The nudity of Michelangelo's 'David'

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1. The nudity of 'David' by Michelangelo

2. Gender Identity in Michelangelo’s Sculptures - by Crystal Lee

3. Why did Michelangelo depict muscular women

by Guy Shaked

Keywords: David, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo's David, Galleria dell'Accademia, Shaked

The statue of David, by Michelangelo (Galleria dell'Accademia), depicts a huge David standing seemingly motionless and nude, at the early stages of the battle with Goliath [1]. Michelangelo chose this moment of the confrontation unlike Bernini, who depicts a David moving to throw a stone with the slingshot at Goliath, or Both Verrochio and Donatello who sculpture David after the victory, standing over Goliath's severed head.

Michelangelo's statue is different from Verrocchio's or Bernini's in that his David is completely nude (Donatello's David is not fully nude having a hat and boots). However, it could be demonstrated that the nudity of Michelangelo's David is a possible interpretation of the biblical text describing the biblical hero and future king in the moment before the start of the fight with Goliath.

David's nudity facing Goliath is explained as a result of verses 1 Samuel 17:38-39. Saul supplied David with a warrior's dress and David wore it. However he could not walk with it and therefore took it off. It is most likely that David wore the warrior's clothes instead of his own shepherd's clothes and not on his clothes. Therefore, it could be assumed that after David took off the warrior's clothes he remained nude (however the Bible does not mention this)[2], for it doesn't state specifically that he re-wore his own clothes. It is important to understand that the artist, who was looking for an excuse to depict a beautiful nude young male hero, could, eagerly adopt such an interpretation of the Bible, while not the most probable scenario of the battle.

The idea that David was nude during the battle might be further supported by the fact that Jonathan, king Saul's son, gave all his clothes and his armor and sword to David to wear after his victory (1 Samuel, 17:57-18:4). David's nudity at this time of the battle is reconfirmed by Michelangelo's sketch of the statue, depicting the victorious David, where Goliath's head is visible under the Hero's feet, and a slingshot is in David's hand (below him) [3]. The nudity gives in turn added meaning to Goliath's threat that he would feed David's flesh to the birds and beasts (1 Samuel, 17:44), for David's bare flesh was in his direct sight.

The figure of David enabled Michelangelo to depict therefore a beautiful nude youth, beautiful because the bible states that David was most handsome "had beautiful eyes and was nice to look at" (yafe enaim vetov roi) in 1 Samuel 16:12.

However the figure of David has a symbolic meaning in Christianity as a parallel to Christ (David is forefather of Christ). So, Peter Lombard (12th century major French Christian theologian and exegesis), in his commentary on Psalm 163 [4], compares David's struggle with his enemies to the spiritual victory of Jesus and his faithful over the Devil, and specifically identifies David overcoming Goliath with Jesus killing the Devil - humility killing pride.

This is perhaps also why David is painted uncircumcised. Since Erasmus for example considered the act of circumcision shameful, and David as a forefather of Christ and a parallel figure to him was then depicted without this shame [5].

Not knowing the exact and proper form of David's slingshot, the artist places it above his left shoulder, where it is not so visible. Thus evading the need to interpret the form of the instrument. This is a change from the sketch of the statue of David that Michelangelo made (left), in which an odd looking slingshot is depicted.

It is possible that Michelangelo intended initially to depict David as the victorious hero with Goliath's severed head below his foot, as the indicated by his sketch of the statue. But, because the block of marble (which was nine braccie high), which Michelangelo received for this work, was cut already near the legs by Simone da Fiesola, [6] he didn't have the marble needed to sculpture Goliath severed head bellow David's feet.

In his poems from that time Michelangelo's alludes to the figure of David at the time of the battle against Goliath. For example, in the poem "Un gigante v'e ancor, d'altezza tanta", mentioning a stone (pietra) as a weapon, thus eluding to David's weapon at the fight with Goliath, and in the words accompanying the sketch for David, he writes "Davitte colla fromba e io coll'arco" (David with the slingshot, and I with the curve) [7]. He thought that the figure of David before the fight with Goliath could symbolized to the people of Florence that their city should be boldly defended and governed with righteousness [8].

Michelangelo's statue of David is 5.17 Meters tall [9], and was referred to as "Il Gigante" (the Giant) [10], it appears that Michelangelo was fascinated by giant figures from 1501-1504, at the time he made the statue [11]. However biblical David was no giant, although he must have been a very strong person (hence justifying his depiction as most muscular) to have slay the bear and the lion with his own hands be holding them down (as he testified about himself to Saul) (1 Samuel 17:34-36). This might be explained according to the identification of the statue as symbolizing Republican Florence. For, at Michelangelo's time , he percieved the republic as ill fortified (like nude David, having no protective clothes surrounding it) and like David needs to relay on the hand of God to direct its seemingly inferior weapons.

By making David a giant Michelangelo is as if saying to the Republic's enemies that not only that it has God's help, but that it is in an even better position to protect itself than biblical David as it had become a giant like its enemies (it is in a sense "double protected"). Michelangelo took an active role in making Republican Florence more protected later, and was appointed as an architect in charge of its fortifications [12].

Read now! the expanded and enhanced article and much more. For less than 10$. In Guy's Book on Amazon.

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[1] The point in time in which David is static and holds his slingshot over his shoulder is in the early stages of the battle. It is probably a pause just before the start of the battle. It is not likely that it is after he beheaded Goliath because for that he took Goliath's sword and had to give up his slingshot. After he beheaded Goliath, he received a hero's clothes and armor to wear from Jonathan, King Saul's son.

[2] It could be interpreted that God spirit came on him like it descends on a prophet, in similar way to the time King Saul took off his clothes to prophesy in 1 Samuel 19:24. Meaning therefor that David was nude and god's spirit was on him in the time of the battle like a prophet.

[3] Tolnay, C. de, Corpus dei disegni di Michelangelo, Istituto geografico De Agostini, Novara, no. 19r.

[4] For an excerpt of Lombard's interpretation, see Greenhalgh, M., Cit., p. 179

[5] In the same manner Christ is not represented circumcised in Renaissance art. See: Steinberg, L. "The sexuality of Christ in Renaissance art and in modern oblivion", October, Vol. 25, 1983, pp. 53-54

[6] Vasari, G., Cit., p. 1208. That the sketch was for the marble statue and not the Bronze copy, is because in Condivi, A., The Life of Michelangelo, Sedgwick-Wohl, A., tr.), Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1976, p. 28. The bronze statues were a copy of the marble and a copy like it only with the head of Goliath below, as he wanted to do. And the sketch varies from Michelangelo's David in other points and not only in the addition of the head to the statue.

[7] Saslow, J. M., The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1991, pp. 111-112, 504.

[8] Vasari, G., Le Vite dei Piu` Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architetti, Rome, Newton, 1991, p. 1208

[9] As was recently measured in the Digital Michelangelo Project 1998-1999. See Levoy, M., We finish scanning the David, http://graphics.stanford.edu/projects/mich/more-david/more-david.html, March 28, 1999

[10] Vasari, G., Cit., p. 1209. Condivi, A., The Life of Michelangelo, Sedgwick-Wohl, A., tr.), Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1976, p. 28. The statue was also referred to as the giant in the commission to Michelangelo of 16 August 1501 (Pope-Hennessy, J., Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture, London, Phaidon, 1970, p.309-310). So, also it was called in the order to make the statue a base on the 11 of June 1504.

[11] Vasari, G., Cit., p. 1209

[12] Condivi, A., Cit., p. 64

Reviews:
REVIEWER COMMENT
Matthew Rankin (Dayton Uni.) A much better explanation on the Davids than was given in my art history class. Thanks!

