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David’s Sling

A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 328 pages
ISBN: 9781594037214
PUBLISHED: 01/05/2016

David’s Sling
A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art

Throughout Western history, the societies that have made the greatest contributions to the spread of freedom have created iconic works of art to celebrate their achievements. Yet despite the enduring appeal of these works—from the Parthenon to Michelangelo’s David to Picasso’s Guernica—histories of both art and democracy have ignored this phenomenon. Millions have admired the artworks covered in this book but relatively few know why they were commissioned, what was happening in the culture that produced them, or what they were meant to achieve. Even scholars who have studied them for decades often miss the big picture by viewing them in isolation from a larger story of human striving.

David’s Sling places into context ten canonical works of art executed to commemorate the successes of free societies that exerted political and economic influence far beyond what might have been expected of them. Fusing political and art history with a judicious dose of creative reconstruction, Victoria Coates has crafted a lively narrative around each artistic object and the free system that inspired it.

This book integrates the themes of creative excellence and political freedom to bring a fresh, new perspective to both. In telling the stories of ten masterpieces, David’s Sling invites reflection on the synergy between liberty and human achievement.

About the Author

Victoria C. Gardner Coates is a cultural historian who received her Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in The Sixteenth-Century Journal, Gazette des Beaux-Arts and Renaissance Studies. As the director of research in the office of Donald Rumsfeld, Dr. Coates provided editorial support for his best-selling memoir Known and Unknown

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Generations of masters chipped tentatively at the block, but proved unable to confidently project a successful figure onto it.

The stone was very tall but narrow, and given the brittle nature of marble, a human form would be likely to break at the ankles. One after another, aspiring sculptors gave up. Now the block was little more than a curiosity piece. Some observers described it as a cadaver, and wondered if the best thing wouldn’t be to break it up into more manageable pieces.

One boy who arrived in Florence in the early 1480s was secretly pleased that no one was trying to carve the block anymore. Solitary and somewhat unpleasant, he had few friends and no one minded that he spent his free time with a piece of marble. For his part, he found the block a good companion that held limitless secrets. He knew it wasn’t dead.

Nothing about the young Michelangelo Buonarroti foretold a great future. His mother had died when he was an infant and his father, after failing at the family business of banking, had left their small town and moved to Florence to become a bureaucrat. Michelangelo had been left to the care of servants until his father sent for him with the intent of making a bureaucrat of him as well.

The Florence Michelangelo encountered was a synergistic hive of political, economic and cultural freedom that allowed the city to exert an international influence disproportionate to its relatively small size. Florence’s status as a republic was a point of great civic pride, differentiating the city from duchies such as Urbino, Mantua and Milan, as well as from the great Papal center of Rome. Even Venice (rightly) viewed Florence’s expanding power as challenge to La Serenissima’s claim to be the dominant republic in Italy. This rivalry played out not only in counting houses and even in the occasional military skirmish, but also in artistic circles as Florence emerged as the epicenter of Renaissance culture. The roll-call of genius attracted by the city’s liberty and prosperity was already legendary: Dante, Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Botticelli, and most recently Leonardo da Vinci. But the greatest was still to come as in 1501 man and marble met at a crucial moment for Florentine independence to produce Michelangelo’s David.

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