Poor Agostino di Duccio. He had learned his craft under the most innovative and imaginatively expressive sculptural master of the quattrocento, Donatello. But Agostino could not have been happy on the mountain in Carrara as he oversaw the quarrying of a shallow, broad block of marble some eighteen feet long. Over the course of his career, Agostino had taken to bas-relief work of the sort one finds on the façade of a church or a palazzo. He had created grand works in terra cotta, too, but clay is a thing far different from stone.
Nevertheless, here he was, perhaps because the elders in Florence had decided to make good on a fifty year old plan to erect a huge statue of Donatello’s making on a buttress of the cathedral. Then in his late 70s, Donatello was no longer in a position to give more than nominal attention to such a project. To Agostino fell the labor.
Poor Agostino. His choice of quarry was questionable. In that quarry, he selected stone of average rather than superior quality. Then he had it cut too shallow for its length and breadth. Transportation up the river by barge was delayed by a lack of rain. Once unloaded, the enormous block of stone fell into a muddy ditch when its cart went off the road. Agostino’s stone finally arrived in Florence in December of 1466, just in time for Donatello to die. By Christmas, the elders had released Agostino from his contract. The great block of marble languished for a decade.
Poor Antonio Rossellino. Another student of Donatello, he also excelled at bas-relief, but was better than Agostino di Duccio at sculpture in the round. No wonder the elders of Florence tapped him a decade later to pick up where Agostino had left off. But when Antonio tapped his chisel into the stone to rough out the feet and shins of a colossal figure, something must’ve gone awry either with the stone or with Antonio. After a short time, he was no longer on the project, and he died not long afterward.
Poor Simone da Fiesole. He is now remembered only for the fact that Giorgio Vasari, the first art historian, blamed him for leaving the huge block of Carrara marble “completely botched and misshapen”. Did he work on it after Antonio and botch it? Had Antonio already botched it? Did Antonio stop working for this reason, or simply because he was on the threshold of death? Did Simone work on the stone at all, or is Vasari mistaken?
Poor Simone and Antonio. Because we do not know which of them struck the botching blow, they are forever fated to split the difference and share the blame. One way or another, the stone was unceremoniously dumped in a vacant lot behind the cathedral. Well below the buttress where it had once been destined to stand, the stone lay abandoned and gathered to itself the detritus of life and death. Lichen grew on it. Dogs urinated on it. Vagrants slept in its shadow.
For another twenty-something years, the hated stone lay forgotten by everyone … except one young man who just couldn’t stop thinking about it. In 1501, still aglow from his reputation-making Pietà, the twenty-six year old Michelangelo asked the elders of Florence for the stone. Noting in their contract that it had been “badly roughed out”, they granted it to him. “Do us the favor,” one imagines them saying, “of getting the thing out of our sight”.
As his pupil Vasari later memorably emphasized, Michelangelo took the stone that the previous builders had rejected and made of it a cornerstone of European sculpture: his statue of David.
The resolute shepherd-king had long been a symbol of Florentine independence and defiance, and the theme was newly in vogue when Michelangelo began his work. Florence had just shaken off the de facto reign of the Medici family and was revitalizing its republican heritage. Nearly a century before, Donatello had made a life-sized marble statue of David for Florentine guild masters. The cathedral buttress decoration project that had sat on Donatello’s back burner for fifty years had aimed for a twice-life-size enlargement or re-imagining of that earlier David. And in the interim, Donatello made the first freestanding nude male sculpture since antiquity — the first freestanding bronze of the Renaissance — another David (for which Elijah Wood was kind enough to pose).
Much has been noted about Michelangelo’s David, from the disproportion of the head and hands to the exaggerated contrapposto stance to the striking anatomical sensitivity evident in the artist’s depiction of arteries, tendons, and toenails. (Especially interesting for what it says about scholarly practice is the fact that the statue is more than three feet taller than most books say it is; for decades scholars and the popular press reproduced an early error in measurement and failed to spot by eye the difference between fourteen and seventeen feet.)
For my part, I would like to consider how the pose and three-dimensionality of the figure help to project the story the statue tells.
The way David stands seems to be motivated by three factors. First, the pose with weight distributed asymmetrically onto one foot is an allusion to classical Greek statuary, which famously exploited this contrapposto effect to achieve naturalism. The mastery of position and weight speaks of a sculptor’s ability but also of his understanding of how the human body achieves counterpoise. Second, the position of the legs and the exaggeration of the pose might be an indication of where Michelangelo had to work around prior damage done to the end or side of the block. Workmanship always requires accommodations to the material state of the medium. Third, and most important for my purposes, this David stands not as if taking decisive action against his loathsome foe, Goliath, but rather as if he is still considering, or reconsidering, his plan of action. The stance delivers the precise moment of the story, enabling a viewer familiar with the tale to imagine what must already have taken place and what will happen next, when David, done sizing up his target, starts to swing that stone.
When figural sculpture tells a story, it does so not only by showing us a protagonist, but also by implying a fictional setting around that figure, an extension of the statue’s virtual world into our actual space. By means of pose, the sculptor suggests relationships between his figure and unseen, unsculpted, unrealized elements that would occupy the viewer’s real environment if only the artist had created them, too.
For this reason, we see David, ready with sling over his shoulder, calmly staring off into the distance and (if we take the sculptor’s hint, appreciate the allusions, and adopt the illusion) we can imagine that off in the distance, wherever he is peering, stands Goliath. Perhaps we can even envision the Philistine army or the soldiers of Israel gathered to witness the imminent action. By making a concrete, highly realized depiction of part of a fictional world– a depiction of David– the sculptor renders accessible a broader world than the one he shows. If we fill in those details, then a virtual world arises from that ad hoc collaboration of viewer and artist anchored on the material artifact as it stands.
David doesn’t stand on the buttress of the cathedral, as some once intended, and that is to our advantage since the face, nearly twenty-three feet up, is large and legible. Trying to read its expression clarifies something else about the statue, and about every three-dimensional artwork: the fact that the statue is spatially extended means that how it appears to us depends on where we are relative to the work. As we move around the statue, what we see of it changes. The light falling on it calls out different details, and the shadows accentuate different contours. The relationships among the parts of the statue vary. Its outline changes shape.
This fact about statues is evident, for example, when we consider how David’s head looks from different angles:
As this comparison makes clear, the light’s emphasis on different details, the differential effect of shadows, the changing relationships among parts, and variations in line and outline can change not just the look but the meaning of the work.
From one angle, David appears serene and confident. From another, cautious and tentative. From a third, downright worried. The confident forehead seen in profile becomes a brow knuckled with anxiety when viewed directly. Eyes that seem masterful when gazing from deep shadow seem distraught when fully illuminated.
The three-dimensionality of sculpture ensures that the artist wields limited control over a range of possible meanings. As viewers, our good faith interpretation is constrained not only by our grasp of what the artist materially created, and by the extended fiction he implies, but also by the variations in these that arise as we– also spatially extended– walk around the statue and perceive it from many vantages.
Sculptors of the Renaissance knew this and took these variables into account when fashioning their works. But it was the Baroque sculptor Bernini who first thematized these factors as the chief point of his work. His contribution is easy to see in his own version of the same subject, David. Here, Bernini selects a different moment from the story. Done with prayer and planning, Bernini’s David is not only ready for action but coiled like a spring as he strikes his death blow.
Now the shepherd-king of Israel is a man of potential about to be realized. With feet far apart, he twists back to the right and reaches far back to ready the sling. Because of his extreme torsion, his left shoulder nearly occludes his face from view. Character seems deemphasized and we behold instead the visual rhyme of left arm and right leg, the long punctuated line from head to left foot. But then, that is a matter of perspective!
From a different angle, Bernini’s statue is all about David’s character, his confidence, his determination to make good on his threat as he steps out in faith.
Perhaps that’s not a face that’s liable to change as we pass around the statue. But Bernini has other transformations in mind. For our trip leftward toward the face creates another view, less exaggerated and emphatic, and that view, in turn, gives way to a David entirely columnar.
The sprawling, kinetic windmill of a man gives way to a man of taut, compact action. The face nearly erased in a whirl of motion now takes pride of place as nose, elbow, and knee point the way toward the enemy.
Figural sculpture has always had this characteristic simply by dint of being spatially extended, and sculptors in every era and culture that produced representational sculpture have exploited it. Yes, it’s true that Bernini could do nearly anything with stone. But with any such art, manual skill at crafting a form collaborates with conceptual deftness at projecting a possible world.
This is why statues were early and often the focus of religious ceremony and devotion. This is why kings and emperors of old preferred to have themselves shown in three-dimensional form. This is why even a famous polyptych such as Mathis Neithardt’s Isenheim altarpiece, now celebrated for its complex array of painted predella and hinged panel upon hinged panel, has as its intended climax a neglected sculptural work by the nearly forgotten artist Nicolas Hagenau. When it was made, the altarpiece addressed an audience that still felt the power of sculpture to invoke presence in a way that painting, for that audience, could not.
The diegesis is the described virtual world, the showing that complements the telling, the projection that puts virtual flesh on narrative and characterization. With a nod to Hopkins, diegesis is the landscape that circulates into and out of the inscape.
And this fact points to my first conclusion. As a matter of cultural habit, we tend to think of cinema, of film, as the natural descendent of painting by way of photography. After all, both paintings and movies are made up of two-dimensional pictures! But as a matter of how we experience the media, this is incorrect. The movies are the natural descendent of sculpture.
The camera, our proxy, moves around and among the three-dimensional entities that constitute a scene. The choices of how to do this and of what to notice are mostly removed from the viewer and placed into the trusted hands of the director, but the mechanism– if not the technology– is analogous. The way the camera moves — exposing new details, making evident the transformations induced by light and shadow, bringing us closer in, and framing new lines and rhymes — is like the way we might move around a Michelangelo or a Bernini as we explore the range of possible meanings materially enabled by the sculptor’s choices and practice.
It is no coincidence that cinema arose in relation to theater, which has cultic roots in ancient Egypt and Greece, those lands of the figural cult statue. And if Baroque sculpture is a parent of theater and film, then archaic drama and Sumerian votive statues are their remote ancestors. The differences are many, but the kinship is unmistakable once noticed. Statues have a special power to bring the virtual world and the actual world of the teller and hearers into contact: real and virtual converge on the sculpture because it is at once part of the fact and part of the fiction. This is why religious statues, in particular, have been the object of iconoclastic destruction, and why, in destroying them, iconoclasts have often not just broken them but gouged out their eyes. By importing the virtual world into our actual space, statues transport our active imagination into their virtual space. Likewise and in every way more emphatically, film shares this power to physically engage us and thereby mentally transport us.
In my next few posts, I’ll examine what this fact suggests about the nature of art and the constitutive role that viewers have always played in the development of its meanings and value. Until then, rock on.