The Collector
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The Collector

The Beauty of Opposition

A reflection on Michelangelo’s David, nation building, and cosmopolitanism.

Michelangelo’s David often reminds me of Percy Shelley’s haunting Ozymandias. In the landscape of my imagination, the statues of the two kings stand side-by-side. And, while the historical Ozymandias and David may have not much in common beyond their kingship, their statues thread together a continuity from which a unique idea of value and political seeds spring.

Shelley’s imposing monarch is a pile of rubble, whose shattered visage was meant to stare down the peasant poor and powerful alike. The words of Ozymandias echo no more, but are discovered, passive and meek, at the mercy of a curious wanderer.

David, on the other hand, is the icon at the center of the heraldry of the underdog. Michelangelo did not depict David in his kingly attire or royal glory, but chose to immortalize in marble casing the boy’s confrontation with Goliath. It has been suggested elsewhere that the sculpture is a product of the political environment of Florence, where it was commissioned, and where it was meant to rest; on the roof line of the Florentine cathedral. Instead the David was installed in a public square outside of the Palazzo Vecchio– the seat of Florentine government.

Whereas Shelley’s Ozymandias bears a “sneer of cold command”, David fashions an expression of distress and focus and, most of importantly, opposition. Indeed it is opposition that defines the ‘sneer’ of David as one of defiance– not royal condescension.

In the early 16th century the primary threat to Florentine independence was the papacy and the Medici (Florence’s old ruling family), who having synthesized in the figure of Giovanni d’Medici, pope Leo X, would conquer Florence only a decade or so after David was finished and placed outside of the Palazzo. To learn, then, that the statue’s gaze was fixated towards Rome, captures the imagination and with a broad stroke paints a picture of early republicanism, political independence, and of opposition. Michelangelo’s David turns out to be a goldmine for semiotic analysis.

Not only could it send a message to the Pope and the Medici, but it did so through the image of a holy king. Florence turns scripture, and a mirror, back towards the face of the Rome. The statue is a beautiful symbol for the defense of political autonomy, a hammer to the papacy’s monopoly over cultural iconography, and a blatant statement of resistance against a homogenizing power that threatened the independence of the republic. However, while David’s design, “In defense of his people… in contradistinction to previous Davids — with a waiting, watchful, half-tensed potency toward the foe”¹, supports this interpretation, it is worthwhile to note that this particular understanding of the statue may have been given after its creation. The potent suggestions of tyrannicide that David seems to ooze are tempting to pick up, especially considering Florence’s turbulent history. However, as historians have pointed out, to attribute this meaning to the work would be only as an act of analogy, not one based on historical documents².

Certainly, however, citizens would have pondered the meaning of this colossus, which now furbished the public square. Machiavelli, shortly after the installation of David writes in The Prince about the virtue of David. He comments, in Of auxiliary, mixed, and citizen soldiers, on how the young David refused Saul’s armor, instead opting to confront Goliath with his own sling and knife. Machiavelli appropriates the story to mythify his own political project: a Florentine militia that dispenses from reliance on mercenaries or foreign powers.

In The Federalist №2, John Jay writes that “nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government”. The mythology on which Jay relies to make this claim is that of an apparently “united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion… fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war.” Nothing seems as anachronistic or antithetical to the modern myth of United States as the Federalist’s regrettable, but efficient, words. Nevertheless, Jay’s masterclass in nation building translates nicely into our conception of David. The religious icon, similarly to St. George in England, will be appropriated as a sort of patron saint or defender of the patria and made to embody a certain political connotation which glorifies the state. The history and character of Florence itself, in all of its glorious aestheticism and turbulent disposition, is incarnate within the sneer of David.

Though the richness of subtext may only be a mask of many, I am not above relishing on it. As a cosmopolite, the challenge of creating value without the fundamental myths of the tribe is one that I take very seriously. And, Michelangelo’s colossus retains transcendent interpretations; so I find myself in the same position as Machiavelli, happily appropriating David for my own philosophical machinations.

David today can be seen as a sort of proto-Gadsen– an icon or insignia for political assertiveness which is yet to be bastardized by the conservative or reactionary sphere. Liberal cosmopolitanism could use a symbol to represent its unique goals– rights are to be defended universally, not only in theory, but with the courage of one who faces a Goliath.

Additional credits:

Jörg Bittner Unna, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Commonists, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


1: “The Placement of Michelangelo’s David: A Review of the Documents” by N. Randolph Parks. The Art Bulletin , Dec., 1975, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 560-570.

2:“New Evidence for the Iconography of David in Quattrocento Florence”, by Andrew Butterfield.I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance , 1995, Vol. 6 (1995), pp. 115-133.



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Essayist and second rate bard.