Covering David:

Michelangelo's David from the Piazza della Signoria to My Refrigerator Door

David M. Gunn

Texas Christian University


"Worn out, like the Sistine Madonna in the bedroom" -- Theodor Adorno


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I. History: A Meeting

Piazza della SignoriaClose on 500 years ago, on January 25th, 1504, an official meeting took place in Florence to discuss where Michelangelo's statue of David, then nearing completion, was to find a permanent location. Some thirty people attended, including city officials and artists, among whom were Sandro Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, Filippino Lippi, and Leonardo da Vinci. Minutes were kept. It would appear that the consultation took place in a room close to the workDavid in the Galleria dell'Accademia site and "reflects a direct observation and study of the sculpture before the meeting began" (Levine, 31 n.1; cf. Milanesi, 620). The most advocated site seems to have been the Loggia dei Signori (later called dei Lanzi), although in or at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, the home of the Signoria, the city's ruling council, also had its backers. Both Palazzo and Loggia are located on the Piazza della Signoria (Palazzo in center of picture; Loggia, with arches, on the right). David in the Galleria dell'AccademiaIn the event, the statue found its home by the portal of the Palazzo, in the place where Donatello's Judith had stood. There it was to remain until the mid-nineteenth century when it was moved, in 1873, inside the Galleria dell'Accademia - and that is where David is to be found to this day.

Meaning, of course, is in no small measure a function of context, that is, of space and time as well as of subjectivity (whose meaning?). The discussion at the meeting makes clear that the desire to find an appropriate location for the statue included, at least for some, a belief that the statue did have a meaning and that a suitable location needed to be one that would match this meaning. Early in the meeting, Francesco Monciatto says: "I believe that everything that is made is made for a specific purpose, and I believe this because [the statue] was made to be placed on the external pilasters or buttresses around the church [i.e., the Duomo]. The reason for not wanting to put it there I do not know, for there it seemed to me it would serve well as an ornament for the church and the Consuls [of the Wool Guild] - and the place has been changed.'

Why the change of plans? Randolph Parks responds:

[I]t is likely that the exceptional quality of the statue was the major reason . . . . We find several members of the practica [the commission] . . . contemplating a location worthy of the statue, a place where it would be honored and esteemed. I see no reason to doubt, therefore, that after the quality of the David became overwhelmingly apparent, the Signoria elected to bring it down to street level and give it grander exposure . . . ." (Parks, 569 n.41).

That explanation sounds as good as any, especially in hindsight. On the other hand, the notion of "grander exposure" does prompt another line of thought.

It is a matter of curiosity to me, an outsider looking in on an art history debate some years ago on the subject of the statue's location (between Randolph Parks and Saul Levine), that unmentioned is the possibility that even in 1504, in Florence, a giant statue of a naked man with his genitals uncovered might "detailed emphasis"have been considered by many to be a less than suitable adornment for a cathedral. Nor has Martha Fader allayed my curiosity with her suggestion that "Michelangelo's detailed emphasis of David's genitalia is consistent with the prophetic connotations that the subject matter affords"(Fader, 221).

As Margaret Walters observes, speaking of the rediscovery of the classical nude in general:

[T]he nude was appreciated only by a small elite, a self-consciously classicizing avant-garde whose ideas filtered down slowly and against some opposition. Public feelings about the nude – and indeed, about the whole cult of the antique – remained conservative, and ranged from incomprehension to outright hostility. In the 1490s, Savonarola’s furious attack on the new paganism and the nude as its symbol woke a wide response in Florence itself, home of the new humanism (Walters, 99).

Clearly Monciatto was not concerned about the nudity and still thought that the cathedral was where the statue belonged (so too Botticelli). Clearly, too, the directors of the cathedral works, the Opera del Duomo, were being coy about the reason for the change of plans. Monciatto claims not to know the reason for the change of plans – which may have been the case, although he may be fishing, mischievously, for some direct acknowledgment by others more in the know. If so, nobody takes the bait. It is striking that nobody answers his implied question. Indeed, nobody in the whole discussion is recorded as speaking directly about the “problem” with the statue that rendered it unsuitable for the cathedral (or more suitable elsewhere!). It is as though, like the directors of the works, the commissioners, by unspoken consensus, are trying to avoid the subject. Why not address the matter openly? One speculation among others, if the statue’s genitals were indeed the problem, is simple embarrassment. In this world of the new humanism, in which “sophisticated” Florentines took such pride, those in charge of the cathedral might well be reluctant to risk ridicule for proposing that a man’s genitals were the stumbling block in the way of erecting for public display a great work of art. We might then reasonably suppose that, as a matter of upper class politics, those charged with finding an alternative location might not be interested in embarrassing the directors. Nor would it be surprising that the commission, including in its numbers various artists dependent upon patronage, should fall into line and be unfailingly polite in not pressing for the reason for the change.

