Michelangelo’s David and Teaching Sculpture: A Conversation with Prof. Anthony Frudakis

Why do we study the fine arts, and how should K-12 schools cultivate a love and understanding of great art among their students? How should we study sculpture, and what makes the great sculptors so excellent? How should we study Michelangelo’s David in particular?

I had a fascinating conversation with Prof. Anthony Frudakis, Associate Professor of Art at Hillsdale College on these topics and many others. You can learn more about Prof. Frudakis’s life and work here. Enjoy!

Kathleen O’Toole: It’s great to be talking with you, Prof. Frudakis. The most important part of our job here at Hillsdale College’s K-12 Education Office is teaching teachers, and we rely on professors here at Hillsdale to do that well. Since the fine arts is such an important part of Hillsdale’s K-12 curriculum, we have many teachers across the country eager to learn from you.

Anthony Frudakis: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be talking with you.

With any part of the curriculum, we like to begin by thinking about the purpose of studying the subject before we get into practical advice about curriculum or instruction. So, what principles should guide us in the teaching of art in classical schools? 

Art instruction should include both studio art, which informs students what it’s like to work in different mediums, and gives them the opportunity to have an aesthetic experience while painting, or drawing, sculpting, or taking photographs. It’s possible and one hopes that through this aesthetic experience a student could begin to fall in love with a particular art form. That’s actually what happened to me; I went to college and just for fun took a sculpture class. It was a wonderful experience that felt very powerful to me. That experience changed the course of my life. 

Prof. Frudakis at work in his studio.

In high school and earlier, a student may not have that experience of being transformed by art, or maybe they will, but at the very least they can be exposed to the world of art. The study of art is in part about developing an artistic voice of one’s own, but also about developing an appreciation for art. Through the study of art history, students can look at particular works and eras, and learn about culture and civilization. All of this makes life so much richer and more interesting. Was that clear? I’m feeling a little tired after a long day in the studio. 

Oh, it’s very clear, thank you. What did you do in the studio today? It’s interesting to think that it made you tired; what kind of tired? 

Well, I’m working on a piece for the College. It’s a smaller work that I was commissioned to do about a year ago. It’s a historical work, and today the challenge was drapery.

One has to be very conscious while working on that kind of thing, asking what is the best solution for this particular fold. One has to look at it simultaneously from a couple of different aspects. How does this fold fit into the larger scheme of folds on, in this case, the arm, and how does it work with the whole shape of the garment? Is it interesting, and how can I make it more interesting? I’ve gotten to the point in the work when I’ve blocked in the shape, and now I’m going over it again with my hands and my eyes to bring it into greater focus. But the challenge is to keep it fresh, and to keep the texture interesting. That’s the challenge at this point in the work. It’s a pretty good mental workout. 

James Madison statue at Hillsdale College.

That’s fascinating. I imagine it’s both physically and intellectually draining to work on a sculpture for several hours. 

Yes—and it’s about maintaining an openness to seeing something unexpected, and being ready to receive the gift of inspiration. I enjoy that kind of spontenaity or happenstance; that spontaneous creation. In reading Michelangelo’s notebooks, you can see that he experienced the same sort of thing. 

What does sculpture provide the artist and the viewer that other mediums don’t provide? 

Well, in my own case, I do a lot of drawing and enjoy it very much, but sculpture is my preference because I have a love of creating shapes. I think it hearkens back to my influences which were the Greeks in the 5th century BC and their enjoyment of form. 

I think the essence of painting is color. And the essence of sculpture is shape, or form. In sculpture you’re working in three dimensions, and if you’re staying in the arena of shape or form you are staying true to the art form. Whether a sculpture is figurative or an abstraction, it’s about the shape or the form. 

I think the essence of painting is color, and the essence of sculpture is shape, or form.

Form–three dimensional form–has a power unique to itself. A sculpture occupies space and shares space with you. A sculpture enters your environment and animates the environment with you. If you look at photographs of public space before a sculpture is added and after, you can see that the sculpture completely changes the place. It’s as if the human touch enters.

I’ve had powerful experiences as a viewer of both sculpture and painting—equally strong and powerful. With sculpture there’s a wonderful play of light and shape that’s created by the form.

Tell me about Michelangelo’s David. What makes it such an important work of art? 

The block of stone from which the David came was sitting in the streets of Florence. I believe they called it “the Giant.” The sculptor who had begun carving into it felt that he had carved too deeply and ruined the stone, so he stopped, and the block remained unused for years. They eventually had a competition to see which sculptor had the best idea for the use of the stone. Michelangelo, though still in his 20s, entered the competition and won. 

Carving into this stone was a challenge, as its depth was very shallow, but this was not a problem for a sculptor as great as Michelangelo. He envisioned a figure that would come to be something spectacular out of this particularly challenging piece of marble.

The David was created by a young Michelangelo who understood the limitations of the block. I suspect Michelangelo, who was familiar with Greek sculpture, which was praised for its balance and its excellence in representing the male nude, saw the limitations of the block as a challenge to overcome, or a test of his skill and and opportunity to rival the Greeks.

