Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Bernini, Gianlorenzo - by Mischa Willett


Gianlorenzo Bernini: David (1623)



David’s Dropped Stone

by Mischa Willett
Near where the peasant girl is being raped, and in the same room as another attempt, there stands in the Villa Borghese a stone David facing a Goliath we can’t see. In a city where the classical and Christian collide, bristle, fizz, and even combine, these galleries and this sculpture stand out as strange for that monstrous marriage.
I knew Gianlorenzo Bernini was a great sculptor — one doesn’t escape Rome without being marked by that belief, especially if one’s rooms are situated across from the Ponte St. Angelo, bedecked as it is with 12 life-size marble angels of his making — and I knew he was devout (see: St. Theresa in Ecstasy), but this David bothered me. Not for the reason Donatello’s David does: the effeminate and small boy an imp gloating over a victory not his, and not for the reason that Michelangelo’s impression of classical perfection used to do. I was irritated that the hands hanging lazily about his body seemed lazy themselves, out of all proportion with an otherwise perfect rendering, until I realized that they’re too big because they’re God’s hands about to sling the shot, not his, and outsized because outsourced, appropriately. But Bernini’s David has a more difficult formal problem, that wouldn’t let me walk away from it to find all the other treasures in that great collection in the Borghese gardens.
He seems hunched. He’s built like an athlete, like a contender at a Greek games, but is poised nothing like one. I’ve spent considerable time imitating his stance, drawing suspicious looks from museum security guards, as I try to figure out how a move like that would work. He’s bent as though he’ll fling the stone backhanded across his body using only his tricep, or perhaps over his head, using only the shoulder muscle as projection: either way, these are two of the weakest muscles in the male upper body. Put your back into it, I think. Get your torso involved. He looks like the very antithesis of the discus thrower for whom nothing is at stake but a gold medal or an amophora of oil. Here David is, with Israel’s reputation, the lives of his family, and even his God’s good name on the line, and he’s looking like he couldn’t even skip a stone across a pond, let alone knock out a heavyweight.
The biblical account has it that he’d practiced. When his father, Jesse, outfits the boy with battle-gear, young David puts them off, saying “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them” (1 Sam 17:39b). Apparently, he’d even warded off lions and bears with his little slingshot, which, to put it lightly, takes some doing (34-35). Bernini has it that he hasn’t.
Any farm boy knows how to throw stones. My brother and I could hit any tree in our yard at a distance of 30 paces (measured albeit in the steps of 11-year-old’s) 4 out of 5 times, consistently. When I was 13, I decided that a man should know how to throw a knife so that it would stick in the tree like an arrow. The problem was that I was 13, and my mother didn’t let us play with knives. So I improvised. Finding a razor blade (who knows where?), I split a stick and fastened it to the end with twine. Presto: throwing knife. I enlisted my brother, and we spent the afternoon — it must have been summer: why does it seem there was time for anything then? — making a target.
I got to go first since it was my idea and I was older. I grasped the make-shift blade-side like I’d probably seen in an action movie I was too young to have been watching, took the carefullest aim I could, centered my breathing, and let it fly. I didn’t really feel anything, but by the time my knife reached the target (I missed), blood was covering my forearm and dripping down my elbow. As is typical (I have since come to find) of young boys, my first thought was not I wonder if there’s an artery in my hand that’ll bleed me to death (there is), nor was it to wonder if one of those shots I got was for tetanus (they weren’t), nor even Will it scar (it does), but, Oh man, now Mom’s gonna find out and we’re gonna get in trouble. Despite the blood ruining my T-shirt and cotton shorts, it was my brother’s first thought, too.
I mention this story because I’m writing these impressions with a pencil held against that scar over twenty years later, and because this sculpture makes me nervous. Every kid hates the admonition, and statistically I still think it strains credibility to believe you’ll actually put someone’s eye out, but I think this David just might, and it won’t be Goliath’s. Even though I know the outcome of the story as well as I know anything, I worry, seeing him there: for his mother, for his sheep, for God’s people. His face looks determined, even angry compared with Michelangelo’s cool defiance, or Donatello’s wry, self-satisfied smile, but his anger doesn’t look controlled. It’s the sort of bit-lip, screwed brow, clenched teeth that seems to help at the time, but that isn’t actually a good idea, if you want to win a fight. I think it’s a good thing the Olympian gods were around to save Daphne, fleeing in the next room, because if she had someone like this to defend her, Apollo would’ve had his way and we wouldn’t have any poetry.
But if I could sling a stone better than this shepherd, and even, despite his neoclassical musculature, take him in a fight, he’s still a better candidate for saving Israel than I would’ve been because his faith is bigger than mine. “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin,” shouts the young, ill-equipped boy, “but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head” (v. 45-46). David’s body is one machine, a man full of God’s might — of faith so strong he can wield it like a sword.
I think this is Bernini’s point: he’s not coiled around the column of his torso — spring-loaded and ready to fire — because God’s strength is different from man’s. He has thrust out his jaw, and bothered gathering the stones, and turned, though he doesn’t know what he’s doing, as if in wind-up because he has to do something, but he knows better than I can usually remember that God is the one who puts it through the uprights, between the eyes. The thing about that stone is that he could’ve dropped it, or even thrown it in the wrong direction and it still would’ve gone winging like a bullet into the forehead of the Philistine champion, because while he’s setting the stage for a blessing, God is the one who delivers it.
It’s the same story as Elijah and the sacrifices: you gather the firewood; I light it, because ultimately, it’s a story about God’s faithfulness, not about a man or a rock, which I seem to keep forgetting. Or, it’s a story about both, which is my real problem: I keep splitting the world and this story and the art I see into separate modes — God’s work vs. mine, David’s aim vs. God’s, my story vs. David’s, David’s vs. Goliath’s — when really, what’s beautiful about Bernini’s David is that, even if clumsily, he’s gathered all that into himself as God’s agent, and rolled it into a ball the size of a stone whose trajectory was laid at the same time as the foundations of the earth he’s standing on, and so am I.
Image: Gianlorenzo Bernini's David, three views.
First published in Curator Magazine, see
Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) dominated the Roman art world of the seventeenth century, flourishing under the patronage of its cardinals and popes while also challenging contemporary artistic traditions. His sculptural and architectural projects reveal an innovative interpretation of subjects, use of forms, and combination of media. Forging a path for future artists, he played an instrumental role in establishing the dramatic and eloquent vocabulary of the Baroque style.
Mischa Willett is a poet and essayist whose work appears in art journals and magazines internationally. Currently, he is teaching in the English Department at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, the Dancer+Choreographer, Amber Willett, on a hill overlooking Puget Sound.