Messed Up Marble

By February 1, 2017 3 Comments

I spent the past month with Calvin College students studying Dante’s Divine Comedy in Florence. Of course, whatever one is studying, no visit to Florence is complete without a visit to Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia. Replicated everywhere one looks—from expected items like small plaster statues and t-shirts to the less tasteful (if touristy baubles are ever tasteful) “crouch shot” which adorns underwear and aprons displayed in front of tourist shops—the David is nevertheless one tourist attraction that does not disappoint.

Situated under a beautifully lit dome located majestically at the end of a long gallery, the David is breathtaking in its grandeur and in its celebration of the human form. Everyone in my group—including folks who had been to the Accademia before—were wowed by the scale of the artistry.

And yet, our guide Anna focused on the many “imperfections” of the David: the too-big hand, the imperfections in the proportions of the body, the overly large head, the tree stump behind one of David’s legs. She talked about all the ways that the statue shouldn’t actually work.

Like viewers since Michelangelo’s time, I can’t say we were very convinced. From our vantage (and yes, perspective is key), he looked pretty amazing.

But maybe more importantly, she told us about why some of these “imperfections” existed. It turns out that Michelangelo wasn’t the first sculptor commissioned to undertake the David. Instead, the folks who were in charge of the Duomo, Florence’s cathedral, contracted a guy named Agostino di Duccio in 1464. He was supposed to make the statue as one of a series of pieces that would go into alcoves around the church, high above the ground.  For 2 years, di Duccio hacked away at the enormous piece of Carrara marble that the city had procured for the project. But he didn’t finish—and he claimed the marble wasn’t very good. A decade later, another guy, Antonio Rossellino, was given a whack. And although his contract was terminated quickly, he too complained about the quality of the marble.

For the next 25 years, then, the disfigured piece of marble stood outside. When in 1501 the 26 year old Michelangelo set to work on one of his very first commissions, he started with some pretty serious problems. An inventory of the Duomo’s holdings described the piece as “a certain figure of marble called David, badly blocked out and supine.” How could Michelangelo create something when the starting materials were so badly damaged by the incompetence of others? Why bother?

For two years, Michelangelo labored in secret to create his David. A David different from other Renaissance renderings in that his David stands steel-eyed and ready, right before his battle with Goliath—as opposed to so many other statues of David which feature him post-battle, with Goliath’s head under David’s foot.  Yes, Michelangelo had to add a tree stump to give di Duccio’s badly begun leg sufficient support. And yes, there were other accommodations as well that surely disappointed Michelangelo.

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Donatello’s David

But as I heard this story of the inauspicious beginning of one of the world’s acknowledged masterpieces, I felt enormously hopeful—an emotion not in great evidence in recent weeks. How encouraging to think that with the right artist at work in our lives, our bad beginnings—even the wounding, seemingly disfiguring “cuts” made by circumstances and by other people—aren’t the last word. And that even neglected for many years, something beautiful can always still emerge.


I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.


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