Civic sculpture and the value of ‘art’

Written by: James Samuel

Crowd outside Palazzo Vecchio, glass negative, Florence, Italy (1918). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I will start this post with an anecdote.

In 2018 I was fortunate enough to visit Florence, commonly viewed as the capital of the Italian renaissance. While I would like to say that it was limited time that prevented me from seeing everything you might expect on an art lover’s bucket list, there was a bigger reason for that drawback. That was ignorance. For I wandered those old streets before I had learned of their true significance to the art world. I saw the dome and was as awestruck as you might expect, but my mind did not immediately jump to Brunelleschi. I did not bother to queue for entrance to the Uffizi. It is important to remember that the wonder generated by these monuments is partly ‘natural’, but also partly taught.

I did make an effort to see one thing, however. Michelangelo’s David has such a reputation that I would say it is the most famous work of art in Florence. I found myself in the Piazza della Signoria, and saw that giant gazing away from me. I probably spent an hour touring the square, with a lot of that time spent unashamedly trying to find a decent enough position for a selfie David. (I will not show that photo). I perambulated around him in awe for I don’t know how long. I explored every inch of his marble body I could. Others did the same. I am sure if I asked any of them about their time in the square, they would each say they were alone with the sculpture for that brief time, until circumstances brought them back to the room. That is the ‘natural’ experience we get from looking at art.

‘But wait,’ those intelligentsia among you will be saying at this point. ‘You fool! That isn’t the real David! It is but a replica! Michelangelo’s real masterpiece is in the Galleria dell'Accademia! Everyone knows that!’ Indeed, that is a conversation I have nearly had in the past. Two years later, I was talking to a friend more learned than myself. I found out that she always found it funny when people thought the replica of David was the real thing and took selfies with it. I made sure to keep my phone, and my selfie, safely in my pocket and laughed nervously along.

This brings me to the more philosophical part of the post. The rub is that I still felt all those things when I saw the replica of David, even though it was not the real thing. The artist had not been anywhere near the David I saw – the replica I saw was not made until 1910, nearly 350 years after Michelangelo’s death. I am here associating myself with Emilia’s article, ‘Essentialism and Art Forgery’. In it, she informs us of Paul Bloom’s outline of essentialism, whereby we experience a special psychological response when confronted by a genuine piece of art. This is because, in Bloom’s eyes, an essence of the artist is alive in the art. If that is the case, why was I so awestruck with the replica of David?

I have two ideas about why. The first is more linked to Bloom’s theory, and relies on the basic fact of my ignorance. Essentialism argues that our brains respond in different ways when we are told that a work of art is fake, as to when we are told it is real. With my knowledge of David at the time not stretching further than that it existed at all, my brain was likely primed to assume the sculpture I saw was real. In Florence in 2018, I was looking at the real David. The stone I saw had once been seen and touched by Michelangelo himself. Furthermore, the genius of the artist was understood universally. Those were facts in my mind, and those facts informed how I understood the sculpture when I encountered it. When I found out that I had been wrong for thinking that, my perception retrospectively changed. My experience is now a useful anecdote to help open a blog post. I would be lying if I said I did not look back on my experience with a little embarrassment these days, now I am older and wiser than I was then.

My second idea is a little bit different, and focuses more on the circumstances of the work itself. In its briefest terms, I believe that essentialism is less applicable to sculpture than it is to painting. I say this for two reasons. Firstly, the medium of sculpture itself. Sculpture, particularly civic sculpture such as David, exists on the same plane of existence as the viewer. This is still relevant despite the David’s biblical origins. It is not separated from the world by an extravagant frame or red rope, and it does not attempt to be a window into a new world like western painting in the Renaissance tradition does. Sculpture exists in the world, rather than attempting to escape it. We value it, therefore, in a temporal way. The hand of the sculptor is, ironically, less apparent because their work exists in the real world more than any other medium.

Secondly, for a work like David, the physical placement in the city was an integral part of the work itself. Placement should not be seen as a coincidence for the sculpture, but as an essential category to be analysed in the work. Renaissance civic sculpture was subject to serious debate about placement because of the powerful message public art could send. Two positions were considered favourable for the sculpture. These were the Loggia dei Lanzi, and the ringhiera outside the Palazzo Vecchio, both in the Palazzo della Signoria. To modern readers, considering David more as a work of art in the abstract sense, the different between these placements may seem trivial. However, the purpose of the sculpture was not to be a work of art in that sense, but to accomplish something more political. The sculpture itself signifies the return of republican power to the city of Florence, in the aftermath of the rule of the Medici in 1494. Vasari wrote of David that it had ‘defended his people and governed them with justice.’ It followed a tradition of sculpture as the civic hero and guardian, a precedent that had been set across Europe in the lade Middle Ages. In London, sculptures of Gog and Magog stood either side of the entrance to the Guild Hall, while in Florence itself, we have records of the use of large-scale sculpture being used to welcome Charles VIII into the city in 1494. Indeed, the Florentines commissioned a second statue to stand alongside the David in 1506. This, Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus, was not completed until 1534. This combination would have placed the David as a protector of the city’s recently-regained republicanism in the minds of the Florentines.

Outside the Palazzo Vecchio, a Florentine symbol of civic pride and republican tradition, the David’s association with just rule would have been a clear contrast with the tyranny of Medici leadership. This was further heightened by the continued threat of the Medici to the south, now allied with Pope Alexander VI in Rome. In his 1974 article, ‘The Location of Michelangelo’s “David”’, Saul Levine argues that the sculpture’s placement was made more important by its gaze. As it stands, it curves like an ‘S’ and looks to its left. In this position, the David follows a precedent for physically orientating civic imagery towards a geographical source of danger. Fifteenth century works like Donatello’s marble David, 1408, were angled so as to face Milan, at a time when the Visconti of that city had planned attacks on Florence. In a similar manner, Michelangelo’s David gazes southwards towards Rome, where the exiled Medici were still a threat to the republic. As connected to the civic pride of the government in the Palazzo, David sternly gazes at his, and the city’s, Goliath in Rome. Therefore, the David both confronts its external threat, the Medici in Rome, and protects the civic traditions of the government behind it in the Palazzo.

This all shows that the physical position of a work of art, especially during the Italian renaissance, was as important a factor in provoking a reaction as the aesthetic look of the artwork itself. I am not claiming that I understood any of the imagery or iconography of the David when I first encountered it in 2018. I am instead saying that the appreciation of the hand of the artist is only one aspect in the experiencing of art as we understand it. Firstly, sculpture ignores its creator when it is in the world with us. It is then given a new life as a symbol in a public space, meaning its actual placement influences our understanding of it. The implications of this are that we do not need to be the most learned students of sculpture to appreciate its place alongside us in public. Being in its static presence still moves us, with its purpose overshadowing its execution.