Michelangelo’s David symbolizes the city of Florence. But it also reflects the Renaissance idea of ”the dignity of man”—and the power of human beings to shape their own nature and destiny.
No matter how many times you might have viewed photographs of Michelangelo’s David, it will never prepare you for the awe-inspiring experience of walking around the breathtaking, colossal statue in Florence’s Accademia Gallery.
Towering seventeen feet high and dwarfing its viewers, David became a symbol of the Republic of Florence—a symbol of Florence’s readiness to defend itself against rivals.
While this interpretation is correct, it’s certainly not the entire story. The David also reflects the optimistic vision of human nature in Renaissance thought—a significant shift away from the pessimistic views of the Middle Ages. Moreover, it explicitly reflects the Renaissance idea of “the dignity of man” or the dignity of human nature, which was a significant theme in Renaissance thought and philosophy.
In this article, I will interpret “the dignity of man” based on three Renaissance ideas it encompasses: human excellence; the belief that human beings can create lasting works of greatness (of which the David itself is an example); and the human freedom and power to shape our own lives.
As we can see from these related concepts, the Renaissance view of human nature was incredibly optimistic. In the thought of Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), human beings can accomplish whatever they desire, if “they but will it,” by bringing an appropriate level of knowledge and resolution to the endeavor. Again, this idea characterized Renaissance thought in general, and the great works of the Renaissance—like Michelangelo’s David—were manifestations of it.
Indeed, without this underlying belief in human ability, the great works of the Renaissance would never have emerged. As Renaissance scholar Kenneth Bartlett has noted, “We must always remember that the Renaissance was a state of mind in so many ways: The concrete effects followed from those fundamental attitudes.”
Nothing could be further from the Renaissance view of human dignity than the work of Pope Innocent III, written in 1195 and entitled On the Wretchedness of the Human Condition.
In this work, the pope went on endlessly about the depraved nature of the human body: its shameful nakedness, lice, and various effluvia, including spit, urine, and excrement. According to Innocent III, even babies are born with “the stain of sin, the blemish of guilt, and the filth of wickedness” because they came from lustful parents.
The Renaissance, however, gave rise to an entirely different view. In fact, in 1453, the Florentine humanist Giannozzo Manetti wrote a book-length rebuttal of Innocent III’s sordid view of human nature. Entitled On the Dignity and Excellence of Man, Manetti argued for “the astonishing value (dignitas) of human nature and mankind’s unbelievable excellence (excellentia).” It’s a fascinating work you can read today in English translation.
Manetti’s view that human beings are excellent was compatible with Christianity, too, given the biblical idea that “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).
Rather than believing that the naked human form was shameful like Christians in the Middle Ages had, Renaissance artists celebrated the beauty of the human body. Donatello’s David (1440s) was the first freestanding statue of a nude male created in over a thousand years. So too was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (mid-1480s), the first female nude in a millennium and one of the finest celebrations of beauty ever painted.
Similarly, we could use Manetti’s words to describe Michelangelo’s David (1501–1504): The statue is a celebration of “the astonishing value of human nature and mankind’s unbelievable excellence.”
In an astonishing achievement, Michelangelo, at the age of only twenty-six, applied for and won the commission to sculpt the David out of a single, gigantic piece of marble.
Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), the founder of art history during the Renaissance, declared that Michelangelo’s David was the most extraordinary statue ever created. Stressing its unique accomplishment, he added that “whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or in other times, by no matter what craftsman.”
While Donatello had depicted David reveling in victory (and his accomplishment) after slaying the enemy Goliath, Michelangelo shows David standing alert, holding his sling—eyes focused and nostrils flared—contemplating the strike. His flexed muscle is symbolic of human potential, what is to come next, and the ability to fashion both one’s self and the world.
In short, this concentration and will, reflected in David’s focused gaze, reflects the Renaissance belief that “Man can do all things, if he but wills.”
Significantly, Michelangelo knew two Renaissance philosophers who wrote about the dignity of man and the power of human beings to shape their own nature: Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola.
Lorenzo de’ Medici was a friend of both Ficino and Pico. Lorenzo also took the young Michelangelo into his home to live—almost as an adopted son—during the last two years of Lorenzo’s life. Ficino and Pico would have met Michelangelo there, and they may have even acted as mentors. At the very least, Michelangelo would have listened to their ideas and philosophical conversations.
Pico della Mirandola, who wrote the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, was so important to Lorenzo that Lorenzo asked Pico to visit him while he was on his deathbed.
Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man was written years before he met Michelangelo, and the first part of his work is on human excellence, dignity, and self-fashioning. Michelangelo, then, would have heard of these ideas from both Pico and Marsilio Ficino.
In the very first two lines of Pico’s Oration, which has been called “the Manifesto of the Renaissance,” he quotes two ancient sources to set the stage. The first one reads, “There is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man.” The second reads: “A great miracle is man.”
What makes “man” such a miracle, according to Pico, is that human beings do not have a fixed nature but can become whatever they choose.
Dramatically quoting from the mind of God as he addressed Adam, Pico reports:
We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in whatever form you prefer.
Consequently, “It will be in your power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Alternatively, you shall have the power to be reborn into the higher orders, those that are divine.” In other words, for Pico, human beings can become angelic, or they can sink to an animal level—or even far below.
For Pico, “the supreme and wonderful happiness of man” is that he is “permitted to obtain what he desires” and to become “what he wills.”
In this sense, Pico’s Oration extols human dignity and is the ultimate expression of the Renaissance idea of human self-fashioning.
In the end, human beings create themselves, becoming what they will. And we can now see how the young Michelangelo learned of these ideas, so powerfully expressed in his great statue.
David Fideler is a writer, philosopher, and the editor of the Living Ideas Journal. He’s also the founder of the Renaissance Program and an advisor to the Plato’s Academy Centre in Athens.
Dr. Fideler’s last book, on the Roman philosopher Seneca, was reviewed by the New York Times, selected as one of the best nonfiction books of the year by the editors at Amazon, and is being published in sixteen languages.
Pico della Mirandola. Oration on the Dignity of Man: A New Translation and Commentary. Edited by Francesco Borghesi, et al. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Giannozzo Manetti. On Human Worth and Excellence. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
Miles J. Unger. Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.
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