David is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture created in marble between 1501 and 1504 by Michelangelo. David is a 5.17-metre (17.0 ft)[a]marble statue of a standing male nude. The statue represents the Biblical hero David, a favored subject in the art of Florence.
David was originally commissioned as one of a series of statues of prophets to be positioned along the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral, but was instead placed in a public square, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of civic government in Florence, in the Piazza della Signoria where it was unveiled on September 8, 1504.
Because of the nature of the hero it represented, the statue soon came to symbolize the defence of civil liberties embodied in the Republic of Florence, an independent city-state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states and by the hegemony of the Medici family. The eyes of David, with a warning glare, were turned towards Rome. The statue was moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, in 1873, and later replaced at the original location by a replica.
The history of the statue begins before Michelangelo's work on it from 1501 to 1504. Prior to Michelangelo's involvement, the Overseers of the Office of Works of Florence Cathedral, consisting mostly of members of the influential woolen cloth guild, the Arte della Lana, had plans to commission a series of twelve large Old Testament sculptures for the buttresses of the cathedral. In 1410 Donatello made the first of the statues, a figure of Joshua in terracotta. A figure of Hercules, also in terracotta, was commissioned from the Florentine sculptor Agostino di Duccio in 1463 and was made perhaps under Donatello's direction. Eager to continue their project, in 1464, the Operai contracted Agostino to create a sculpture of David. A block of marble was provided from a quarry in Carrara, a town in the Apuan Alps in northern Tuscany. Agostino only got as far as beginning to shape the legs, feet and the torso, roughing out some drapery and probably gouging a hole between the legs. His association with the project ceased, for reasons unknown, with the death of Donatello in 1466, and ten years later Antonio Rossellino was commissioned to take up where Agostino had left off.
Rossellino's contract was terminated soon thereafter, and the block of marble remained neglected for 26 years, all the while exposed to the elements in the yard of the cathedral workshop. This was of great concern to the Opera authorities, as such a large piece of marble not only was costly but represented a large amount of labour and difficulty in its transportation to Florence. In 1500, an inventory of the cathedral workshops described the piece as "a certain figure of marble called David, badly blocked out and supine." A year later, documents showed that the Operai were determined to find an artist who could take this large piece of marble and turn it into a finished work of art. They ordered the block of stone, which they called The Giant, "raised on its feet" so that a master experienced in this kind of work might examine it and express an opinion. Though Leonardo da Vinci and others were consulted, it was Michelangelo, only 26 years old, who convinced the Operai that he deserved the commission. On 16 August 1501, Michelangelo was given the official contract to undertake this challenging new task. He began carving the statue early in the morning on 13 September, a month after he was awarded the contract. He would work on the massive statue for more than two years.
On 25 January 1504, when the sculpture was nearing completion, Florentine authorities had to acknowledge there would be little possibility of raising the more than six-ton statue to the roof of the cathedral. They convened a committee of 30 Florentine citizens that comprised many artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, to decide on an appropriate site for David. While nine different locations for the statue were discussed, the majority of members seem to have been closely split between two sites. One group, led by Giuliano da Sangallo and supported by Leonardo and Piero di Cosimo, among others, believed that, due to the imperfections in the marble, the sculpture should be placed under the roof of the Loggia dei Lanzi on Piazza della Signoria; the other group thought it should stand at the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria, the city's town hall (now known as Palazzo Vecchio). Another opinion, supported by Botticelli, was that the sculpture should be situated on or near the cathedral. In June 1504, David was installed next to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, replacing Donatello's bronze sculpture of Judith and Holofernes, which embodied a comparable theme of heroic resistance. It took four days to move the statue the half mile from Michelangelo's workshop into the Piazza della Signoria. Later that summer the sling and tree-stump support were gilded, and the figure was given a gilded loin-garland.
In 1873, the statue of David was removed from the piazza, to protect it from damage, and displayed in the Accademia Gallery, Florence, where it attracted many visitors. A replica was placed in the Piazza della Signoria in 1910.
In 1991, a mentally disturbed artist named Piero Cannata attacked the statue with a hammer he had concealed beneath his jacket; in the process of damaging the toes of the left foot, he was restrained.
On 12 November 2010, a fiberglass replica of the David was installed on the roofline of Florence Cathedral, for one day only. Photographs of the installation reveal the statue the way the Operai who commissioned the work originally expected it to be seen.