Yet the discussion could be construed as offering indirect evidence that some of the participants were indeed aware of a “problem” with the naked giant, a problem that was conveniently displaced onto the weather, as we shall see, and the dubious premise that the marble was spoiled and fragile. I suggest that “covering,” however, was indeed the name of the game and that the minutes lend themselves to a reading that uncovers this concern.

'I had in mind," says Giuliano da Sangallo early in the discussion, "the corner of the church [the Duomo]. . . and it would be seen [there] by the passersby. But since it is a public thing [cosa pubblica], and the marble is imperfect, being fragile and soft as a result of it having been exposed to the weather [or "having remained in the open (all'aria)" (Klein and Zerner)], it does not seem to me that it would survive permanently." So he proposes - and Leonardo da Vinci later agrees - placing it under cover in the Loggia dei Signori, preferably in a recess near the rear wall "with a black niche behind it like a little chapel." For, he stresses, "it has to be covered [vuole stare coperta]."Palazzo (center) and Loggia (right)

Levine comments that Giuliano's proposal for the Loggia niche

extends his first thought that it be placed in the vicinity of the Duomo. In such a niche, the biblical, Christian aspects of the David iconography would be emphasized, and the contemporary, controversial political aspects of the work would be virtually eliminated. . . .Within such a recess, it would be almost buried in a position significantly distant from normal public view and submerged within the deepest shadows of the Loggia . . . . [T]he David - standing within a tabernacle - would have been rendered . . . innocuous (Levine, 38-39).

Levine is expounding a political reading of the statue, as a pro-Republican, anti-Medici, emblem (finding special significance in the intense leftward gaze). Accordingly he casts Giuliano as a crypto-Medici sympathizer. But if Giuliano's concern was rather to contextualize suitably the giant's problematic "nakedness," then Levine's comments about the neutralizing effects of the Loggia site fit equally well. In other words, Giuliano suggests, if you are not going to put the figure high up on a church buttress, then put him somewhere else where he will be suitably "covered."

Andrea the goldsmith, called Il Riccio, also presses for a location providing ample cover, although there is some ambiguity about whether he is supporting the Loggia (more likely, given his speech in context) or the courtyard inside the Palazzo Vecchio (so Levine) following the suggestion of Messer Francesco, First Herald of the Signoria, who opened the discussion. Says Riccio,

[T]here it would be well covered [coperta] and would here be most highly regarded and most carefully watched against acts to damage it [or read: against its being spoiled] and it is better to enclose it [al coperto] so that the passersby go to look at it; it is not for such a thing to go towards the passersby - the figure should not come to look at us (Levine, 40-41).

Although the goldsmith's language is ambiguous, Levine suggests, Riccio is more concerned with damage (guasta) by vandalism than by the weather (Levine, 42 n.39). In the Palazzo the statue would find an appropriate setting since it would be confined to the viewing of the members of the Signoria and others with official business. If Riccio is speaking of the Loggia, a similar interpretation of his speech may be made: he is agreeing with Giuliano on the fundamental point that the statue should be isolated from open public space (see also Seymour, 59, on the Loggia providing "a certain amount of isolation').

Levine interprets in political terms the concern about wilful damage. Again, however, as in the case of Giuliano da Sangallo, I suggest that Riccio may (also?) have another matter on his mind, a concern for public decency. This "public thing" ought not to be too public! Let the right sort of people seek it out; let it not be thrust into the public eye.

Indeed, James Beck finds in the preamble to the minutes a hint that security against attack was a concern of Michelangelo himself:

. . . the officials of the Duomo, seeing that the statue . . . is almost finished, and being desirous of placing it in a suitable and commodious place, one that is secure and solid [locum solidum et resolidatum], as Michelangelo, the master of the aforesaid giant, has requested, and [sic] the directors of the Wool Guild, desirous of putting into effect these wishes, decided to call a meeting . . . (Beck, 123-4).

