Why is Michelangelo’s David naked?

A question that my guests often ask me is, “Why is Michelangelo’s David naked?”

Even if nudity in art should not surprise us, many find it shocking or improper. I am sure you’ve heard of the shocking case of an American school principal who showed the image of Michelangelo’s David in class during an art history lesson and got fired for exposing children to pornography.

Whatever  your reaction might be to nudity in art, it is important to understand why Michelangelo chose to represent his David naked and why figures like heroes, saints, and deities are pictured nude in art. 

Ancient models for the Renaissance

The most immediate answer to the question “Why Michelangelo’s David is nude?” is that David is a masterpiece of Renaissance art, and he represents a Renaissance hero. During the Renaissance period, starting in the early 15th century, artists started to study and analyse classical sculptures more carefully, taking them as models for their artistic production. Works like the Apollo Belvedere and the Belvedere Torso inspired artists’ imaginations and were imitated in their art. Michelangelo was no exception!

Apollo Belvedere, Musei vaticani
Apollo Belvedere, 2nd half of the 2nd century AD, Musei Vaticani. Photo: Livioandronico2013.

There is no doubt that the models for Michelangelo’s David were the ancient statues of athletes and heroes. But why were these figures represented nude in Classical art?

Ancient statuary

Already in archaic Greek art  statues representing boys (koúroi) are nude. Nudity was used to show off a perfect male body suitable for athletic activity and the art of war; moreover, it was a sign of both external and internal perfection.

In the ancient times physical care was fundamental; athletic activity was also a crucial experience in a man’s growth. Showing naked bodies was something natural: there was nothing shameful in revealing what  was part of human nature. Obviously, in a male-dominated society, as in ancient times, these principles only applied to male bodies. Let us also remember that the ancient Olympics (the most important religious festivals that included athletic competitions) saw many young, naked male athletes competing. During these competitions  physical perfection and strength were exalted and highlighted.

Kouros del Sunio, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Atene
Sounion Kouros, end of the 8th century BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

The ancient sculptor Polykleitos, active during the 5th century BC in Athens, carved several statues of young, nude athletes. His figures represent beauty and physical strength. In order to convey this idea in an efficient and straightforward way, the artist elaborated the principles applied to the construction of a perfect human figure. Polykleitos studied human bodies and elaborated its ideal image based on symmetrical, numerical, and proportional relationships between its various parts. Thus, Polykleitos’s statues express majesty, strength, vitality, and a sense of vigorous movement. At the same time the figures are balanced and harmonious. A classic example of these principles is the copy of Polykleitos’s famous Doryphoros.

Policleto, Doriforo, copia romana
Roman copy from PolykleitosDoryphoros, mid-5th century BC, Archaeological Museum, Naples, photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen.

As you can see, in Polykleitos’s art the human figure is not represented as it is found in nature, but as an ideal body. It’s an abstract expression of a perfect beauty.

Who is a hero?

If we want to better understand these artistic values applied to the male body, we should dig a bit deeper into the archaic Greek culture and mentality. Many helpful references emerge from the most famous literary sources of the time, namely the Homeric myths and poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The most famous mythological hero worshipped in Ancient Greece was Heracles. We’ve all heard of him! Heracles is full of vigour and has no rivals. He proves his heroic qualities through the “twelve labours” he faces. Heracles as a semi-divine hero is born robust and strong. Everything in him must be extraordinary and great, since the ordinary does not suit a hero. The twelve labours allow him to affirm his heroic status: his strength, courage and his virility. Furthermore, in his travels, Heracles offers help to others. He proves himself as a hero by eliminating monsters and threats. He frees the world from the dangers that undermine civilization. Thus, he restores order. Isn’t this what today’s superheroes do? Batman, Superman, or Aquaman? In fact, Heracles is the model for our modern superheroes, so popular in today’s mass culture.

Ercole Farnese, Museo Archeologico, Napoli
Glykon,  Farnese Hercules, 3rd century AD, Archaeological Museum, Naples, photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen.

The Greek hero is, however, an ambiguous figure. Heracles is in fact a hero of excess: he is vengeful; he is blinded by anger. He kills without pondering the consequences of his choices. Heracles is the hero of the myth, he belongs to an age that lacked the values of civil life, political organization, and laws.

The Homeric poems

To better understand the idea of the hero, we can also rely on the Homeric poems. As Luciano Canfora put it: “European culture begins with the Iliad and the Odyssey“.

Before the development of the Greek society of the poleis, which guaranteed the collaboration between the citizens for the common good of the community, ancient Greek society was based on competition.  Every male was asked to “always be the first and the best of all ”. He needed to be the winner and to assert his honour (timé) through courage and physical strength.

Through Homeric descriptions of warriors’ deeds we understand the qualities required of  heroes. First of all, every hero is a warrior, he has a warrior’s virtue (areté). His three fundamental virtues are: physical strength, courage, and the wise use of the word as an instrument of power. The hero is overbearing, violent, sometimes cruel; he is also seized with anger. He fights for his own glory, rather than for his country.

Michelangelo’s David like Achilles and Hector

The best example of this model is certainly Achilles, who does not accept that anyone diminishes his value and who takes revenge to restore his offended honour.

Another famous example of a hero is his rival Hector: to his wife who begs him not to go into battle in order to save himself from certain death, he replies with these words:

“I too am concerned, but if I hid from the fight like a coward, I would be shamed before all the Trojans and their wives in their trailing robes. Nor is it my instinct, since I have always striven to excel in the vanguard of the battle, seeking to win great glory for my father and myself.”

In the so-called “society of shame” for the Homeric man there is always the fear that one’s actions will be disapproved of by others, by the community: it is the others who control and judge the behaviour of a man. So it is not so much what a man is,  as how he appears to others and the opinion that others have of him. For this reason Hector does not want to run from war. In addition, he has learned to always be the best, to be a warrior who always shows his valour, honour, and warrior’s strength.

