When you visit Italy, it is almost a commandment that you must see Michelangelo's David statue.
(This is a replica of the real statue, which was moved inside to protect it from the elements.)
Everywhere you go in Italy, you see David postcards and little replica David statues and David coffee mugs and even David aprons. The David is housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence—beautiful Florence, which is the Italian city I most want to revisit. We walked to the museum under the careful direction of our tour guide, who gave us a sort of walking history lesson as we moved through Florence's streets.
My friend Steve, who'd gone to Italy the year before I did, had told me a hilarious story about how he took a picture of his traveling friend next to the David statue, and almost got thrown out of the Accademia for it because there is no photography allowed inside the museum, and how he'd pretended to wipe his memory card to be allowed to stay, but didn't really and then is still so happy to have that picture of David and his friend. And as I already felt like most of the other people in our tour group were highly annoyed by me, I definitely did not want to incur more sideways glances, so I didn't even try to sneak a photo.
But really, the David statue ended up being the least important thing I saw in that museum, at least for me.
David is situated in a gallery at the end of a wide, long, hall. (There is a good imagine HERE.) Leading the way (and, I suppose, your eye) are other pieces of artwork and sculpture, and here is where you find Michelangelo's Slave statues (they are also called the Prisoners). These are a series of four (actually there are six, but the other two are in the Louvre) sculptures of human form, only unlike David they aren't chiseled to perfection. Instead, they are works of "non-finito," purposefully left unfinished.
As our tour guide taught us about how Michelangelo worked—discovering the form within the slab of marble, rather than planning out the exact finished piece, and how this was a reflection of his belief that the sculptor was God's hands, revealing what He had hidden inside—I confess I only listened with one ear. Partly because, hello, I am a reader and a librarian, and more than once (although I'm not sure where, exactly), I've read this about Michelangelo. But mostly because the art was grabbing my attention, so, daring the wrath of my fellow tour group members, I wandered away. The statues—real Michelangelo, not something in a book—were drawing every bit of my attention.
So I stood in front of the first one, The Awakening Slave.
(Photos of the Slaves taken from the Accademia website, as really: I didn't take a single picture inside!)
Slaves, and the idea of slaves, and all of the long centuries when the poor have had to do so much hard work for the wealthy—this was where my thoughts went.
The Young Slave
Michelangelo could've found any sort of character within those blocks of stone, Roman goddesses, Christian priests, farmers or midwives or kings.
But inside stone he found slaves, people whose lives were about serving others.
The Bearded Slave
How they must've wanted to break free of the stones of their lives, and how impossible that mostly proved.
At each sculpture, I could see this, the wanting to emerge but the impossibility of it. I know it is a statement about how the artist worked, and what he found inside of marble. I know it is supposed to be accidental, revealing what was always there. But to find, and partially set free, slaves from stone? The works said something more than only artistic process and creative expression. They said something about people, and how we are bound by where we find ourselves in our lives. Imperfect, yes, but also trying to be who we are. The unfinished stone the young, the awakening, and the bearded slaves were partially trapped in seemed organic, a thing they had always been emerging from.
I loved them, as art and statement and exploration.
But then I stood in front of the last unfinished slave in the hall, Atlas.
And I, very quietly, wept.
Because some art is simply art: beautiful, moving, precise, exact. Unforgettable, of course. Amazing.
But some art is personal, because it communicates in a medium (paint, pencil, words, stone) a truth in the beholder's life. Not just communicates—it translates, from truth to an object. The truth brought into the world as something you can see and touch and maybe even smell.
Michelangelo's Atlas Slave is that kind of art for me.
Because here is a truth: I am the mother of teenagers. And listen, they aren't bad teenagers. I know bad teenagers; I know them hard and restless and impossible. I know I am blessed with good teenagers. They make me laugh and feel hope for the future and I love them more than anything.
But it is so hard to be the mother of teenagers. At first you were just you, just yourself. You still are yourself, or becoming yourself. Creating yourself. But with your body you've also created these beings, and at first you think you're just having a baby, but then they grow up and you realize you were having a person. A person with needs, issues, and foibles. And they become teenagers and you realize how much matters. Everything, in fact, matters. Because there are so many different possible damaging experiences. What if they sleep with their boyfriend? What if they stop believing in God? What if they take up drinking or drugs? What if they are in a car wreck? What if they fail their classes? What if they don't earn a scholarship, or make up with their best friend, or just experience some brief happy moments?
(What if something bad happens, and then another bad thing, and another, and then they can't deal at all and everything gets ruined? I must remind myself, again and again, that that is the stone of my making, not theirs. Not their destiny.)
So you're there—carrying the stone you are making yourself out of. But you also pick up their stone. You carry it in the form of worry, cajole, argument, fear, nightmares, discussions. Prayers. Hope. Some teaching. Some helping with homework at 2 in the morning.
But it's mostly all in your head, the weight, because they must do the work.
At that is why the Atlas statue made me weep. Because it is the way it feels to mother teenagers, made manifest.
Unlike the other statues, Atlas doesn't seem to be struggling to break free. He is only struggling to carry the load. To me, it isn't stone that he is emerging from; it is stone that has been folded over him. And look where it is: his shoulders, yes. But also his head. It is heavy and he wants to sit but he remains standing, he remains carrying, because what else can you do? You have to carry their weight in the only way you can. The hoping. The praying. I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could cast it off. Walk away with only your own burdens. But you won't. You love them too much, even though it is heavy.
All mothers are Atlases. We carrying the weight of our children's lives, and it is weighty because it is so important. Because we don't want them to be hurt. To feel hurt, to be irrevocably changed by it. We want them to look like David, in his beam of light at the end of the hall: perfect. But we know they will be slaves to their own stone.
Just as we are.
The weeping wasn't really about the weight. It was about the acknowledgment of it. It was about knowing, for the rest of my life, that there exists in the world a piece of art that captures how I feel. It was about how art erases loneliness because it makes you feel less alone in what you are experiencing. Even though maybe I am the only person in the world to have that response to that statue; even though Michelangelo did not intended, I am certain, to reach out a word of—what? comfort? of a sort—to a woman 500 years in the future, that is what art does.
So yes: I went to Italy and I saw the David sculpture. I walked around it quietly. I saw that his second toes are longer than his big toes. I marveled at how living he seems to be, for all his stone.
But what changed me, just a little bit but for forever, was Atlas.