© 2000 , 2002 (2nd ed), 2003

Gender Identity in Michelangelo’s Sculptures

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by Crystal Lee

Keywords: Aurora, Bacchus, David, Lee, Masculine, Medici Tomb, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Notte

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), better known simply as Michelangelo, was the first artist recognized as a genius in his own lifetime[1] and is still one of the most well known names in popular culture today. Michelangelo is renowned for his abilities as an architect, painter, sculptor, and poet; however, stone was the truly the love of his life. His sculptures represent the epitome of the High Renaissance. He was also known for his fascination of human anatomy, and his admiration of the male nude is evident in all aspects of his work. Michelangelo idealized the male body and his idea of perfection as personified by the male body shows through especially in his sculptures, regardless of whether he is depicting males or females.

Michelangelo possessed a profound admiration of the male body. For Michelangelo, the muscular nude body of a man personified ultimate beauty and perfection. His interest in anatomy led to his extensive dissection and study of male corpses—not an uncommon practice at the time. Combined with his inherent artistic ability, his commanding knowledge of male anatomy allowed him to create statues with such realism and idealism as had never been witnessed before and is still difficult to achieve today. Many scholars conclude that his intense interest in the male form and his vast amount of works featuring nude males stems from his homosexuality. The Venetian writer Lodovico Dolce even claimed that his love for male, muscular nudes rendered him “incapable of depicting any other kind of figure, or indeed of distinguishing between age and gender.”[2] However, whether or not his sexual preferences led him to form his idea of perfection, I believe that Michelangelo was not incapable of creating different body types. Rather, he consciously chose to conform even his depictions of females to male forms to convey their perfection of character through his personal interpretation of perfection.

The Bacchus (c. 1496-7), Michelangelo’s earliest surviving statue in the round, is also his first life-sized emulation of the antique. [3] Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, is depicted by Michelangelo as an young man who is clearly inebriated—more so than in any previous depictions of the god by other artists. The Bacchus stands precariously—his tipsy stance makes the viewer feel that he will topple over at any moment. This pose does not conform to any classic poses such as the contrapposto and his center of balance is placed near the top of his back, emphasizing his unsteadiness. Though much of the criticism of the Bacchus was against his unflattering pose, “only a sculptor supremely sensitive to the nature and subtle possibilities of classical contrapposto would have been able to manipulate it to create a figure of such flawlessly controlled disequilibrium.”[4] To further show the god’s excessive intake of wine, the statue’s eyes are rolled upwards, with his pupils gazing lazily at the goblet of wine in his raised right hand. His mouth is slightly open, as if he is about to take yet another drink. He wears a symbolic wreath of grapes and vines on his head, literally showing that the wine has gone to his head.[5] In his left hand he loosely grasps a tiger skin while a young satyr steals the grapes spilling out between his fingers. In his biography of Michelangelo, Condivi later interpreted the skin as a warning against the effects of alcohol:

Over the left arm he has the skin of a tiger, which animal is dedicated to him because of its great delight in the grape; and Michelangelo made the skin instead of the animal to signify that he who lets himself be lured to that extent by the senses and by the craving for that fruit and its liquor ends by giving up his life to it.[6]

Although this interpretation provides a very fitting explanation of Bacchus’ accessories, Condivi’s retroactive justification is only speculation—in actuality Michelangelo may have represented the tiger with just its skin due to the dimensional constraints of the original marble. Yet, the Bacchus as a whole does present an negative view of the excesses of alcohol and his warning if not conveyed through the tiger skin, is at least present in the god’s declining musculature and fitness.

