Arts Desk

Vitamin A: Michelangelo’s David-Apollo

Occasional considerations of a piece of art on view in town.

Ahh… Michelangelo. After living in Rome and spending days seated in San Pietro in Vincoli drawing Michelangelo's Moses, it is invigorating to be able to freely walk into a place and see another Michelangelo marble. (Then again, that's the joy of the National Gallery and the Smithsonian: freely walking in.) David-Apollo has been in town since December, and he's worth paying a visit.

First, let's ignore the description of this figure as an Apollo. Yeah, Giorgio Vasari might have written it, but this is from a guy whose first sentence on Michelangelo is about as long as everything he wrote about all three Bellinis in his book Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. During the Renaissance, it wasn't uncommon for sculptors to carve youthful Apollos. But if he is reaching for an arrow from a quiver, that quiver must be stitched to his back. There isn't a shoulder strap to be found.

Then also consider that his foot rests on a curved mass. It is a head beneath his foot: just a hint of a nose and eye socket, but it is still a head. And David's hand, locked against his thigh: why would it angle so if it weren't clutching something?

Artists, like general audiences, enjoy finished pieces. And with Michelangelo, the joy of his finished pieces is knowing the only thing his chisel lacked was the breath of God; otherwise, they would be walking among us. The real pleasure of David-Apollo is what the rough work tells us. For students 500 years later, looking at the rough forms of the unfinished work tells us something about technique, process, and the gradual unveiling of information.

David-Apollo is on view at the National Gallery of Art to March 3.

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