'"Clearly," adds Beck, "as he was concluding his assignment, Michelangelo sought assurances that the placement would prevent vandalism . . . ." Beck's argument depends upon his translating locum solidum et resolidatum as "secure and solid" (cf. "sound and solid," Klein and Zerner; "firm and solid," Levine; "solid and structurally trustworthy," Seymour). He thus appears to be aligning "suitable" with "secure" as terms of social space and "commodious" with "solid" as terms of material space. While hardly a secure reading, it is one that I believe fits well with the tenor and direction of the consultation and suggests, at the very least, that the secretary who wrote the words may have had more than simply foundations in mind.

Giovanni Cellini, fife-player (a government official according to Beck, 130), demurs from Giuliano's suggestion because he believes the statue needs to be seen complete, in the round, "but it cannot be seen thus." In David in the roundother words, set far back in the Loggia, the statue would be not be fully appreciated; rather, it needed to be more in the open (all'aria). But then that requirement had its own drawbacks. "On the other hand," he adds, now voicing openly what I have suggested is an underlying anxiety of both Giuliano and Riccio, "some wretch may hurt [attack] it with a bar." Hence he proposes a compromise that also has the virtue of being in agreement with the First Herald's suggestion (and also, on Levine's reading, Riccio's), namely that the statue be located inside the Palazzo, in the open courtyard. Here, in relative security, the statue could be seen "in its entirety" by the (distinguished and cultivated) persons who frequented the Palazzo. "Covering," for Giovanni, is really a matter of "enclosing."

Levine's extended argument for understanding opposition to the statue as politically motivated finds an echo in Beck's comment on Giovanni's speech:

Giovanni . . . introduced a curious suspicion. If located out in the open, some nasty person might do the statue harm. That is, for some unexplained reason, the David might become the target of vandalism (. . . and such a possibility supports the suspicion that there was a political aura surrounding the David that could have made it offensive to some) (Beck, 130).

As I have argued, however, Giovanni does not introduce the suspicion of the "nasty person" wishing to do the statue harm. That suspicion is there from the beginning, only becoming unambiguously explicit in Giovanni's speech - and even then, as Beck observes, it is left unexplained. Political motives might account for the inferred hostility, and so might concern about public decency; and in each case we can understand why, in a meeting of utmost civility, no one would wish to name the root problem.

In the event, after several governmental changes of mind, the statue was installed in the Piazza, at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio. It would appear, on the face of it, that the "coverers" and "enclosers" lost to those who would see the station "in its entirety" out in the open.

In the event, too, the statue thus thrust into the public eye was indeed attacked, on the first night of its being moved out of the Opera del Duomo, on the 14th of May, 1504. The Diary of Luca Landucci records that during that night "some stones were thrown at the colossus to harm it. Watch had to be kept at night . . ." (Klein and Zerner, 44). Levine, following Charles de Tolnay among others, claims the stoning was "quite possibly" organized by supporters of the Medici family (1974: 34 n.13; cf. de Tolnay, 10; McHam, 184 n.50). "Perhaps," says Margaret Walters, "but more probably by people shocked by its insistent nudity" (99); "probably out of a sense of moral outrage on the part of decent citizens," agrees Monica Bohm-Duchen (21; cf. Parks, 565 n.24; ).

Even more to the point is a much overlooked item about which Frederick Hartt has reminded us:

In a triumphant example of Second Republic prudery, not only the genitals but what Vasari called the "divine flanks" of the David could not be exposed to innocent Florentine eyes until they had been provided with a girdle. A brass wire sustaining twenty-eight copper leaves was paid for on October 31st, according to a document published by De Nicola in 1917 and subsequently ignored. According to a passage from Pietro Aretino's famous denunciation of the indecencies of the Last Judgment, which everyone quotes but no one reads, this girdle was still in place as late as 1545. (Hartt 1986: 106-107 and 115 n.55-56, citing Paolo Barocchi in Poggi, vol. 4, 219 n.1).

Thus Hartt accounts for the gap between the statue's journey from the Duomo workshop to the Piazza della Signoria on May 14-18 and the final "uncovering" of the statue on July 8th , as described in Landucci's diary. A girdle had to be provided so that the giant's offending genitals could be decently covered. It would seem that the coverers won after all.

I am reminded of Leonardo da Vinci's words in the consultation, also singularly unremarked upon by the critics: "I agree it should be in the Loggia, where Giuliano has said . . . ; with appropriate ornament [chon ornamento decente] and in a way that does not interfere [in modo no guasti] with the ceremonies of state" (Klein and Zerner). Or as Seymour translates: ". . .with decency and decorum, and so displayed that it does not spoil the ceremonies of the officials."