In addition to his swaying stature, the Bacchus also displays a uniquely inflated physique. His muscles are flaccid and Vasari noted that Michelangelo gave him “the youthful slenderness of the male and the fullness and roundness of the female.”[7] The wine god’s breasts and abdomen are remarkably swollen and his musculature, while still amazingly accurate, is more realistic than idealistic. He has the potential of being a very physically fit youth; however, his muscles have lost much of their definition and have become soft and quite feminine through disuse. The androgynous quality of the Bacchus has often been noted and Condivi claimed that the sculpture was inspired and influenced by classical literary descriptions of the god.[8] However, knowing that Michelangelo highly prized the toned male form, as can be seen even in his earliest reliefs such as the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs (c.1492), I believe that an alternative, valid interpretation may be made—that Michelangelo was depicting a god who had over-indulged in his product, thus his lack of godly moral perfection showed through in his imperfect, effeminate body. This interpretation is substantiated by the fact that Michelangelo’s vision of Bacchus was a departure from the traditionally accepted representation in which the wine god looks no different from any other man and is often only identified by his accessories. Furthermore, the Bacchus was rejected by Cardinal Raffaelo Riario, who had originally commissioned the statue, because he was not prepared for a Bacchus who behaves in a drunken, indecorous way and who, “in brief…, is not the image of a god.”[9] The Bacchus contrasts sharply with Michelangelo’s signature depiction of idealized, heroic nudes: even his depictions of the infant Christ, such as in his earliest relief, Madonna of the Stairs, are precociously muscular. The feminized anatomy of this wine god embodies the metaphysical Renaissance belief that the body represents a window to the soul.

The marble David (1501-4) is the tallest statue ever made by Michelangelo. It was commissioned by the Florentine Republic following his success with the St. Peter’ Pietá (1497). The enormous marble block that Michelangelo’s David was carved out of was termed ‘Il Gigante’ by contemporaries and was originally acquired in 1464 for Agostino di Duccio, who conspicuously failed to produce the originally commissioned David. The giant marble block, who Vasari and Condivi say was considerably damaged by Agostino, remained unfinished for nearly forty years in the Office of Works of Florence Cathedral.[10] According to Vasari, the triumphant young Michelangelo, upon returning to Rome, offered to carve the mutilated block without adding extra pieces[11] and proclaimed of his audacious project, “David with his sling and I with my bow – Michelangelo.” The bow refers to the sculptor’s drill, and the verse shows that Michelangelo thought of himself as doing battle with the damaged block with nothing other than his own skill and courage, just as David overcame Goliath with just a sling and rock.

David’s super-human stature is deviates from the traditional depictions of the Biblical hero. He is no longer a young shepherd boy; instead he is portrayed by Michelangelo as a powerfully built young man whose athletic physique is the displayed unashamedly by his full-frontal torso. While it is true that the shallow nature of the marble block and the false starts of other artists compelled him to make a flatter and more relief-like image, Michelangelo used the wide surface of the rock to ingeniously create a work of art that fully personifies his notion of perfection. He uses the classic contrapposto pose for David and this statue, too, is a practice in antiquity. David was a very popular character used in sculpture during the Renaissance. Previous statues, such as Donatello’s David, are depicted as young and lean boys, and most portray David after his victory over Goliath. Michelangelo’s David, however, is closer in age and physique to a young man and rather than posing with Goliath’s head at his feet, this statue portrays the scene just prior to their bloody confrontation.

Michelangelo’s David is truly the idealization of a young hero at the peak of his virility. The sculptor personifies his idea of perfection through this stunning display of male anatomy. Every aspect of the David is ideal, from his commanding brow bone and nose bridge to his slender, yet well-defined pectorals and abdomen, and even to his completely and unabashedly exposed genitals. The hero’s head is turned to the left, presumably in the act of sizing up the task at hand. While many artists use their subject’s direct gaze at the audience to convey power and stature, Michelangelo chooses to convey David’s heroic bravery through his perfect, nude body. Michelangelo, characteristically of the Renaissance, saw the interior character of man reflected in his exterior body and, thus, expresses the moral state of this well-known figure’s soul through his depiction of David’s body and form. He interprets David’s character to be heroic, admirable, and ideal; therefore, his immortalized incarnation of David is not of a skinny shepherd boy, but of a potent and bold nude man—his personification of a perfect soul.