In 2010, a dispute over the ownership of David arose when, based on a legal review of historical documents, the municipality of Florence claimed ownership of the statue in opposition to the Italian Culture Ministry, which disputes the municipality claim.
In the mid 1800s, small cracks were noticed on the left leg on David which can possibly be attributed to an uneven sinking of the ground under the massive statue.
The pose of Michelangelo's David is unlike that of earlier Renaissance depictions of David. The bronze statues by Donatello and Verrocchio represented the hero standing victorious over the head of Goliath, and the painter Andrea del Castagno had shown the boy in mid-swing, even as Goliath's head rested between his feet, but no earlier Florentine artist had omitted the giant altogether. According to Helen Gardner and other scholars, David is depicted before his battle with Goliath. Instead of being shown victorious over a foe much larger than he, David looks tense and ready for combat.
The statue appears to show David after he has made the decision to fight Goliath but before the battle has actually taken place, a moment between conscious choice and action. His brow is drawn, his neck tense and the veins bulge out of his lowered right hand. His left hand holds a sling that is draped over his shoulder and down to his right hand, which holds a rock.  The twist of his body effectively conveys to the viewer the feeling that he is in motion, an impression heightened with contrapposto. The statue is a Renaissance interpretation of a common ancient Greek theme of the standing heroic male nude. In the High Renaissance, contrapposto poses were thought of as a distinctive feature of antique sculpture. This is typified in David, as the figure stands with one leg holding its full weight and the other leg forward. This classic pose causes the figure’s hips and shoulders to rest at opposing angles, giving a slight s-curve to the entire torso. The contrapposto is emphasised by the turn of the head to the left, and by the contrasting positions of the arms.
Michelangelo’s David has become one of the most recognized works of Renaissance sculpture, a symbol of strength and youthful beauty.
Just the colossal size of the statue impressed Michelangelo's contemporaries. Vasari described it as "certainly a miracle that of Michelangelo, to restore to life one who was dead," and then listed all of the largest and most grand of the ancient statues that he had ever seen, concluding that Michelangelo's work surpassed "all ancient and modern statues, whether Greek or Latin, that have ever existed."
The proportions of the David are atypical of Michelangelo's work; the figure has an unusually large head and hands (particularly apparent in the right hand). The small size of the genitals, though, is in line with his other works and with Renaissance conventions in general, perhaps referencing the ancient Greek ideal of pre-pubescent male nudity. These enlargements may be due to the fact that the statue was originally intended to be placed on the cathedral roofline, where the important parts of the sculpture may have been accentuated in order to be visible from below. The statue is unusually slender (front to back) in comparison to its height, which may be a result of the work done on the block before Michelangelo began carving it.
It is possible that the David was conceived as a political statue before Michelangelo began to work on it. Certainly David the giant-killer had long been seen as a political figure in Florence, and images of the Biblical hero already carried political implications there. Donatello's bronze David, made for the Medici family, perhaps c. 1440, had been appropriated by the Signoria in 1494, when the Medici were exiled from Florence, and the statue was installed in the courtyard of the Palazzo della Signoria, where it stood for the Republican government of the city. By placing Michelangelo's statue in the same general location, the Florentine authorities ensured that David would be seen as a political parallel as well as an artistic response to that earlier work. These political overtones led to the statue being attacked twice in its early days. Protesters pelted it with stones the year it debuted, and, in 1527, an anti-Medici riot resulted in its left arm being broken into three pieces.
Commentators have noted the presence on David's penis of his foreskin, which is at odds with the Judaic practice of circumcision, but is consistent with the conventions of Renaissance art.
During World War II, David was entombed in brick to protect it from damage from airborne bombs.
In 1991, the foot of the statue was damaged by a man with a hammer. The samples obtained from that incident allowed scientists to determine that the marble used was obtained from the Fantiscritti quarries in Miseglia, the central of three small valleys in Carrara. The marble in question contains many microscopic holes that cause it to deteriorate faster than other marbles. Because of the marble's degradation, from 2003 to 2004 the statue was given its first major cleaning since 1843. Some experts opposed the use of water to clean the statue, fearing further deterioration. Under the direction of Franca Falleti, senior restorers Monica Eichmann and Cinzia Parnigoni undertook the job of restoring the statue.