Whatever the statue meant to Michelangelo, therefore, I suggest that it meant something else to the officials in charge of its location. They could not accept it as it was, not, at least, all'aria, in the open. Among its manifold meanings, at least in a public space, were sexual dimensions that required covering up. The statue had to be censored. Interpretations of its "meaning" that ignore the discussion of the statue's "problem" and its subsequent censorship simply do not adequately account for the statue's meaning in its actual "lived" space.

II. Intertextual Readings:

To London, New York, Springfield, Washington, and Beyond

1. London: Queen Victoria's Fig Leaf David's Fig Leaf

In 1857 a plaster cast of David, eighteen feet high, was presented to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857, and forthwith donated by the Queen to the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. (Collage: the Queen's fig leaf bottom right)

Anecdotal information suggests that on her first encounter with the cast of David at the Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity that a proportionally accurate fig leaf was commissioned, and kept in readiness of any royal visits, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks (www.vam.ac.uk/exploring/shortstories/fig_leaf).

The eighteen inch high plaster cast of a fig leaf is kept in its own display box behind the plinth of the statue, though from 1997 to 1999 it toured the United States with a V & A exhibition, drawing much publicity (pictured above, bottom right). Curiously, the fig leaf is exhibited under the theme, Teaching by Example, which "discusses the mission of education and the teaching of design by using objects as examples" (www.boston.com/mfa/london/pressrel.shtml). I confess to being somewhat nonplussed, though as one American museum director observed, "It certainly shows the decorum of the period" (www.neh.fed.us/news/humanities/1997-07/design.html). The question is, of what time and space are we speaking? Victorian England or Renaissance Florence? The question is also, whose decorum?

2. New York and Evanston: Cynthia Pearl's Fig Leaf

In 1954 a well known U.S. publisher brought out a volume by Cynthia Pearl Maus, The Old Testament and the Fine Arts: An Anthology of Pictures, Poetry, Music, and Stories Covering the Old Testament. It, of course, covers Michelangelo's David. (Collage: Cynthia Pearl's fig leaf on the statue, left.)

3. Springfield: David With His Pants DownThe Simpsons

The place is Florence, the time, 1990 or thereabouts. The news is out: Michelangelo's David is to tour the United States, coast to coast. Well, to be precise, New York, Springfield, and if there is time, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles. And so to Springfield, where Marge, who has been leading a crusade against television violence, answers the door to find her friends, Maude and Helen, on a recruiting drive - to protest against an abomination.

Marge: Mm, but that's Michelangelo's David. It's a masterpiece.

Helen: [gasp] It's filth! It graphically portrays parts of the human body, which, practical as they may be, are evil.

Marge: But I like that statue.

Helen: [gasp] I told you she was soft on full frontal nudity! Come on, girls . . . .

As the protest swells, Kent Brockman fills the television screen:

Kent Brockman: Is it a masterpiece or just some guy with his pants down? That's our topic tonight on Smartline . . . .

Beaten down, Marge desists, and she and Homer go to the museum to see David:

Homer: Well, there he is. Michelangelo's "Dave."

For her part, Marge wishes that the kids were here viewing this masterpiece of art, instead of watching cat and mouse, Itchy and Scratchy, commit mayhem on the television. Homer is more sanguine:

Homer: Pretty soon, every boy and girl in Springfield Elementary School is going to come and see this thing.

Marge: Really? Why?

Homer: They're forcing "em! [and he laughs]

(Excerpts from Swarzwelder, Itchy and Scratchy and Marge)

4. Washington, DC: "With Decency and Decorum"David and Blue Boy

If you've kept abreast of the news in Washington, you're probably aware of the big cover-up at the U.S. Justice Department . . . . Spirit of Justice, or Minnie Lou as she's affectionately called by Washington insiders, is a 12½-foot-tall aluminum statue that has watched over the Great Hall since 1936. But now Minnie Lou is hiding behind a blue curtain, upstretched arms, flowing toga, bared breast and all. It's that third part that's got her in this pickle. Her companion, Majesty of Law, a male statue slightly more modestly attired (a loincloth covers the crucial parts), is also hidden behind the curtain, but it's Minnie Lou who's caused the ruckus. Seems she is positioned so that she frequently appears in the background, just above Attorney General John Ashcroft's head, in photos of the attorney general speaking to the press [Collage: right]. This made Ashcroft uncomfortable . . . and a member of his staff ordered the curtains (Cathy Frisinger, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 6, 2002).

