How Michelangelo’s David Still Draws Admiration and Controversy Today

Life imi­tates art, and by art, I mean, of course, The Simp­sons. More than thir­ty years ago, the show took on the issue of cen­sor­ship with a sto­ry in which Marge Simp­son launch­es an impas­sioned cam­paign against car­toon vio­lence, only to find her­self on the oth­er side of the fence when asked to sup­port a protest against the exhi­bi­tion of Michelan­gelo’s David. This episode returned to cul­tur­al rel­e­vance just last month, when a par­en­t’s com­plaint about an image of that most renowned nude sculp­tures — indeed, that most renowned sculp­ture of any kind — being shown in a sixth-grade art-his­to­ry class led to the fir­ing of a Flori­da school prin­ci­pal.

It seems that the prob­lem was­n’t just David: that same les­son includ­ed Bot­ti­cel­li’s paint­ing The Birth of Venus, anoth­er glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the unclothed human body — and so much more besides, accord­ing to the Great Art Explained video about it pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

That same chan­nel’s cre­ator, gal­lerist James Payne, has also put out a video on David, which you can watch at the top of the post. Though com­mis­sioned as a depic­tion of the Goliath-slay­ing Bib­li­cal hero, Payne tells us, “in Michelan­gelo’s hands it becomes some­thing else entire­ly,” a simul­ta­ne­ous study and expres­sion of the poten­tial of mankind.

David’s ori­gin pre­fig­ured noth­ing of its lega­cy. Orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned to dec­o­rate the Flo­rence Cathe­dral (which already fea­tured Brunelleschi’s inge­nious dome), the sculp­ture had to be carved out of a much-less-than-pris­tine block of mar­ble already owned by the insti­tu­tion, already miss­ing chunks removed by sculp­tors who’d pre­vi­ous­ly attempt­ed the job. But to Michelan­ge­lo, as to all true artists, such lim­i­ta­tions were the stuff of inspi­ra­tion: the pro­por­tions of David’s body, and even his icon­ic pose, were ulti­mate­ly dic­tat­ed less by Michelan­gelo’s imag­i­na­tion than by the nature of the stone itself.


Michelan­ge­lo was also pay­ing trib­ute to clas­si­cal Greek and Roman sculp­ture, hence the stat­ue’s nudi­ty. But as Payne says, it is a myth that “Renais­sance Euro­peans were com­fort­able with nude bod­ies in art, par­tic­u­lar­ly when dis­played in pub­lic.” Flo­rence’s city fathers “had a gar­land of 28 gild­ed cop­per leaves made, to pro­tect David’s mod­esty, and in lat­er years he wore a fig leaf.” 2023 may not be the first of David’s 500 years of exis­tence to sub­ject him to alter­ation in order to pro­tect the sup­posed sen­si­tiv­i­ties of his view­ers, but nev­er before, sure­ly, has such an inci­dent brought him on Sat­ur­day Night Live.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Michelangelo’s David: The Fas­ci­nat­ing Sto­ry Behind the Renais­sance Mar­ble Cre­ation

New Video Shows What May Be Michelangelo’s Lost & Now Found Bronze Sculp­tures

Michelan­ge­lo Entered a Com­pe­ti­tion to Put a Miss­ing Arm Back on Lao­coön and His Sons — and Lost

The Scan­dalous Paint­ing That Helped Cre­ate Mod­ern Art: An Intro­duc­tion to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

What Made Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Paint­ing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Lila says:

    Par­don me but in Europe there isn’t any con­tro­ver­sy about art, in the USA big­otry and igno­rance makes under­val­ue the impor­tance of art in a life of a young human being.
    As Ital­ians, we have been exposed to any “art nudi­ty” and we live in a pret­ty nar­row mind soci­ety because of the pres­ence of the Pope and his influ­ence in our State, nev­er­the­less the appre­ci­a­tion of beau­ty is part of our cul­ture ed edu­ca­tion. Pre­cise­ly the point is this: USA should rethink its schol­ar sys­tem and stop ban­ning books (maybe for once Amer­i­cans can locate Paris in France and not in Italy).

  • Emilia Orasan says:

    Thank you Miss.Lila.

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