In 2008, plans were proposed to insulate the statue from the vibration of tourists' footsteps at Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia, to prevent damage to the marble.
Main article: Replicas of Michelangelo's David
David has stood on display at Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia since 1873. In addition to the full-sized replica occupying the spot of the original in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, a bronze version overlooks Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo. The plaster cast of David at the Victoria and Albert Museum has a detachable plaster fig leaf which is displayed nearby. Legend claims that the fig leaf was created in response to Queen Victoria's shock upon first viewing the statue's nudity, and was hung on the figure prior to royal visits, using two strategically placed hooks. In 2010, the Italian government began a campaign to solidify its claim to the iconic marble statue.
David has been endlessly reproduced, in plaster and imitation marble fibreglass, signifying an attempt to lend an atmosphere of culture even in some unlikely settings such as beach resorts, gambling casinos and model railroads.
- ^See, for example, Donatello's 2 versions of David; Verrocchio's bronze David; Domenico Ghirlandaio's painting of David; and Bartolomeo Bellano's bronze David.
- ^This theory was first proposed by Saul Levine "The Location of Michelangelo's David: The Meeting of January 25, 1504, The Art Bulletin 56 (1974): 31–49. See also J. Huston McCulloch, David: A New Perspective, (2007) accessed 13-02-2010
- ^The genesis of David was discussed in Seymour 1967 and in Coonin 2014.
- ^Charles Seymour, Jr. "Homo Magnus et Albus: the Quattrocento Background for Michelangelo's David of 1501–04," Stil und Überlieferung in der Kunst des Abendlandes, Berlin, 1967, II, 96–105.
- ^Seymour, 100–101.
- ^Giovanni Gaye, Carteggio inedito d'artisti del sec. XIV, XV, XVI, Florence: 1839–40, 2: 454 and Charles Seymour, Michelangelo's David: A Search for Identity, Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1967, 134–137, doc. 34.
- ^Gaetano Milanesi, Le lettere di Michelangelo Buonarroti pubblicati coi ricordi ed i contratti artistici, Florence, 1875, 620–623: "...the Consuls of the Arte della Lana and the Lords Overseers being met Overseers, have chosen as sculptor to the said Cathedral the worthy master, Michelangelo, the son of Lodovico Buonarrotti, a citizen of Florence, to the end that he may make, finish and bring to perfection the male figure known as the Giant, nine braccia in height, already blocked out in marble by Maestro Agostino grande, of Florence, and badly blocked; and now stored in the workshops of the Cathedral. The work shall be completed within the period and term of two years next ensuing, beginning from the first day of September next ensuing, with a salary and payment together in joint assembly within the hall of the said of six broad florins of gold in gold for every month. And for all other works that shall be required about the said building (edificium) the said Overseers bind themselves to supply and provide both men and scaffolding from their office and all else that may be necessary. When the said work and the said male figure of marble shall be finished, then the Consuls and Overseers who shall at that time be in authority shall judge whether it merits a higher reward, being guided therein by the dictates of their own consciences."
- ^The statue has not been weighed, but an estimate of its weight was circulated in 2004, when the statue was cleaned. See a CBS news report of 8 March 2004.
- ^The minutes of the meeting were published in Giovanni Gaye, Carteggio inedito d'artisti del sec. XIV, XV, XVI, Florence, 1839–40, 2: 454–463. For an English translation of the document, see Seymour, Michelangelo's David, 140–155 and for an analysis, see Saul Levine, "The Location of Michelangelo's David: The Meeting of January 25, 1504, Art Bulletin 56 (1974): 31–49; N. Randolph Parks, "The Placement of Michelangelo's David: A Review of the Documents," Art Bulletin, 57 (1975) 560–570; and Rona Goffen, Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, New Haven, 2002, 123–127.
- ^Coonin, 2014, pp. 90-94.
- ^Coonin, 2014.
- ^ ab"a man the police described as deranged, broke part of a toe with a hammer, saying a 16th century Venetian painter's model ordered him to do so." Cowell, Alan. "Michelangelo's David Is Damaged", New York Times, 1991-09-15. Retrieved on 2008-05-23.
- ^Rossella Lorenzi, Art lovers go nuts over dishy David, ABC Science, Monday, 21 November 2005
- ^"Michelangelo's David as It Was Meant to Be Seen : Discovery News". news.discovery.com. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
- ^Povoledo, Elisabetta (31 August 2010). "Who Owns Michelangelo's 'David'?". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 September 2010.