Frisinger observes sagely, moreover, that historical precedents exist for "such cover-ups," pointing to the papal flap over the "offending body parts" of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes: "after the artist's death, judiciously placed cloths were added to his scenes," she notes, though she does wonder if there might have been a cheaper way than $7,900 curtains to "ease Ashcroft's mind and cover up Minnie Lou's naughty bits." In the Ashcroft spirit of decency and decorum, however, Star-Telegram illustrator Jeremy Cannon proposes some "blue-curtain treatment to some of our favorite famous statues," adding that "it's curtains for Michelangelo's lean, mean fighting machine, David, 1504." (Collage: bottom left; with Gainsborough's Blue Boy above left, in the spirit of intertextuality)

5. And Beyond: But There is yet Another Problem with the Problem

Statue Rejected: Jerusalem has turned down a gift of a replica of Michelangelo's state of David because the nude figure would offend Israel's Orthodox Jews and Arabs. The offer from Florence, Italy, where the original work is displayed, was made in honor of celebrations of 3,000 years of Jerusalem's history, the Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported Friday. Instead, Florence will give Jerusalem a copy of a bronze statue of David by the 15th-century artist Andrea del Verocchio. That David is clothed (Atlanta Constitution, July 22, 1995).

Michelangelo's David is, of course, uncircumcised (on which subject see Steinberg, 165-7) - no small irony. David is the giant. Goliath is reduced to nothing. And the Giant is uncircumcised. As David so eloquently put it: "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?" So, after all, David does not belong in Jerusalem. Meaning is a question of space.

III. More History:

Social Location and Renaissance Florence

Let me go back, however, to "history" again. If we are to contemplate some of the dimensions of David's public nakedness in the Florence of 1504 - the V & A fig leaf, by the way, is about eighteen inches high - there are some more immediate social and historical contexts that we might consider.

1. Artistic Tradition: David in the Middle Ages Medieval illuminations & Castagno

For a start, we could ask: How was the biblical David customarily displayed in the artistic tradition that Michelangelo inherited? Meaning is also a function of difference. In brief, the medieval David appears in four main guises: as Psalmist or inspired poet-musician, as the penitent in the Bathsheba affair, as the boy or youth who brings down Goliath with his sling, and as the boy who decapitates Goliath. It is not that he is never shown naked, for he is, as in a medieval illumination of Psalm 69 (Salvum me; top right) - but to my knowledge he always has his clothes on when he is making music, being penitent, throwing rocks, and head chopping. In the early Italian renaissance, we see similar images, as in the well-known painting by Andrea del Castagno (center), which combines both the sling and sword scenes in one. David remains covered.

2. Donatello's David: The Homoerotic Victory/Defeat

It is Donatello, in Florence in the mid-1400s (the date is debated), who changes all this. His earlier marble David is, as expected, clothed.Donatello's bronze David His bronze David is naked - more or less. With his hat and boots framing an adolescent body that many have deemed erotic (and often homoerotic), he stands with his right hand embracing the knob-topped shaft of a sword hilt, a stone cupped lightly in his left hand, and his left boot resting jauntily on the severed head of Goliath. The giant's helmet sprouts wings, one of which is lodged up (or slipping down?) the boy's inner thigh. On the visor is a relief (FIGURE 12). It is, I believe (Gunn 1993), a depiction of the triumph of Amor (see fuGoliath's helmetrther, Schneider 1973; 1976; 1996: 186-94). A classicist and poet such as Michelangelo would no doubt have recognized the scene. Is the figure in the frieze then Aphrodite, whom Eros serves, or is it perhaps David himself, Eros in human transformation? Whatever the case, the irony is great: Goliath (who some argue is a self-portrait of Donatello) wears on his head the symbols of his downfall. The triumph of the erotic boy is the death of the man. Amor vincit . . . .

In Michelangelo's day, Donatello's bronze David was located in the inner courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. It was proposed by the Herald at the meeting of 1504 that he should be replaced by Michelangelo's David. His back leg, it was explained (i.e., the one with the wing up it), was somewhat "awkward" or "ridiculous" (schiocha).

Michelangelo's David, then, was conceived and fashioned in the presence of the dominant David of the preceding century, Donatello's homoerotic youth.

3. Homosexuality in Florence: Michelangelo's Space

During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Florence had a reputation for sodomy, by which was usually meant sex between males. In his recent study, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, Michael Rocke observes:

The sexual renown of Florentine males was remarked on by both local and foreign chroniclers, condemned by preachers, deplored by concerned citizens, derided - and occasionally admired - by writers and poets. Their erotic tastes were so well known even north of the Alps that in contemporary Germany "to sodomise" was popularly dubbed florenzen and a "sodomite" a Florenzer (Rocke, 3; cf. 12-13).

