaxed but alert, leaning on one leg in the classical contrapposto pose. In his left hand, he fondles the handle of the sling, ready to fling a stone at the giant. His gaze is steady — searching with intense concentration, but also with extreme confidence. Michelangelo has caught the precise moment when David is saying to himself, “I can take this guy.”
David is a symbol of Renaissance optimism. He’s no brute. He’s a civilized, thinking individual who can grapple with and overcome problems. He needs no armor, only his God-given physical strength and wits. Look at his right hand, with the raised veins and strong, relaxed fingers — many complained that it was too big and overdeveloped. But this is the hand of a man with the strength of God on his side. No mere boy could slay the giant. But David, powered by God, could…and did.
Though the statue was intended to stand atop the cathedral, it long stood in an even more prominent spot — guarding the entrance of Town Hall. Renaissance Florentines identified with David. Like him, they considered themselves God-blessed underdogs fighting their city-state rivals. In a deeper sense, they were civilized Renaissance people slaying the ugly giant of medieval superstition, pessimism, and oppression. They were on the cusp of our modern age.
Today, David is displayed safely indoors at the Accademia, under a glorious dome at the end of a church-like nave lined with other statues by Michelangelo. You can approach as a camera-toting tourist or as a pilgrim finding inspiration in this “cathedral of humanism.” David stands as the ultimate symbol of the Renaissance — of optimism, humanism, and all that’s good in the human race.
This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Accademia.