He wanted to see how he measured up to the standard set by the Greeks. He did, of course, and he is one of the greatest sculptors who ever lived. The David sculpture was to be a symbol of Florence, a call back to 5thCentury Athens. This statue was to bring glory to Florence, establishing it and this beautiful work as the center of the Renaissance. 

Why is the David so great? 

Well, it was done by a sculptor who had amazing skills as a stone carver, enormous knowledge of human anatomy, and an amazing inspired inner vision of what the figure could look like. 

The David was created by a sculptor who had amazing skills as a stone carver, enormous knowledge of human anatomy, and an inspired inner vision of what the figure could look like. 

When you look at it you don’t feel like you’re looking at a particular model. In a way Michelangelo was right to draw a connection to the Greeks because he was working in a similar fashion to them, in other words not working from a particular model but from an inner vision of the human form. He probably did have people posing for him at different times; there is at least one drawing of a male figure in the same pose that seems to have been done from life. But he was trying to create this idealized male nude, and to do that he ultimately relied on his extraordinary imagination.

I went to graduate school for political philosophy, and in our classes on the classical thinkers we were always discussing the various metaphors for rule you can find in the works of Plato, Aristotle, or Cicero. Thinking of the ruler as the captain of the ship captures something about the phenomenon, and thinking of the ruler as the conductor of an orchestra captures another. The ruler is also like a sculptor in some ways.

Oh, fascinating.

The sculptor relies on his imagination, his talent and his abilities, but he has to use those with this particular piece of stone. There are limits given to him, and his imagination is constrained by those limits. His ability is not to make something out of nothing, but to make something out of something specific.


And also, when you take an action as a sculptor, that is decisive. You have carved that part of the marble away, and you can’t get it back. Now you have to work ahead with that part already gone. It’s not unbounded imagination and skill; it’s the use of talents to make the most of what has already happened–similar to statesmanship.

Yes–the marble is what you are given. And his David is certainly a wonderful example of creativity, resourcefulness, and imagination in getting the absolute most out of a less than perfect block of stone.

How different is sculpting from marble than from clay?

Well, it’s the exact opposite. With stone you are taking away from something, and with clay you begin with nothing and build to something. Carving is a certainly a more rigorous physical experience, and it’s true that you don’t have much room for error. But they are both equally challenging to the intellect and the imagination.

Michelangelo is remarkable for his skill as a stone carver, but also for his vision. He sees the final form of the sculpture not only as a totality but also in its many parts that work in harmony with the whole piece. His using life as a springboard for his imagination stands in contrast to Canova and the other neoclassical sculptors of the 18th century who worked very closely from Roman copies of Greek originals.

These neoclassicists certainly had impressive stone carving skills, but they were under the influence of the opinions of their day, which held that smoothness like that found in the Roman copies of the Greek originals was to be preferred. That focus on smoothness implies a lack of sensitivity and knowledge of the subtleties in the forms of the human body. The early Greek sculptors were very aware of these nuances, as was Michelangelo, especially with the David. Sadly these very skilled neoclassical artists (both sculptors and painters) were following an aesthetic that diffused and robbed their works of the variety and play of shapes that revealed the hardness and angularity of bone, the breadth and density of larger muscle groups, and the sinews and tendons of those muscles as they came to form the joints of knees and elbows and shoulders.

The David has energy. It is alive. In the David, if you look closely, you can see the transition from muscle to bone to tendon underneath the skin. Michelangelo is a master designer and has brought that deep knowledge of the human form into his work.

A constant point of discussion between my husband and my father is whether Bernini’s David is superior to Michelangelo’s. Would you care to weigh in?

Well, they’re apples and oranges. You’ve got the classical Michelangelo’s David and the baroque Bernini. Bernini has created his David in such a way that it invites you to walk around the figure. You can’t see all of it from the same view as you do with Michelangelo’s David. It draws you to these different viewpoints because of its more three dimensional pose. In some ways the Bernini could be considered more sophisticated in pose than Michelangelo’s David. It is a terrific pose and more challenging. 

One might also say that the Bernini is more successful in terms of proportion, since Michelangelo’s David‘s head is, we must admit, very large. But, when one is looking up at it, the proportions seem more correct.

Now, getting back to the pose, we have to remember that the block of stone that Michelangelo’s David comes from was very shallow, so even if he had wanted to create a more torqued and dimensional posture, he couldn’t have done that with this piece. But, later, in the works like his Slaves, the more three dimensional and very dynamic pose is a hallmark.

Bernini’s David is almost unrivaled in its sense of motion, action, and wonderful proportions, but Michelangelo’s David captures more of the internal essence of man.

In the Laocoon, a Greek Hellenistic sculpture, you can see an early example of carving in such a way as to depict motion. And in studying Michelangelo’s later works you can see that it’s very possible that the poses and the proportions of Michelangelo’s later works after the David may have been influenced by the Laocoon.

Bernini’s piece is almost unrivaled in its sense of motion, action, wonderful proportions, but Michelangelo’s David captures more of the internal essence of man. The work speaks to us by transcending the flesh to the spirit, to our perfection. In what better way can an artist show the perfection of inner man except through the perfection of the outer forms? Those outer forms point us to the highest levels of our reality, and in this way, Michelangelo’s David is stronger. By showing us our perfection he reminds us who we are.