Of course, reputations do not necessarily correspond to realities. But Rocke suggests that this reputation has its foundation. Available to him is extensive evidence, namely the records of the Office of the Night (Ufficiali di notte), a magistracy set up in 1432 precisely to pursue and prosecute sodomy.

During its seventy-year tenure from 1432 to 1502, this magistracy . . . carried out the most extensive and systematic persecution of homosexual activity in any premodern city . . . . In this small city of around only 40,000 inhabitants, every year during roughly the last four decades of the fifteenth century an average of some 400 people were implicated and 55 to 60 condemned for homosexual relations . . . . [That is,] as many as 17,000 individuals or more were incriminated at least once for sodomy, with close to 3,000 convicted.

These extraordinary figures [he goes on] . . . begin to furnish a sense of the dimensions, the vitality, and the contradictory significance of homosexuality in the sexual and social life of Florence. Sodomy was ostensibly the most dreaded and evil of sexual sins, and was among the most rigorously controlled of crimes; yet in the later fifteenth century, the majority of local males at least once during their lifetimes were officially incriminated for engaging in homosexual relations. (Rocke, 4-5)

So on the one hand, we see in Florence during the early Renaissance, on the part of the elite, a passionate concern for the classical world that might well be thought to legitimate sexual relations between males; and at the same time we see the Church's teaching against sodomy enacted in laws which provided severe penalties, including death by burning - and in Florence, in particular, we see a series of clear decisions by the ruling class to press the issue of sodomy as a serious moral and social problem.

Where would this have placed Michelangelo, unmarried, like most men of his age - he was about twenty-six when he started on the statue? Though young and of a family of fallen fortune, his reputation as an artist was high. Would that reputation have afforded him some measure of protection were he to have indulged his apparent passion for attractive young men? Artistic reputation had not stopped Sandro Botticelli, at age fifty-seven, being charged with sodomy in 1502, the year after Michelangelo began work on his giant, though the charge was dismissed after a hearing - as had the charge against Leonardo da Vinci some twenty-five years earlier (1476) (Rocke 139, 298 n.120-21). (On the subjects of "homosexuality" and Italian Renaissance art, in general, and Michelangelo's sexuality, in particular, see further Liebert, 270-311; Saslow 1986: 17-62; 1988; 1991: 13-18, 26-29; Sternweiler 1993; Kemp, 198; and the criticisms of Beck, 143-54.)

The arguments for the political, particularly anti-Medici, import of Michelangelo's statue are double edged when taken in tandem with a serious consideration of the artist's social location in the Florence of the Officers of the Night. As recent research makes abundantly clear, there is, in the context of the Renaissance, "the intractability, the impossibility of delivering arguments about sexuality in the period without recognizing how fully embedded they are in the political" (Goldberg, 10; see further Bray 1982; 1994; Smith 1994). If a man were a rebel against "nature," would it be surprising if he were also a rebel against society and religion?

Given the depth of homosocial relations among Renaissance Florentine men, it is easy to see that homoerotic behavior was always a potentially perilous path to take for someone whose life and work fell readily within political profiles. Such must have been the case with Michelangelo. The sexual was always potentially the political.

IV. Michelangelo's David: Uncovered

It is commonplace to see Donatello's bronze David and Michelangelo's marble giant as twin ideals of the Renaissance male nude - and remark upon their striking difference.Donatello's bronze David The homoerotic dimensions of the small bronze figure are widely acknowledged, including H. W. Janson's apt ascription to him of the epithet le beau garcon sans merci (Janson, 85), along with assertions of the statue's political meaning as an emblem of liberty over tyranny. But, in the case of the marble David, while much play is made of the statue's political import (liberty over tyranny), few critics seem to recognize any sexual dimension. A notable exception is James Saslow:

His eighteen-foot nude colossus imagines not Donatello's biblically correct adolescent, but a magnificently muscled young adult, glowering and snorting in anticipation of grappling with Goliath. The statue's official symbolism was both religious and civic - David was the city's mascot - but since Donatello the subject had resonated erotically, and Michelangelo here epitomizes male beauty and barely restrained physicality. The artist identified psychologically with the plucky hero - whom he transformed to someone nearly his own age at the time - and perhaps sexually as well. Although his private fantasies remain implicit, they must have been widely shared (Saslow 1999: 96-7; cf. Bohm-Duchen, 21).

