Michelangelo, Interrupted

An unfinished statue prompts questions about the artist’s intent

January 17, 2013

Michelangelo’s enigmatic “David-Apollo” is on view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Gallery.

We all have days when we fail at multitasking. Michelangelo could relate.

The Renaissance man — who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — left unchecked items on his to-do list. His never-finished circa-1530 marble statue “David-Apollo,” on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 3, is a testament to a harried life.

“More than half of Michelangelo’s marble works were not finished,” says Alison Luchs, the museum’s curator of early European sculpture. “He would take on huge amounts of work and be carving several things at once. Evidence suggests he intended to finish them, but he kept getting assigned a new project or having to transfer his place of work.”

“David-Apollo” is also open to interpretation, which is why it has two names. Some scholars believe it was intended to represent David, the mythical figure who killed the giant Goliath; others believe it is the Greek god Apollo. It’s possible Michelangelo never decided which of the figures he was carving, Luchs says: “It may have started as one and was changing into the other.”

Backstory

Brought here as part of the events connected to 2013’s “Year of Italian Culture” (see box below for details) and on loan from Florence’s Bargello museum, “David-Apollo” is a repeat guest in the West Gallery. The statue was previously on view at the National Gallery of Art in 1949, in a display that coincided with President Harry Truman’s inauguration. Nearly 800,000 people viewed the work then (including, presumably, Truman, whose inaugural reception was held there Jan. 20, 1949).

Open to Interpretation


The sculpture’s texture reveals its unfinished quality.

Even on areas that appear lifelike, such as the face, the sculpture’s texture signals that the work is incomplete. The “wonderful veil of chisel marks” (which ultimately would have been polished away) offers a glimpse into Michelangelo’s artistic process, curator Alison Luchs says. Yet, “David-Apollo” may have pleased the artist even at this stage. “You get a sense that he really loved seeing [his sculptures] in the state of becoming,” Luchs says, “seeing figures emerging from the rough stone … when they were still full of possibilities.”

If this were meant to represent David, the mass under the figure’s right foot could have been taking shape as the head of a vanquished Goliath.

The mass on “David-Apollo’s” back could have been a quiver to hold arrows (if this were to be Apollo) or a sling (for David). Around the time Michelangelo created “David-Apollo,” his allegiances were divided: He had strong ties to on-again-off-again Florentine rulers the Medici (one of their allies had commissioned the work), yet he had also supported the city’s rebels, for whom David was a key symbol.

2013: The Year of Italian Culture

“David-Apollo” is in town as part of an Italian-sponsored series of programming across the U.S. and Italy. About 70 U.S. institutions in more than 40 cities are featuring events and displays celebrating Italy’s art, music, film, scientific achievements and more. Washingtonians can look forward to many more Italian-accented events throughout the year, including these scheduled exhibitions: Leonardo da Vinci’s 1505 “Codex on the Flight of Birds” at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in May; Rome’s classical “The Dying Gaul” statue at the National Gallery of Art in October; and a multimedia exhibit about Martin Waldseemuller’s 1507 world map, which was the first to feature “America” (named after Italian Amerigo Vespucci), at the Library of Congress in December.

National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; free, through March 3; 202-737-4215. (Archives)
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