The many Davids of Europe

Journaling the aesthetic repetition in Rome and Paris

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Pixabay/Creative Commons

While in Rome and Paris, I met many Davids. They grace the halls of Rome’s Borghese Gallery and Paris’ Louvre Museum, staring down at me from marble pedestals and greeting me repeatedly on my journey through the Old World. One had just released his slingshot at a giant and held his position proudly with bent knees. Another had the head of Goliath tucked under his arm, triumphant. A third, skin rippling across his torso in mid-twist, displayed his front and back to viewers simultaneously. I knew that if I expanded my range of destinations, hopping on the Eurostar to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, or the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, or the Piazzale Michelangelo (also in Florence…), I would see still many more renderings of his ever-androgynous face, rising taller than life.

It is not often that one is faced with the phenomenon of too many Davids, but Europe has a way of normalizing the extraordinary. Statues and cathedrals, works of art towering over the rhythms of everyday life, are anywhere and everywhere. Look to your left, and there’s the Piazza Navona. To your right, a café where Sartre and de Beauvoir sipped coffee and exchanged notes.

They grace the halls of Rome’s Borghese Gallery and Paris’ Louvre Museum, staring down at me from marble pedestals and greeting me repeatedly on my journey through the Old World.

The blurred demarcation of art and cultural life from the quotidian takes my breath away, and artworks overwhelm me with their everpresence. Europe — or at least, the little I’ve seen of it — is a place of repetitions: In Rome’s cathedrals, I see a city meticulously planned, each building complementary. In Paris’ collection of fine art, as in its Davids, I see the Louvre as a hall of mirrors. Trace one road in this continent, and you’ll be led to overlapping veins of another system of highways, cobblestoned rather than slathered in concrete pavement, reaching outward like the roots of a wizened alder.

Week 1: Cathedrals of Italy

Rome is incomparably gorgeous, breathtaking and culturally significant, but if there is one accurate word to describe it, that word would probably be “sublime.” Everything was about the magnificent scale: The Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Colosseum and Altar of the Fatherland stood out against pastel-colored skies, and streaks of wispy cloud hovered above the swarms of ant-like tourists below.

Although not exactly in Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City cannot go unmentioned; it stuns with its over-the-top visuals. Blink, and you will miss the fine details engraved into every surface, such as an intricate dove on a pillar. Unfortunately or fortunately, the Sistine Chapel, a few steps away, was closed the day I was in the city, so I was unable to break my neck in order to witness Michelangelo’s magnum opus.

Everything was about the magnificent scale: The Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Colosseum…

I made the mistake of not visiting all the other churches in Rome that I wanted to see before St. Peter’s Basilica because, frankly, I found them to be a bit underwhelming after witnessing the Vatican. After seeing a couple of cathedrals, one generally knew what to expect. They were basically the same layout, with the large main worship area stretching across the middle of the building and altars or prayer rooms on the side wings. Tourists are able to light candles, pray and look at famous sculptures of saints.

To be fair, individuality is not the point of this art — although I challenge you to find two cathedrals identical down to the shards of stained glass clinging to their iron trellises. Rather, the architectural style reflects a conformity that, while demonstrative and educational in its portrayal of cultural exchange and period stylings, crept up on me in the form of visual fatigue. Once you see a cathedral, or perhaps the cathedral, you’ve seen them all. It is only their placement that recurrently manages to surprise — I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve unheedingly turned a corner, looking for a eatery or an art installation, to find a swinging set of oaken double doors and the sound of hymns filtering from millennia-enduring stone walls.

Week 2: Louvre Museum, Paris

The Parisian Louvre Museum, the crossroads of artistic pomp and talent, is a microcosm of repetition. And there is no way in hell that repetition makes it remotely boring. There, I found myself looking at the same religious or mythological subject matter over and over again. I found that, in terms of paintings, many were Christian in nature. On the other hand, sculptures more often than not depicted iconic tales from Greek and Roman myths.

David, proud son of Renaissance techniques, is the recurring hero in the Louvre; he is mainly seen subduing Goliath, looking small and giant all at once. I mistook one painting for a depiction of Judith and Holofernes — another recurring duo — since David is so often painted androgynously. One painting in particular fascinated me more than others because of its double-sided portrayal. “David and Goliath” by Daniele da Volterra stood mid-hallway so that both sides of the frame were visible. The painting engages the viewer through powerful synesthesia, where the viewer’s kinesthetic movement directly affects their vision’s narrative. In essence, VR, done Renaissance-style.

Another repeating theme is the Annunciation —  that biblical story most of us are familiar with after taking any kind of art history class: The angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear the son of God. Countless renditions of this scene were scattered throughout the museum. The Virgin Mary, in that respect, was probably more of a icon than David. There was an entire room dedicated solely to portraits of her and baby Jesus, ranging from sweet infant tender and mild to the bizarre faces fueling a host of classical art memes.

There, I found myself looking at the same religious or mythological subject matter over and over again.

The depicted presence of Saint Sebastian, the Christian martyr, surprised me in nearly every room, and of course, paintings of Jesus and his suffering on the cross were countless.

You simply cannot leave the Louvre without seeing Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Unfortunately, it is damn near impossible to actually get a good look at this popular lady. Crowds of at least 100 hover constantly around the beige wall and bulletproof glass. But I think I saw more cellphone screens than people. Everyone wanted a piece of her to grace their social media platforms. Upon hearing about the pseudo-paparazzi, my Dad muttered that when he visited the Louvre in 2000, nobody had cellphones, and  the crowd was considerably smaller.

And, after all, isn’t photography — that modern equivalent of passing cathedral schematics back and forth across cities, or drawing inspiration from the same passage in the Bible as innumerable other painters — also a form of replication?

Seeing the Mona Lisa — or rather the general space around her — reminded me once again of the ever-changing world of art consumption, wherein nothing good can remain original and nothing original can remain good. After glimpsing the Mona’s face on book covers, souvenir towels, T-shirts, mugs, wallpaper and toast throughout my lifetime, the real thing is underwhelming. “A bit small,” I thought, and headed for the adjacent wing to see David’s wall-to-wall “Coronation of Napoleon.”

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].