For most part, however, the critics are silent on the subject. The statue is asexual. Those giant genitals are mDavid below the belterely necessary appendages, in antique classical mode, to the young hero who scowls at the threatening oppressor.

Of course, Michelangelo may have decided to have nothing to do with the earlier bronze. His sculpture was to be different. And, indeed, he chooses to represent a different moment in the biblical narrative. Yet, as Saslow suggests, how could his statue have nothing to do with the famous bronze, the first statue to have depicted a nude young David, that had spawned already a spate of young Davids - howbeit with more clothes on - in imitation? It seems to me that he was stuck with Donatello's David, like it or not, and that he managed in his own way the homoerotic theme that Donatello had set in play.David poised The latent political or civic meaning of the work is evident, and it is that "overt message" and not its "inner tension" that would have been looked for by most contemporaries, suggests Michael Levey (146). Yet the poised, inner-spring tension of the statue is widely recognized. It is where Michelangelo, the lover of young male beauty, himself resides, is "at home." Caught between desire and action, between liberty and oppression, in a moment and space where sublimation seems the only sure path to victory. Donatello's David looks with satisfaction at his conquest. Michelangelo's David looks anxiously but steadfastly at the oncoming foe - or is it a lover? Those genitals, uncovered, remind us of their owner's affinity with Donatello's erotic conquerer, but at the same time their repose is of a piece with the tense repose of the whole giant figure, which tends to diminish them, render them inconsequential, invisible, covered after all. Michelangelo's David is a giant attempt to sublimate Donatello's iconoclastic homoeroticism.

V. The Biblical David: Uncovered

Until recently, though the suggestion has long been voiced, few commentators have been willing to entertain seriously reading the story of David and Jonathan in terms of a "homosexual" (for want of a better term) relationship. To read a relationship with same-sex possibilities was simply "reading in," going too far, perverse. On the other hand, a reading that placed the language of love in the framework of political/covenantal language between vassal and overlord, that was worth considering (see, e.g., Thompson).

But, of course, as no few have pointed out over the past decade (not least Roland Boer), a "homosexual" (or, in Boer's case, "queer') reading finds plenty of play in the text (see further Schroer and Staubli; Fewell and Gunn, 105-108, 141-63; cf. Nissinen, 53-6, 123-34). Let me here just mention briefly the richly layered lament for Jonathan.

'Wonderful your love to me, more than love of women." He casts the relationship in a particular light. The point of comparison is women. Jonathan belongs in the relationship in the position of a woman, even if only to surpass her. That aligns Jonathan with the passive, the one who is penetrated; David with the active, the one who penetrates - even if, as Boer rightly observes, David is largely passive in his relationships (Boer, 26-28). His rhetoric makes David the "man." Doubly so, since his collection of women is a matter of notoriety. Who else better to judge what love might be more than the love of women! Thus the words that praise Jonathan, and claim his endorsement, at the same time subtly devalue him. And even more so, for as royal prince he should have played the "man" to the commoner's "woman." David has reversed the sexual roles just as he has reversed the political roles. By claiming the homosexual relationship, but strictly on his terms, he turns it into a proclamation of his own ascendency, his inevitable dominion, and of the end of the house of Saul. The sexual is always potentially the political.

The reason why the unspeakable reading has become speakable is, of course, all about context, about space and time - the text's location in the space occupied by the women's movement of the past thirty years in the West, and especially in the United States, and, not unconnected, the rise of gay liberation. David's genitals in the books of Samuel are being, more consistently, uncovered.

VI. David in Fragments:

The Proliferation of Space and the Dissipation of Meaning

David's genitals on the statue of Michelangelo have also been uncovered in recent years, as the statue has been claimed by the gay community (certainly in the United States; cf. Saslow 1999: 96) as an emblem of gay liberation. In such a context the genitals - hidden with fig leaves from the prurient gaze, rendered invisible by the politics of Renaissance Florence, and vaporized by their ascription to "high art" (via the space of museum, "art book," and university classroom) - become charged again with sexuality.

But if the sexually charged textual David, in the body that Michelangelo gave him, has found his home in contemporary gay communities this, I suspect, will not be a permanent nostos. This homecoming is elusive, not least because the homecomer's own standing as "gay" man is elusive in the first place, in the biblical narrative, but also because the gigante that he has become retains that ambiguity, not unlike its maker, Michelangelo himself. Whereas Donatello's bronze David is agressively homerotic, Michelangelo's David is on the defensive. Is he, or is he not? That remains the question.