The Medici Chapel, or the New Sacristy, in S. Lorenzo, Florence, is an interplay of sculpture and architecture and was commissioned by Leo X in 1519 as a funeral chapel with tombs for four male members of the Medici family. For the first time, a three-dimensional dialogue was created between sculpted figures and human beings situated on all four sides of a chapel.[12] The Medici sculptures represent a distinctly new physical type, also found in Michelangelo’s drawings from this period. The aim seems to have been to express great power in the most relaxed and elegant form.[13] The two women depicted on the sarcophagi of Giuliano Duke of Nemours and Lorenzo Duke of Urbino are Michelangelo’s only nude sculptures of women. They are allegorical representations of Notte (Night) and Aurora (Dawn) and serve as counterparts to Giorno (Day) and Crepuscolo (Twilight) respectively. Together, these four figures make up the “Times of the Day.” The sculptures are complementary figures, though not quite symmetrical. They are perched in a reclining position over the tops and corners of each sarcophagus and their legs are suspended in midair past the edge of the mantelpiece, as if they are about to slip off. Notte is the only one of the “Times of the Day” to be adorned with symbolic attributes. An owl peeks out from beneath her left thigh and a grotesque mask lies below her left shoulder, suggestive of nightmarish chimeras; a bunch of poppies, symbols of sleep and death, rest beneath her foot.[14] Although there is no official explanation of why Michelangelo decided to identify only Notte, he may have felt that it was enough to identify just one and let the viewer discern the other allegorical statues. It may also be an indication of Notte as the most significant of the figures, given that they are located in a funerary chapel where nocturnal ceremonies were held.[15]

When looking at the figures of Notte and Aurora closely, the most striking feature is the obvious masculinity of their bodies. Notte is especially, and disturbingly, masculine with an elongated chest and stomach that resemble “a shapeless trunk cut across with four horizontal furrows.”[16] Her artificially formed breasts look like appendages pasted on top of muscular male pectorals. Her muscles abdomen and thigh muscles are taut and bulky, and her shoulders and collarbone are sharply angular. Aurora, in comparison to Notte is much more feminine, although her breasts, while nubile and smooth, still look like an unconvincing afterthought. She has a much softer, fleshier body than her nighttime counterpart and position is erotically exposing. Yet, the muscles in her arms and abdomen are still quite defined and are more characteristic of an ideal male anatomy as opposed to a female anatomy. Though both Notte and Aurora were drawn from male models, which was a typical practice during the Renaissance, these two bodies are too masculine to be ignored. Some critics assert that their masculinity is due to a lack of female models in conjunction with the fact that the artist simply lacked proper understanding of the female anatomy.[17] However, a master of Michelangelo’s stature was not without resources. His Sistine ceiling depicts many nude women with much more realism than Notte, and there were, during the Renaissance, the availability of classical statues and paintings of nude women which were more anatomically correct than his depictions. Yet, Michelangelo either did not feel that the female body was worth studying, or he consciously chose to depict his women statues with male bodies. The reality is probably a mixture of both assessments. Although the sculptor does seem to have some knowledge of the female form, as seen in the plump stomachs of Aurora and Bacchus, Michelangelo carved distinctly male forms for his women to convey that time and nature—of which they personify—are pure and ideal. These qualities, for Michelangelo, are found only in the male body and, thus, are the only appropriately conveyed through them.

Michelangelo’s art is truly a triumph of not only the Renaissance, but also throughout the history of fine art. His depictions of the male nude are stunningly beautiful as well as accurate and his David is arguably the most recognized statue in the world. This artistic genius valued perfection above all else and idealized the male body as an incarnation of perfection. Michelangelo expressed his passion through the heroic male nude and conveyed his interpretation of purity and perfection through the masculinity of his works. Although the results were not always well received by his critics and viewers, Michelangelo’s art will always remain unforgettable.

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[1] Olson, Roberta J.M. Italian Renaissance Sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1992. 157.

[2] Hall, James. Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. 63.

[3] Olson, 162.

[4] Lieberman, Ralph. "Regarding Michelangelo's "Bacchus"" Artibus Et Historiae 22 (2001): 67. JSTOR. Berkeley. 8 May 2006 http://www.jstor.org/view/03919064/ap050043/05a00080/0?frame=noframe&userID=a9e52087@berkeley.edu/01cce4403700501b3763c&dpi=3&config=jstor.

