Thanks for reading The Nonlinear Life, a newsletter about navigating life's ups and downs. We're all going through transitions, let's master them together. Every Monday and Thursday we explore family, health, work, and meaning, with the occasional dad joke and dose of inspiration. If you're new around here, read my introductory post, learn about me, or check out our archives.
Michelangelo loved transitions. And no wonder—he lived much of his life on the border between generations and on the boundary of what's possible.
Michelangelo was a youthful fifteen years old when his carving attracted the attention of Florence’s poet-strongman Lorenzo de’ Medici, who invited him into his home. He was twenty-six when he sculpted the fragile and confident youth hero of the Hebrew Bible, David, out of a flawed and discarded piece of marble. He was fifty-seven when he met the twenty-three-year-old Tommaso dei Cavalieri, about whom he wrote his greatest sonnets—platonic or not, you decide.
Perhaps it was this lifelong interest in young people in moments of change that gave Michelangelo such insight into what it means for all of us to face change.
I spent a blissful week in Florence with my family last month. We were fortunate to find a sliver of time before Italy was overrun with Omicron. (If you missed my post about being alone in the Uffizi Gallery on Christmas Eve with some of the greatest paintings in history of Christmas morning, you can see it here.)
One morning, we visited the Gallery of the Academy of Florence, which since 1873 has housed Michelangelo’s David, along with a number of his other sculptures, including four unfinished Prisoners. I spent our visit chatting with an art historian about the significance of the statue.
Completed in 1504, Michelangelo’s masterpiece has several qualities that are reflective of classical influences.
1. His pose.
Originally designed to be outside, Michelangelo’s David stands in perfect contrapposto style, as was commonly used in Greece. His right leg bears the weight of his body, while his left leg (looking notably longer, I noticed on this visit) is turned outward; his body tilts to the right. David's right hand, clasping the stone, is enormous, while his left arm clutches the old-fashioned cloth sling. As Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth-century Italian art historian, said, “A sweeter and more graceful pose has never been seen that could equal it.”
Another tidbit I learned this time: That sling saved the sculpture. When the left forearm shattered in an accident, the left hand never left the body because it was held on by the sling.
2. His anatomy.
David’s youthfulness, nakedness, bushy hair, and exposed genitals are all homages to classical Greek sculpture, especially as they were interpreted in the Renaissance. Again, Vasari, writing not long after the sculpture was completed, noted that no “feet, hands, and head had ever been produced which so well match all the other parts of the body in skill and workmanship.” He went on:
3. His anticipation.
The most dramatic break Michelangelo made from the past is that he stands alone. Unlike his predecessors Donatello and Verrocchio, Michelangelo omitted Goliath’s head. As historian Paul Johnson notes in The Renaissance, Michaelangelo’s versions “made Donatello’s and Verrocchio’s depictions seem insignificant by comparison,” his was “a frightening statement of nude male power, carved with almost atrocious skill and energy.”
Why? Because the boy had not committed the act, he is contemplating it. Michelangelo loved moments of anticipation—witness that Adam and God are not touching in the Sistine Chapel; they are about to touch. And so it is with David, who is about to battle Goliath.
4. His mind.
Michelangelo's greatest breakthrough was the vivid attention he placed on David's mind. David may be the first statue in art history that you can feel thinking. He is cerebral; he is reflective; he is preparing for the change he knows is about to happen—not just for himself but for his entire community.
David, in other words, is in a moment of transition. His body is coiled to anticipate the fight to come; his muscles are tensed to prepare for the showdown; his mind is steeled for the showdown about to be waged. Altogether, they reveal a figure deeply aware that he is about to undergo a change that will take him from boy wonder and transform him into a giant for all time.
As Michelangelo, himself a boy wonder who became a giant for all time, knew, the physical transformation is the easy part. The hard part is sculpting the mind.
You might enjoy reading these posts: