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Feb 2004 | Divine David

Feb 2004 | Divine David

Michelangelo's Most Famous Sculpture Has Been Adored for Exactly 500 Years

David is fresh from his bath. All 17 feet of his smooth Carrara marble body has been cleansed of grime that has built up since his last cleaning, which was in 1843.

On the occasion of his 500th birthday this year, David is poised for his impending fight with--and victory over--the Goliath. The furrows in his handsome brow, the raised veins on the backs of his hands, the quivered nostrils register his assessment of the approaching, belligerent giant. David is soon to load his taut sling with the rock that will fell the Philistine foe. His gaze is so unwavering that many visitors to the statue in Florence's Galleria dell' Accademia can be seen looking in the direction of David's stare.

No matter what people profess as their "type"--the kind of body they find attractive--few can deny that David's build is ideal. The nude, curly haired figure is at once slim and muscular, boyish and manly, classically handsome but forever modern. David's head and hands are larger than his other proportions--though the other parts are proportionate to a sculpture more than three times the size of a normal man (a physiological fact best understood when looking up from his pedicure-perfect feet).

Giorgio Vasari, the gay artist and writer of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, wrote of the sculpture, "The grace of this figure and the serenity of its pose has never been surpassed."

Who is this David--apart from the teenage biblical figure who saved his people, the Hebrews? Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a gay man who seems to have expressed many of his sublimated sexual desires in stone--David being his most male-adoring creation. Frederick Hartt, the late scholar, theorized that David had been modeled on "one of the mountaineer quarrymen from Carrara. Such a lean build, especially the contrast between the broad, muscular shoulders and the taut, tiny waist, would be the normal result of habitually rotating the torso while swinging a heavy hammer."

Most art historians believe David was an imagined creation of Michelangelo's: the ideal male chiseled from rock (freed from stone, as Michelangelo often described his task) between 1501 and 1504. Unlike most artists of his day who hired assistants to help with the labor of making sculpture, Michelangelo worked alone on David. He built a wooden shed around the great block of stone so that he could sculpt unseen.

Michelangelo was not a stereotypical gay man--even in his day. Contemporary accounts describe him as disheveled and unappealing, and his politics were equally confusing. Although Renaissance Florence was famously tolerant of homosexuality, Michelangelo was a supporter of Girolamo Savonarola, a mad monk whose power challenged the Medici family. Savonarola believed that gay men should be burned at the stake (his fate) and that most worldly goods and extravagances (i.e., artworks) be fed into his "bonfires of the vanities."

By the time the Florentine authorities chose Michelangelo to create a David for the city's Piazza Signoria--a sculpture that would symbolize the power and progressive attitude of the Italian republic--the 26-year-old artist was a famous man. The commission came with a caveat: Michelangelo was to carve a block of stone on which preliminary work for a David figure had begun by a minor artist in 1464. But that artist's work was so minimal that Michelangelo was able to fashion a figure, ultimately, of his creation.

When the statue was completed, earning the moniker "Il Gigante" (The Giant), a committee was formed to determine its exact placement in town. Those on the board included artists Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, both gay.

On May 14, 1504, the statue began its slow movement over boards to its outdoor place. Accounts of the day record admiring crowds--as well as youths who threw stones at the sculpture. Although no damage occurred, in 1527 antigovernment forces hurled a bench from a window that broke an arm in three (Michelangelo oversaw repairs). The David remained in its locale until 1873, whereupon it was moved inside to its present spot.

Whether it was issues of morality or worries that the nude figure would encourage vandalism, authorities had a brass garland installed over the loins--a shield that remained in place for another century. Since then, nothing has been left to the imagination, other than the fantasy of meeting someone as beautiful as David.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.
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