Inspired genius

A Shakespearean actors dramatic take on the David

Antony Sher
November 15, 2007

‘Some of Michelangelo's friends wrote from Florence to tell him to return, since it was not beyond the realm of possibility that he might be given the block of spoiled marble in the Works Department, which Piero Soderini, recently elected Gonfaloniere of the city for life, had many times talked about giving to Leonardo da Vinci'

 

This sentence in Giorgio Vasari's classic, The Lives of the Artists, was one of the sparks for writing The Giant, a play about the carving of the David between 1501 and 1504, and the rivalry between two very different artists, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

 

Another idea came from Frederick Hartt's David by the Hand of Michelangelo, in which he suggests that one of the young mountaineer quarrymen from Carrara may have been the model for the statue, for their daily labour produced a physical build that corresponds to David's.

 

Both Vasari and Hartt are indulging in historical speculation rather reporting historical fact, although some of these exist, too. For example, the starting point is certainly true: Leonardo and Michelangelo were in the same city at the same time: the beginning of the sixteenth century. The David was carved between 1501 and 1504. But the plot that began brewing in my head mixed together rumours and records from the past, along with a good helping of dramatic licence.

 

Florence was emerging from a turbulent period. First there was the departure of the ruling family, the Medicis, and then the repressive regime of Savonarola, which ended when he was burnt at the stake. Now a free republic, with Machiavelli as a leading figure, Florence remained a place of extreme contradictions.

 

The city was known across Europe for its sexual freedom (the German word for ‘sodomite' was ‘Florentine'), yet it retained its formidable vice squad, the Officers of the Night. If you were reported to them, you could be in serious trouble.

 

In his youth, Leonardo was arrested on a sodomy charge. The case was dropped, but from then on the writings of this great humanist display a curious revulsion towards sex.

 

Some art historians also say that Michelangelo, who was a deeply religious man, remained a virgin throughout his life, pouring his sexual longings into his work, portraying the male nude more obsessively than anyone before or since.

 

As a gay man, I've always been intrigued by the idea that the creation of art may be a substitute for the creation of children. But what if it was a substitute for sex itself?

 

When I was a schoolboy, and planning to go to art rather than drama school, my favourite artist was Michelangelo, but during my early preparations for this play, Leonardo quickly became an equally compelling figure for me.

 

While Michelangelo created giants-not just the statue of David, not just the Sistine Chapel, but the dome of St Peter's itself-Leonardo operated on a much smaller scale. His notebooks are miniatures, yet contain some of his greatest achievements, as he tried to design things, such as aeroplanes, which would eventually transform human life, even though the engineering of his time was not yet capable of building them. I love Freud's description of Leonardo as a man who woke too early in the dark while everyone else was still asleep.

 

I submitted an outline of the play to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and received the commissioned to write it. The RSC then joined with Hampstead Theatre and Thelma Holt to produce it.

 

My research intensified, although still just from books, and these yielded many surprises. I didn't know that Leonardo sat on the committee that decided where Michelangelo's David was to be placed. I didn't know that a portrait sketch by Michelangelo is thought to be of Leonardo. According to the history books, they met only once in a Florence street where they had a silly little argument about Dante.

 

But books are books. You can't smell Florence's river in a book, or see the way its midsummer heat turns the terracotta roofs a hazy white.

 

During 2005 and 2006, I travelled there repeatedly with my partner, Greg Doran, director of The Giant, and each time we were hosted by the Villa La Pietra. There were times when I felt I was enjoying myself too much. But Greg always knew how to bring me back to earth. He'd just say: ‘Now all you have to do is write the play'.

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