Cassandra offre una libagione ad Ettore
Eretria Painter, Cassandra offers libation to Hector, painting on a red-figure vase, 5th century BC, Fondazione Ettore Pomarici Santomasi, Gravina in Puglia, photo: Jastrow.

Another characteristic of the hero is that he must be “Kalós kái agathós”, i.e. beautiful and good: the strength and vigour of the body, for the Greek world, must necessarily be accompanied by the beauty of the soul, i.e. warrior virtue, as external beauty, is a mirror of the internal one.

It is no coincidence that in the Iliad the heroes are always accompanied by descriptions of their beauty and cleanliness, of their splendour; their armour is always shiny and clean, even in the midst of the dust of the battlefield. The presentation of Achilles as he prepares to kill Hector is a clear example of this principle:

“And Achilles rushed upon him, his heart full of savage wrath, and before his breast he made a covering of his shield, fair and richly-dight, and tossed his bright four-horned helm; and fair about it waved the plumes wrought of gold, that Hephaestus had set thick about the crest. As a star goeth forth amid stars in the darkness of night, the star of evening, that is set in heaven as the fairest of all;”

Achilles can only appear in his full splendour. Also significant are the words with which the narrator of the Iliad describes Hector, killed by Achilles, dragged by the tendons of his feet from a chariot:

“And from Hector as he was dragged, the dust rose up, and on either side his dark hair flowed outspread, and all in the dust lay the head that was before so fair;”

The desire to wreak havoc on Hector’s body leads Achilles to carry out an act that deprives the Trojan hero of his honour: soiling, sullying his hair and his “once beautiful” head with dust really means tarnishing Hector’s heroic state.

In the Iliad, in order to clearly outline the figure of the hero, the model of the anti-hero is also presented: Thersites.

“Evil-favoured was he beyond all men that came to Ilios: he was bandy-legged and lame in the one foot, and his two shoulders were rounded, stooping together over his chest, and above them his head was warped, and a scant stubble grew thereon. Hateful was he to Achilles above all, and to Odysseus, (…)”

The representation of Thersites is a specular reversal of the hero: he cannot be a skilled warrior due to the imperfections of his body; he is not good in that he is not beautiful and valiant, moreover he is “very hateful” because, as the narrator later explains, as a coward proposes to abandon the battlefield, and with his impudent words he does not respect his superiors. So here is the portrait of the anti-hero par excellence.

Other heroes: Odysseus and Aeneas

In addition to the heroes of the Iliad, there are also other hero models. The protagonist of the Odyssey is the multifaceted Odysseus (or Ulysses), gifted with the art of speech and ingenuity. In Roman civilization the hero par excellence is the progenitor of the Romans, Aeneas, who combines virtues (courage and military valour, a set of superior physical, intellectual and moral qualities) with pietas, or respect, devotion and obedience to the homeland, the gods and the mission entrusted to him by fate. Aeneas is also a man torn between obedience to the will of fate and his own desires as a human being.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Enea e Anchise, Galleria Borghese, Roma
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius, 1618, Galleria Borghese, Rome, photo: Sailko.

He therefore represents another model of hero than that of the Greek epic tradition. Michelangelo’s David is also built through the recovery of the intellectual and moral qualities of the Roman heroes.

The saint: from the classical hero to the Christian hero

With the spread of Christianity some pagan values are kept and adapted. The pagan hero, who fights against human and monstrous enemies, thus becomes the martyr who defends the faith, and then the saint. For the martyr and the saint, the body and its beauty are not important, as what really matters is the professing of faith.

The saints and martyrs, through their cult and hagiography meet the need of believers to find models of faith to follow and be inspired by. The saints then embody the values of brotherly love professed by Christianity.

Donatello, San Giorgio, Bargello
Donatello, Saint George, 1415-1417, Bargello, Florence, photo: Rufus46.

In the Renaissance, with the recovery of the classical statuary model, saints and martyrs, or biblical heroes who defeat monsters or giants, are often presented as victorious warriors or naked athletes. Just think of Donatello’s Saint George for Orsanmichele in Florence or, in this case, Michelangelo’s David.

Why is Michelangelo’s David naked?

Therefore, Michelangelo’s David takes from all these models and unites them all. David’s perfect body, recreated with astonishing anatomical precision, is the beautiful body of Achilles, Heracles and Hector. His beauty reflects his inner perfection and virtue. David, like Aeneas, is a man of superior physical, intellectual, and moral qualities. At the same time David is like a saint: he defeated Goliath as St. George defeated the dragon. In fact, with his victory David saved the people of Israel.

cosa visitare a firenze in 4 giorni
Michelangelo Buonarroti, David (copy), 1501-1504.

Why is Michelangelo’s David naked? Because in the artist’s vision, the classical, heroic ideal could coexist with Christian iconography and thought. David is naked because he is ideal: brave, strong, virtuous, just, morally impeccable, and his victories glorify God.

Michelangelo’s David as a superhero

Every era has its heroes, and in Western civilization the model that carries forward the ancient model of the hero is the superhero codified by literature and, perhaps above all, by comics and cinema. Who else are Spiderman or Batman if not beings of extraordinary quality and physical strength, who fight monsters and villains to free the world from dangers, to restore order? Being heroes of modernity, however, they do not indulge in anger and revenge: in an orderly world in which justice must triumph, they also represent a model of morality.

What other characteristics of classical heroes do superheroes have? Like the ancient heroes, today’s superheroes’ outward appearance must mirror their inner perfection: they are always beautiful, tidy, and clean, with a perfect and immaculate uniform or mask. Have you ever seen a movie superhero with unkempt hair?

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