Even more important, however, in contesting this determined relocation of an uncovered David is the power of technology to disrupt all such spaces. Photography and the postcard, products of industrialization, proliferated the spaces in which David was to be found. Technological change enabled the mass distribution of the David images that have come to signify a communal emblem beyond the reach of the elite who have controlled the ownership and consumption of "high art." Indeed, the power of the David image, as a gay liberation image, derived in part precisely from its authority as "high art" in ironic counterpoint to its derived biblical authority. But technology, especially with David's entry into electronic space, is constantly finding further ways to subvert the authority of that "high art" and with it, any remaining vestiges of biblical authority. By the same token, any meaning David might have as "uncovered" icon of gay liberation is subject to the challenge of proliferating spaces with multifarious meanings competing, assimilating, and fragmenting. The commodification of David makes him as ubiquitous as a MacDonalds hamburger, but without the brand name recognition. What does David "stand for" now? William Hart, in his account of Edward Said and Theodor Adornono on culture, draws my attention to Adorno's critique of the commodification of popular music ("On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening").

Music [argues Adorno] is no longer a revolutionary and unruly attack on the cultural privileges of the ruling class, but has degenerated into a depoliticized "handmaiden" of consumerism. Depoliticization results from the vulgarization of art, from mindless repetition and irrelevant consumption. Because musical works are "played again and again," they "wear out, like the Sistine Madonna in the bedroom" . . . . The possibility of critique drops out, creating a critical void . . . . music becomes a diversion, a consumption opportunity (Hart, p.30 and see further 30-39).

We can digitalize David, nor from a photo but from the "real thing," so that he can be distributed more readily to scholars and museums and studied more "accurately" (The Digital Michelangelo Project at Stanford University -- graphics.stanford.edu/projects/mich/). But as the market reveals, we don't need accuracy to recognize David. Accurately or inaccurately, we can view him and use him in manifold ways. We can dress him up and locate for him a space, a home, and a meaning of our own choosing. I work in Texas. So naturally I am partial to a western David. Easily done. We can choose to uncover or cover him, exposing or concealing that problematic signifier, moving him towards or away from Donatello's David, determining his sexuality with the click of a magnet on a refrigerator door, or the click of a cursor on a computer screen. And we can easily have him express gender confusion, which is always lurking around the place where sexual boundaries are in dispute.

At the same time we can recover the political David, merely by substituting a head. Same body, new head, new politics. But more than that, we can bring David's head home - in parts - the counterpart to Goliaths's head. Just as modernist biblical critics - historical critics - fragmented the biblical text in which David lived, rending one part of his story, his life, his person, from another; so postmodernist decorators of refrigerators or filing cabinets can carefully relocate a member of David. So we have David in fragments - arrange them as you please! A nose, an eye, an ear, a mouth. I've not seen it yet, but a "Bobbiched" penis is bound to happen. In the meantime we can live with the David light-switch plate.

David decapitated Goliath and brought him to Jerusalem on a sword or pole, as depicted in Bible illustration and freestanding art since the Middle Ages. Now we can have David's head, or tokens of it, on a pole, for ornaments, like the bodies of Saul and Jonathan's bodies decorating the walls of Gath. David in fragments, the truly postmodern David.

David is what advertisers love, a universally recognized commodity. You can have him head on or head off. He sells food and restaurants. He sells books, from highbrow works of biblical academia (Flanagan's David's Social Drama sports possibly the first hologram to be used on a book not on holography), with a focus on the giant's head, to books with a "broader" market, with a focus elsewhere. The clothed slingshot David is still hanging in there but being crowded out. Advertisers prefer "high art" (but not Donatello's high art), and high tech especially so: a "quality" David stands for a "quality" sound board. And there's always room for a little joke about those genitals or the naked backside that Giovanni Cellini felt needed to be seen. David even sells "gay (family values) games" alongside a new companion, not Jonathan or even Tommaso Cavalieri, but, in a wry twist, Bougereau's Venus.

Last but not least, the gigante also sells himself - finished in antique stone, small with fig leaf, only $138 plus shipping and handling.

VII. Digital David: A Pictorial Postscript

Gay games

Dress up

Italian Stallion

The Bookman

What men are like

In Fragments

Hard/Software

Dave's not here


Copyright 2002 © David M. Gunn


Works Cited


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This paper was first presented at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, July 2001. Revised February 2002.

Updated: 8/30/2002