- ^Pisa, Nick (16 August 2010). "Florence vs Italy: Michelangelo's David at centre of ownership row". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 1 September 2010.
- ^A., Borri (2006). "Diagnostic analysis of the lesions and stability of Michelangelo's David". Journal of Cultural Heritage. 7: 273–285. doi:10.1016/j.culher.2006.06.004 – via ScienceDirect.
- ^"File:Andrea del castagno, scudo di david con la testa di golia, 1450-55 circa, 02.JPG - Wikimedia Commons". commons.wikimedia.org. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
- ^Helen Gardner, Fred S. Kleiner, Christin J. MamiyaIt, Gardner's Art Through the Agesretrieved February 17, 2009
- ^Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo, New York: Harper & Row, 1974, 59–61; Anthony Hughes, Michelangelo, London: Phaidon, 1997, 74.
- ^"David Sculpture, Michelango's David, Michelangelo Gallery".
- ^Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori nelle redazioni del 1550 e 1568, ed. Rosanna Bettarini and Paola Barocchi, Florence, 1966–87, 6: 21.
- ^Levine, 45–46.
- ^Butterfield, Andrew (1995). "New Evidence for the Iconography of David in Quattrocento Florence". I Tatti Studies. 8: 115–133.
- ^Strauss, RM; Marzo-Ortega, H (2002). "Michelangelo and medicine". J R Soc Med. 95: 514–5. doi:10.1258/jrsm.95.10.514. PMC 1279184. PMID 12356979.
- ^Coonin, 2014, pp. 105-108.
- ^Eric Scigliano. "Inglorious Restorations. Destroying Old Masterpieces in Order to Save Them." Harper's Magazine. August 2005, 61–68.
- ^"Michelangelo's David 'may crack'". BBC News. 19 September 2008. Retrieved 19 September 2008.
- ^"David's Fig Leaf". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 29 May 2007.
- ^" You need not travel to Florence to see Michelangelo's David. You can see it well enough for educational purposes in reproduction," asserted E. B. Feldman in 1973 (Feldman, "The teacher as model critic", Journal of Aesthetic Education, 1973).
- ^That "typical examples of kitsch include fridge magnets showing Michelangelo’s David." is reported even in the British Medical Journal (J Launer, "Medical kitsch", BMJ, 2000)
- Coonin, A. Victor, From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David, Florence: The Florentine Press, 2014. ISBN 9788897696025.
- Goffen, Rona (2002). Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian. Yale University Press.
- Hall, James, Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
- Hartt, Frederick, Michelangelo: the complete sculpture, New York: Abrams Books,1982.
- Hibbard, Howard. Michelangelo, New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
- Hirst Michael, “Michelangelo In Florence: David In 1503 and Hercules In 1506,” The Burlington Magazine, 142 (2000): 487–492.
- Hughes, Anthony, Michelangelo, London: Phaidon Press, 1997.
- Levine, Saul, "The Location of Michelangelo's David: The Meeting of January 25, 1504", The Art Bulletin, 56 (1974): 31–49.
- Natali, Antonio; Michelangelo (2014). Michelangelo Inside and Outside the Uffizi. Florence: Maschietto. ISBN 978-88-6394-085-5.
- Pope-Hennessy, John, Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture. London: Phaidon, 1996.
- Seymour, Charles, Jr. Michelangelo's David: a search for identity (Mellon Studies in the Humanities), Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967.
- Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Artists (Penguin Books), “Life of Michelangelo”, pp. 325–442.
- ^The height of the David was recorded incorrectly and the mistake proliferated through many art history publications. The accurate height was only determined in 1998–99 when a team from Stanford University went to Florence to try out a project on digitally imaging large 3D objects by photographing sculptures by Michelangelo and found that the sculpture was taller than any of the sources had indicated. See  and .
The first thing to hit the floor is his bent left elbow, the arm that holds the heroic sling, and it bursts along the lines of its previous breaks, old scars left over from an incident in the 16th century involving an unruly mob and a bench. Then the rest of the marble will meet the floor, and the physics from there will be fast and simple: force, resistance, the brittleness of calcite crystals, the shearing of microscopic grains along the axes on which they align. Michelangelo’s David will explode.
