My blogging friend Allysha wrote a beautiful post this week about seeing Michelangelo’s Moses statue in person. Reading it sparked a memory of my own that I wanted to record.
When I was 9, my family lived in Spain for a year while my father directed a college study abroad program. That summer, we spent a month traveling around Europe during which time I’m positive I whined frequently about the profuse amounts of walking and the dark, damp cathedrals and the galleries filled with endless paintings of kings on horseback because I was but a silly child and had no idea I would someday be willing to sell any of my several appendages to tour Europe again. Naturally, one of our stops was Florence, Italy, where we visited the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s David.
I wish I could say I clearly remember seeing the David for the first time, but the truth is that I cannot separate my view of the Real Thing from the many many MANY times I have seen it since in reproductions. I doubt there is a more ubiquitous image in all of Western art. I do remember thinking that David was very tall – I had to crane my neck to see his face – something it’s hard to appreciate when you see the head-on photos in books. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, as an adult I find it richly ironic that the plucky young shepherd who fought against a terrifying Goliath has now become an 18-foot tall monument to muscular beauty and strength. Who’s the giant now?
There is one thing I do remember clearly from the experience: a museum guard noticed that one of the students in our group was blind. He asked Kathy if she’d like to “see” the sculpture and he led her past the ropes to touch it. Because David stands on a 4 foot base, Kathy could only reach one of his feet, but she felt it with her hands. She said later that she could feel the veins along the top of the foot – it was just like flesh only colder. In my mind, I’ve romanticized the moment to the point that I see Kathy crying as she caresses the polished marble and then I look around me and see that everyone else is crying too. I’m not sure how much of this is fact and how much I’ve imagined over time. (Memories, unlike statues, are not carved in stone. They’re more like quicksand.) But I do associate with the moment a flood of different emotions: jealousy (how I would love to touch the marble carved by Michelangelo!), sympathy (can you imagine standing BLIND in front of the David?), and gratitude (I will never take my sight for granted again). The last feeling stuck with me for the remainder of our European tour. Every stained glass window, every painting, every crumbling ruin became more vivid to me. I can trace my life-long love of art back to that summer.
I wish I could reach back through time and thank the museum guard for his kindness. I suspect he had no idea how much his bending of the rules would mean to Kathy and to the rest of us there that day. When people say they have been “touched” by art it’s usually only a trite metaphor. This time I think the phrase fits beautifully.