A lesson in paying attention

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence. Jen and I did the full tourist bit, queuing in the Italian sun for two hours to tick one off the list. After the first hour, I began to question the wisdom of waiting in line for so long ‘just to see some statue of a naked bloke’. But our patience was rewarded. Entering the cool gallery, turning left, then right, to see the famous statue from afar was one of the true WOW!-moments in my life. (I really did say ‘WOW!’—in captain letters.) One minor anatomical feature not withstanding, David was far, far bigger—and far whiter—than I’d ever imagined. The location and lighting set the artwork off perfectly. Here was art designed to make even the most introverted of philistines exclaim WOW!_

Replica of Michelangelo’s David
Replica of Michelangelo’s David outside the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
The original statue stood on the same spot until 1873.

The second time we visited David, a couple of years later, Jen and I learnt a new trick. In most museums and galleries in Florence, you can buy your tickets the day before your intended visit. Almost no queuing is involved, and, if you already have a ticket, you’re allowed to jump the normal queue the following day. This trick saved us an awful lot of time during our second stay.

Even though I’d seen it all before, I still found myself vocally WOWing as I approached David for the second time. After we’d had another gander, Jen and I decided to sit on one of the curved benches surrounding the statue and take in the vibes for a few minutes.

We were soon joined by a small party of black-American schoolgirls in their mid-teens. Having inspected David from all sides, two of them sat on the bench next to us and began a quiet, thoughtful conversation about the statue. I wish I could remember exactly what they said, as the nature of their conversation proved something of a revelation. These two schoolgirls spoke for a good ten minutes about the impression the statue was making on them; what they thought might have been going through Michelangelo’s mind as he chiselled away; and which details of the work they particularly admired (although not once did they refer to the statue’s most famous detail). They even made comparisons with some paintings they’d recently seen in New York. From what they said, it was clear these girls weren’t simply parroting stuff they’d been taught in art class; they were sharing their own original, intelligent, personal thoughts on a famous work of art. So much more impressive than my illiterate WOWs.

I often find myself reflecting, as I did just now, on that conversation between those two thoughtful, intelligent schoolgirls. Albeit unwittingly, they gave me an important lesson in what it’s like to show respect by paying attention. I have no idea whether their thoughts on Michelangelo’s David were on the ball or way off the mark—although that hardly matters. What matters is that they engaged with someone else’s work, giving it more meaning to them, and provoking new ideas of their own.

I’m used to doing that sort of thing when reading other people’s words. But the idea of engaging with some statue of a naked bloke in this way was a real eye-opener.

Detail of Michelangelo’s David
Most famous detail of Michelangelo’s David (which, for some inexplicable reason, is by far my most popular photograph on Flickr).

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Website · Facebook · Twitter · Newsletter · Book

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