[5] Hall, 48.

[6] Condivi, Ascanio. The Life of Michelangelo. Trans. Alice S. Wohl. 2nd ed. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1999. 24.

[7] Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists. Trans. George Bull. Vol. 2. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987. 641.

[8] Hall, 48.

[9] Lieberman, 67.

[10] Hall, 49.

[11] Vasari, Lives, 653.

[12] Hall, 139.

[13] Hughes, http://www.groveart.com/shared/views/article.html?section=art.057716.3.1.3#art.057716.3.1.3

[14] Hall, 151.

[15] Hall, 152.

[16] Even, Yael. "The Heroine as Hero in Michelangelo's Art." Women\'s Art Journal 11 (1990): 29-30. JSTOR. Berkeley. 9 May 2006 http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0270-7993%28199021%2F22%2911%3A1%3C29%3ATHAHIM%3E2.0.CO%3B2-S.

[17] Olson, 174.

© 2006

Why did Michelangelo depict muscular women

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by Guy Shaked

Keywords: Capella Sistina, Homoerotic, Masculine, Medici Tomb, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sistine Chapel, Shaked, Women

It has been noted in modern art literature that Michelangelo’s female figures are seemingly most masculine in their body. As if having tits plastered to a masculine body.

This can be seen for example in the Sistine Chapel (c. 1512) figures of women in painting, and the Medici Tomb (c. 1515) in sculpture.

This article whishes to put forward, for the first time, a rather simple and straightforward explanation for the appearance of masculine females in Michelangelo’s artworks.

In his book "Dialogo della Musica Antica et della Moderna" (Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music) Vincenzo Galilei, an esteemed member of the Florentine Camerata (a group surrounding Bardi which aimed to revive Greek tragedy in music) and the father of Galileo Galilei revels that in the times of the Renaissance (the book was published in 1581) in Florentine circles, there was thought to exist in Greek times a painter who's male and female figures were very similar in appearance.

For he writes:

"it indeed reminds me of the pictures of the singular Hermippus of Athens. This man, in depicting males and females, either because of the antipathy which he had naturally for beards and for clothes, or through another of his particular interests, he continually made so many final touches that it was impossible to tell the males from the females, if not for the sex, as if industrious Nature had not formed differences in a thousand other, perceptible ways" [1]

In our time, this figure of a Greek painter or sculpture by that name is unknown.

That means that either Galilei and Michelangelo's info might be false or that it might be based on sources that had not survived to our times.

Regardless of the fact that we may never be able to substantiate what is the exact reason the Renaissance perceptions did not survive to our times, it remains as a fact that in the Renaissance it was a valid concept and one which may have been standing behind Michelangelo's masculine females as an attempt to follow in a tradition of a trend which existed in Greek times in art.

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[1] Robert H. Herman, "Dialogo della Musica Antica et della Moderna of Vincenzo Galilei: Translation and Commentary", PhD Thesis, North Texas State University, Denton, Texas, 1973, pp. 445-446

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This article is available also in Italian!

Michelangelo's Biography

Donatello's Bronze David

The Sistine Chapel as a Sculpture Gallery

Gaudi and the Mediterranean

Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines

A synagogue painting from Dura Europos

Hidden symbolism in Bernini's 'David'

The rays of Michelangelo's Moses as the sign of the betrayed

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Dante

Cellini's Homoerotic Perseus and Medusa

Canova's Eve as depicting a conversion to Christianity

The Trevi Fountain

The Tritone (Triton) fountain as the Glaucus fountain

The painting "Libreria Musicale" (Musical Library) by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, as a source of information on the "Storia della Musica" (History of Music) by Father Martini

Other articles by G. Shaked: ART - BIBLICAL STUDIES - BIOLOGY - CINEMA - LITERATURE - MUSIC - PHILOSOPHY - PHYSICS (ACOUSTICS)