“Florence,” I said when Will and I first began thinking about a long trip abroad. “I want to see the two Davids. And there’s enough other great art and architecture there to last us for a month.”
I remember comparing the two Davids, two nude sculptures of young David at the time of his fight with Goliath,1 in an art history class almost 45 years ago. Donatello cast one in bronze in the 1440’s; Michelangelo chipped one out of marble in 1502-04. Now I have seen them!
Donatello’s nude David was the first freestanding nude male sculpture since the Roman era. (Earlier he had made a fully clothed David in marble, now standing in the same room in the Bargello Museum.) His bronze David wears only boots and a hat with a laurel wreath. He stands on Goliath’s helmeted head, and he holds the sword he took from Goliath to cut off his head after he had killed him with a stone from his slingshot. The sword looks too heavy for Donatello’s David, and his expression is calm and bemused. In 1494 the statue was moved from a Medici palace to the public square in front of the city hall, where Michelangelo’s larger David already stood.
About 50 years later, Michelangelo carved his marble David, completely nude with his slingshot on one shoulder, preparing for the fight with Goliath. Michelangelo gave him a tense, muscular body and a nervous but determined expression.
This heroic sculpture was unveiled in front of Florence’s city hall in 1504. It stood there until 1873, when the marble was beginning to crack, and the statue was brought indoors and replaced by an inferior copy.2
Souvenir shops all over Florence sell Michelangelo’s David memorabilia. Many items feature close-ups of David’s crotch. I noticed the decorative and symmetrical pubic hair when I saw the statue, but buying souvenirs of David’s genitals seems prurient to me.
Then I reread an essay I wrote nine years ago on this week’s Torah portion: Chayei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath. (You can click on the title to read it yourself.) Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath while placing his hand under Abraham’s genitals, the most sacred object available.
What is this peculiar oath doing in the Torah? It appears twice, both times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. The book of Exodus first prohibits stairs for an altar, so no one would see the priests’ “nakedness” as they ascend, and then decrees that all priests must wear underpants.3 Leviticus/Vayikra refers to incest by prohibiting “uncovering the nakedness” of various family members.4 Seeing the genitals is a dangerous thing.
Maybe attitudes toward full exposure change back and forth with the times. Indecent exposure becomes decent, and vice versa.
Where are we now?
- I Samuel 17:23-51.