When I first saw the David in person, the only word that came to mind was “perfect.” Why hadn’t anyone ever told me he was perfect? I was 20 years old, exhausted, unwashed, traveling for the first time ever, ignorant of almost everything worth knowing. “Perfect,” I know now, is not a terribly original response to the statue, nor a very precise one, but in that moment it filled my mind. It felt like a revolution — urgent, deep, vital, true.
Standing in front of the David was, by far, the most powerful experience I had ever had with a work of art. The statue is gigantic: 17 feet tall, three times the size of an actual man, the height of a mature giraffe — another fact that no one had ever told me. I had always assumed, based on the images, that the David was life-size. To find otherwise seemed like a category error, like arriving at the Taj Mahal to discover that it is actually the size of a walnut. There was an existential snap in my brain, a sudden adjustment of the relative values and proportions of every other object in the world, including me.
He towered over me in his iconic pose: back foot flat, front foot tipped, shoulders cocked, left arm raised to hold the sling, huge right hand hanging down by his side, head turned fiercely toward the glorious future. He was a giant marble god, except he wasn’t a god; he was a man, but then of course he wasn’t really a man either; he was white stone — but the stone looked somehow soft, like flesh, and the hard-soft marble curved and rippled into muscles and veins, tiny and large, subtle and blunt, each feature easing inevitably into the next, all the way around. My eye kept roaming, looking for imperfections, not finding any. My mind ran in silly loops. The only word it would settle on, again and again, was “perfect.”
I stood there in my filthy Birkenstocks feeling a sense of religious transcendental soaring: the promise that my true self was not bound by the constraints of my childhood — by freeway exits, office parks, after-school programs, coin-operated laundry rooms at dingy apartment complexes, vineyards plowed under and converted into Walmarts, instability, change, dead dogs, divorce. No. The David suggested that my true self existed most fully in some interstellar superhistorical realm in which all the ideal things of the universe commingled in a perpetual ecstasy of harmonizing trumpet blasts. If such perfection could exist in the world, I felt, then so many other things were suddenly possible: to live a perfect life creating perfect things, to find an ideal way to be. What was the point of anything less?
Again, I was 20. My girlfriend and I were in the middle of a six-week, shoestring-budget grand tour of Europe. We slept every night in teeming hostels, ate meat with our hands in public parks, frightened people with our terrible German. But it was all worth it for moments like this — moments in which I could truly believe that perfection was real, as real as a train station a few hours away, and that my life was heading toward it.
A huge crowd swarmed around the David, gawking and chatting, but I hardly noticed them. My girlfriend and I stood in the museum for an extremely long time, until the crowds began to thin. Eventually we left and moved on to another museum, another city, and then we went home and — as the years rolled up their sleeves and marched Americanly by — we got married, had children, found jobs. I fantasized about perfection while crashing, again and again, into what I discovered were the extremely solid walls of my own limitations. Just on the other side of those walls, I knew, stood the David on his special pedestal: an impossible destination that I was nevertheless determined to reach. But the meeting between my head and that wall began to take up more and more of my attention, and after a while I started to wonder if the perfection on the other side actually existed, if there had ever really been anything there to begin with.
The David began, in 1464, with a mistake. Several mistakes, actually. In fact, so many mistakes, and such serious ones, that the whole project seemed to be ruined from the start. The source and precise extent of the mistakes have been disputed over the centuries, but what we know for sure is that none of the mistakes were Michelangelo’s fault, because he wasn’t born yet. The block that would become the David was cut out of the mountains 11 years before its eventual sculptor’s birth.
The first mistake was the stone itself. The marble-cutting community in and around Carrara was, and remains today, practically a sovereign nation, with its own dialect and politics and lore and hierarchies of technical expertise. Michelangelo was a native of the quarrying world, fluent in its ways, but the sculptor who chose the block, Agostino di Duccio, was largely ignorant of them. He had been selected by one of Florence’s most influential groups, the Wool Guild, to carve a monumental marble statue of the biblical David. It would sit high on the edge of the city’s great cathedral, the Duomo, to serve as a show of strength, an artistic boast and a warning to the city’s enemies.
But Agostino was in over his head. He had no experience carving marble on this scale — nobody alive did. The block he chose was huge but flawed. The power of marble, after all, is supposed to be in its perfection: a pure white chunk cut, at almost impossible expense, out of the dirty, ragged mountains. But this slab was marred by little holes, discolored by veins.
