The Church of David
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. Four 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. Beautiful women 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 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.
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, 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.
With each visit, I take a few extra minutes to do my annual slow stroll around David. Even after so many views, 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.”
This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.
"Yes, we can,” say the eyes of Renaissance Man. (photo credit: Cameron Hewitt, Rick Steves’ Europe)