Florence's Accademia: The Temple of David

By Rick Steves

The Accademia Gallery in Florence is a temple of humanism. At the high altar stands the perfect man, Michelangelo's colossal statue of David. Like a Renaissance statue of liberty, it represents humankind finally stepping out of medieval darkness and declaring I can do it.

Inside the gallery, six unfinished statues, brute bodies fighting with the rock, line the nave leading to David. David's feet are at a level just above the sea of tourists' heads. Round arches and a round dome are architectural halos celebrating the triumph of man. Ushers collect an offering of admission tickets. People only whisper. Like soundbite prayer candles, cameras flash. Couples hold each other tighter in his presence — eyes fixed on David.

The scene is black and white under a sky light. You don't miss the color. You wouldn't want color. David's white marble body is beyond color. David is beyond gender.

David is fundamentally human. People from all nations look up at him. Tight-skirted girls who'd cause commotion in the streets go unnoticed as macho men fold their hands. Kamikaze sightseers pause. Tired tourists see the "sure you can" in his eyes. And students commune with Michelangelo on their sketch pads.

David makes the entire congregation feel unfit to dust his pedestal. People are puny. You get small as you approach the altar. In the pews the miserable Prisoners sculptures, wading wearily through murky darkness, bend their heads under the hard truth of their mortality. Michelangelo's black bust sits sadly in the corner looking at the floor, ignored by his fans. In spite of his success in sculpting David, Michelangelo looks distraught, wart on his furled brow...his mortality exaggerated in the shadow of his towering creation.

Tour guides say the Prisoners are coming to life. But maybe they re dying, wearily accepting an inevitable defeat. They were intended for the unfinishable tomb of Pope Julius II — remembered today only for his oversized ego.

Julius is history, the prisoners bow their heads, and Michelangelo's chisel is lost. Only David stands high, saying in marble eloquence, that life on earth — no matter how grand — is just an overrated speed bump. Michelangelo intended to show the soul imprisoned in the body. While the Prisoners' legs and heads disappear into the rock, their chests heave and their bellies shine.

Looking for help, I tell the woman next to me, "Each belly is finished, as if it was Michelangelo's target...the handhold of the soul."

Without missing a beat, she replies, "That's the epigastric area. When you die, this stays warmest longest. It's where your soul exits your body." Carla, a nurse from Idaho, lowers her point-and-shoot to continue, "And the antecubital space is perfectly correct."

"Anti-what?" I ask, surprised by this clinical approach to David.

"That's the space inside the elbow. He'd be a great IV start. Look at those veins. They're perfect. And the sternocleidomastoid muscle — the big one here..." she explains, running four slender fingers from her ear to the center of her Florence tee-shirt, "It's just right. The other ones don't have it. Check out the next room. It's like a mortuary."

Carla leads me through the next room. It's grotesque...like God's spare parts room, filled with mask-like faces he decided not to breathe life into.

Back with David, Carla's travel partner — still busily squinting into binoculars — asks, "How was it?" Prying away the binoculars, Carla reports, "A cheesy garden-shop collection of yard ornaments."

Burrowed deep into the binoculars for a slow head-to-toe pan, Carla shares her discoveries. "You can still see the drill holes under his bangs. There's a tiny chip under his eye...sharp lips...yeow."

Her friend Anne-Marie muses, "Back then they made the women buxom and the men buff."

Still working her way down with the binocs, Carla dreams aloud, "They should make that pedestal revolve. Pop in a coin...360 slow-moving degrees of David. He's very anatomically correct...not as moving as the Pietà...but really real."

I say, "He feels confident facing Goliath."

Anne-Marie pipes up, "Well, he's standing there naked so he must be pretty confident." Turning to Carla, she observes, "The ears are ugly. And the pubic hair's not quite right. They always say to check out the fingers if you wonder about the other appendages, so what's the deal?"

Carla explains, "The guidebook says that's supposed to be the hand of God. You can't measure David by the hand of God."

Settling back into a more worshipful frame of mind, Anne-Marie ponders out loud, "The Bible says he was about 12 or 14."

Carla, still lost in her binoculars, responds, "This is no 14-year-old."

Seeing the guards begin ushering people out, I whisper "Ciao" and drift away from the nurses. I need a few extra minutes to do my annual slow walk around David.

For 500 years, David has stood tall, alone, and just about ready for a haircut, encouraging mortals, turning tourists into pilgrims, and shining light on darkness.