It was not only Agostino di Duccio who was overmatched — the quarriers were, too. The block was 18 feet tall and something like 25,000 pounds. No one had harvested a stone this large in close to 1,000 years. The whole process was one ordeal after another. Because statuary marble tends to form up near the tops of mountains, it took months of labor to get it down to the quarry floor. The trip from Carrara to Florence — an 80-mile journey that takes around two hours in a modern car — took two more arduous years. There were teams of men, teams of oxen, big ocean ships, flat river barges, inclement weather, monthslong delays. At one point, the giant block fell into a muddy ditch and had to be laboriously extracted. One scholar has speculated that this accident caused the cracks that now plague the ankles.
When the block finally arrived in Florence, it was greeted as a wonder. Its size, to the public, would have been more apparent than its imperfections. It was deposited in a courtyard behind the cathedral — a huge white apparition in the middle of the small brown city. People came from all over just to stare.
City leaders went to inspect the block, and they were dismayed. It had not only been badly chosen; it had also been badly carved. Agostino, as was traditional, had “roughed out” the block at the quarry — a quick whittling down to leave only what was necessary for the eventual statue. In doing so, however, he had compounded his previous mistake. The block had been strangely narrow to begin with, and Agostino had made it even narrower. He created an awkward hole in its middle. It was hard to see how this stone was ever going to become a plausible human form. Some believed that it was ruined, that the city’s investment was already lost.
Agostino was fired. The block was abandoned. It sat there, on its side, getting rained on, hailed on, fouled by birds, for more than 30 years. After a while, it became a fixed part of the landscape of Florence. People and buildings changed all around it, regimes rose and fell, but the monumental block never moved. Residents began to call it, with some mixture of respect and mockery, “the Giant.”
I didn’t get back to Florence, after my initial visit, for nearly 20 years. When I did finally return, it was as an adult man on the brink of middle age. I was not quite 40 but felt, in many ways, older. My hair, once as heroically thick as the David’s, had begun to thin visibly, and I felt sad about this, and I also considered my sadness to be its own failure, because I wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t care about superficial, middle-age things. Every morning, when I stepped out of bed, my joints hurt, especially my ankles, which a doctor had recently diagnosed with arthritis — they were 20 years older than the rest of me, he said.
My youthful pursuit of David-like perfection had gone, shall we say, not terribly well. I had turned out to be a strange person, not anything like an ideal. My life was littered with awkwardnesses, estrangements, mutual disillusionments, abandoned projects. Recently, I had begun to notice an odd tic in my interpersonal style — a problem with my gaze. I would be speaking with someone, a friend or a shopkeeper, all very normally (how are you good thanks how are you how’s your summer), and then, for no discernible reason, my eyes would dart away from my interlocutor, urgently, right over one of his or her shoulders, and the shift would be so sudden that the person would whip his or her head around to see what on earth I was looking at — a policeman or an exotic bird or a runaway train — but it would turn out that there was nothing there at all. My gaze had been flicked away by a little spasm of social discomfort. And so the person would look back at me, confused, and I would manage to hold his or her gaze for another few seconds until the social energy built back up between us to an intolerable level, at which point I would suddenly break the circuit again by looking away — and the person would look, one more time, back over his or her shoulder to confirm that nothing was there, and then our relationship would be altered forever.
Perfection, it turns out, is no way to try to live. It is a child’s idea, a cartoon — this desire not to be merely good, not to do merely well, but to be faultless, to transcend everything, including the limits of yourself. It is less heroic than neurotic, and it doesn’t take much analysis to get to its ugly side: a lust for control, pseudofascist purity, self-destruction. Perfection makes you flinch at yourself, flinch at the world, flinch at any contact between the two. Soon what you want, above all, is escape: to be gone, elsewhere, annihilated.
By the time I returned to Florence, I had grown accustomed to spending solid weeks in a state of high anxiety — my hands would turn freezing, like a corpse, and I would sit at my desk wishing I could cry, and my wife would tell me, with increasing urgency, that she was afraid I was going to have a heart attack. Eventually, after many years of this, I was prescribed a daily pill intended to stabilize an imbalance in my brain chemistry, and this solution has worked, more or less. Yet I am still plagued by this eccentricity of the loads: an impossible tension between the fantasies in my head and the realities on the ground.Continue reading the main story