The Church of David

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I hope you’ll enjoy this travel tale from my book For the Love of Europe, a collection of 100 of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels.

Entering Florence’s Accademia Gallery is like entering the Church of David — a temple of humanism. At the high altar stands the perfect man, Michelangelo’s colossal statue of David. Like a Renaissance Statue of Liberty, David declares, “Yes, I can.”

This 500-year-old slingshot-toting giant-slayer is the symbol of Florence. The city’s other treasures are largely ignored by the tourist hordes that roam the streets with one statue at the top of their sightseeing list. Each morning the line forms as tourists wait patiently to enter the temple. As at any pilgrimage site, the nearby streets are lined with shops selling David knickknacks.

Inside, smartly dressed ushers collect admission tickets. Dropping mine in the basket, I turn the corner and enter a large nave. Six unfinished statues called the Prisoners — brute bodies each fighting to free themselves from their rock — line the room leading to David. His feet are at a level just above the sea of tourists’ heads. Round arches and a dome hover above him like architectural halos. People only whisper. Couples hold each other tighter in his presence, their eyes fixed on the statue.

The scene is black and white under a skylight. I don’t miss the color. I wouldn’t want color. David is beyond color, even beyond gender.

David is fundamentally human. Gathered with people from all nations, I look up to him. Tight-skirted girls who’d cause a commotion in the streets go unnoticed as macho men fold their hands. Students commune with Michelangelo on their sketchpads. Sightseers pause. Tired souls see the spirit in David’s eyes.

David is the god of human triumph. Clothed only in confidence, his toes gripping the pedestal, he seems both ready and determined to step out of the Dark Ages and into an exciting future.

When you look into the eyes of Michelangelo’s David, you’re looking into the eyes of Renaissance Man. This six-ton, 17-foot-tall symbol of divine victory over evil — completed in 1504 — represents a new century and a new 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. In his left hand, he fondles the handle of the sling, ready to fling a stone at the giant. His gaze is steady…confident. Michelangelo has caught the precise moment when David realizes he can win.

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. Many complained that the right hand was too big and overdeveloped. But this represents 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.

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 — on the cusp of our modern age — slaying the ugly giant of medieval superstition, pessimism, and oppression.

Gathered before the high altar of David, tourists share the pews with Michelangelo’s unfinished stone Prisoners. Also known as the Slaves, they wade wearily through murky darkness, bending their heads under the hard truth of their mortality.

A passing tour guide says, “The Prisoners are struggling to come to life.” But I see them dying — giving up the struggle, wearily accepting an inevitable defeat.

Michelangelo intended to show the soul imprisoned in the body. While the Prisoners’ legs and heads disappear into the rock, their chests heave and their bellies shine. Talking through what I’m seeing, I say out loud, “Each belly is finished, as if it were Michelangelo’s focus…the portal of the soul.”

Without missing a beat, the woman next to me replies, “That’s the epigastric area. When you die, this stays warm longest. It’s where your soul exits your body.”

I welcome this opportunity to get a new perspective on Michelangelo’s work. She introduces herself as Carla and her friend as Anne-Marie. Both are nurses from Idaho. Carla turns from the Prisoners to David, raises her opera glasses, and continues, “And David’s antecubital space is perfectly correct.”

“Anti-what?” I say, surprised by this clinical approach to David.

“That’s the space inside the elbow. Look at those veins. They’re perfect. He’d be a great IV start. And the sternocleidomastoid muscle — the big one here,” she explains, running four slender fingers from her ear to the center of her Florence T-shirt, “it’s just right.”

Carla burrows back into the opera glasses for a slow head-to-toe pan and continues to narrate her discoveries. “You can still see the drill holes under his bangs. There’s a tiny chip under his eye…sharp lips…yeow.”

Her friend Anne-Marie muses, “They should make that pedestal revolve.”

Carla, still working her way down David, dreams aloud. “Yeah, pop in a euro; get 360 slow-moving degrees of David. He is anatomically correct, anatomically really correct. Not as moving as the Pièta, but really real.”

“He feels confident facing Goliath,” I say.

Anne-Marie lowers her camera and says, “Well, he’s standing there naked, so he must be pretty confident.”

Turning to Carla, she observes, “The ears are ugly. The pubic hair’s not quite right. And his right hand is huge. They always say to check out the fingers if you wonder about the other appendages. So what’s the deal?”

“The guidebook says that’s supposed to be the hand of God,” Carla explains. “You can’t measure the rest of David by ‘the hand of God.’”

Settling back into a more worshipful frame of mind, Anne-Marie ponders aloud, “The Bible says he was like 12 or 14.”

“This is no 14-year-old,” says Carla, still lost in her opera glasses.

I ask, “What’s David telling us?”

“He says God made people great,” says Anne-Marie.

I say, “No, maybe it’s David who’s made in God’s image, and David makes it clear that we — the rest of us — fall short.”

Zipping her opera glasses into her day bag, Carla looks into the eyes of David. “No,” she says. “I think we’re each great. We’re great. David’s great. God’s great. And Michelangelo’s giving us a sneak preview of heaven…”

The guards begin to usher people out. I whisper, “I like that.” Then, needing a few extra minutes to do my annual slow stroll around David, I say “ciao” and drift away from the nurses. I need more time to commune with this timeless symbol of a city that 500 years ago led Europe into a new age, a symbol that still challenges us to reach for all that we can be — to declare, “Yes, we can.”