Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Michelangelo's David

This week (September 8), marks the 506th anniversary of the unveiling of the magnificent David by Michelangelo.

There are certain moments in history which I would give the pinky of my writing hand to have witnessed: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for example, or Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. But unquestionably at the top of my list is the first appearance of Michelangelo's masterpiece in the Piazza della Signoria on September 8, 1504. What must it have been like to stand elbow to elbow with the Florentines as they held their breath, waiting for the first sight of their David?

For it was their David after all, as much as it was the artist's. They had been waiting for it for forty years, longer than Michelangelo had been alive. The stone had been selected. Artist after artist had been offered the project. One or two had even begun to cut into the marble. But because the block was tall and narrow and half-started, they gave up and left it unfinished. Only Michelangelo could see what they didn't: the glorious potential waiting within the raw marble.

I've often felt, and I've written here, that writing nonfiction is much like sculpture. We begin with a block of material, as inert as stone. It's up to us to see the story within the research and to cut away what doesn't belong to reveal that story. It takes vision. It is not easy. It is even harder when others have left the job unfinished, and try to persuade us that there is no story there to tell. I try to remember Michelangelo and his vision at those times.

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