Michelangelo’s David and the birth of science

Michelangelo’s David and the birth of science

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A few months ago, I visited Florence, Italy, where I was truly amazed when I saw Michelangelo’s enormous sculpture of David. You might be surprised to hear that when I looked into that huge stone face I understood a little better how modern science was born. Why? How is a sculpture connected to science?

You see, there were great scholars and universities in Europe for hundreds of years before modern science began. The first European universities were founded almost a thousand years ago. But many of these scholars believed that the greatest discoveries had already been made in ancient Greece and Rome. There were no laboratories at these universities, and their students mostly studied very old books. Who could hope to be a greater philosopher than Aristotle or Plato? Who could hope to be a greater mathematician than Euclid or Archimedes? Who could hope to be a greater healer than Hippocrates or Galen? It seemed like the greatest breakthroughs in human knowledge had taken place long, long ago. All we could do was study their work, and clear up details here and there.

Then the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy. The Renaissance started out as mostly an artistic movement. Painters discovered how to make things look three-dimensional. They carefully studied light and shadow, creating works like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, and everyone was astonished. Architects discovered how to build in new ways, raising the enormous dome of the Florence Cathedral, which was the largest dome in the world from the time it was completed in 1436 all the way until 1881, more than 400 years later!

Michelangelo was an amazing painter, sculptor, architect, poet and engineer. As a sculptor, he learned from the great works of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the other Renaissance sculptors before him, but he went beyond them in ways that no one had ever dreamed. 

Michelangelo carved his sculpture of David from a huge block of marble between 1501 and 1504. The David stands 17 feet high, towering over you like a giant. The David is completely naked, so you can see how perfectly Michelangelo created a human shape out of stone. Every detail is perfect. Every muscle, every fingernail, even the veins on the back of his hand are flawless. From the front, David looks calm and peaceful, like most statues created in ancient Greece or Rome. But David is looking off to the side, and when you walk around to see the front of his face, you see that he is fierce. His face is full of anger and concentration. This is the young man getting ready to fight Goliath.

Michelangelo and the other artists of the Renaissance proved that they could do better than the best works of ancient Greece and Rome by experimenting with new methods and carefully observing the world around them. The Greeks created some amazing sculptures, but nothing as realistic, as enormous, and as complex as the David. So, if our artists could do better than the ancient Greeks and Romans, why not our scholars too? Why couldn’t we be better mathematicians and astronomers? 

For more than a thousand years, the greatest book of astronomy was the Almagest, written by Claudius Ptolemy in about 150 A.D. In this book Ptolemy explained that the Earth was the center of all things, and that the sun, the moon, and the planets moved in orbits around the Earth. Then in 1543, Nicholas Copernicus published a new book, arguing that Ptolemy was wrong, and that planets orbit around the Sun, and that the Earth is a planet too. Aristotle wrote that a heavy stone will fall to the ground faster than a lighter stone. With a simple experiment Galileo proved that Aristotle was wrong.

This is how science was born. The great art of the Renaissance encouraged people to experiment and to think in new ways, demonstrating that there could be real progress and improvement in human knowledge. When I looked into the stone face of David, I could see the spirit of the Renaissance in his eyes, the same spirit that inspired Copernicus, Galileo and the other great scholars who created modern science. 

Kelly Cline, Ph.D., is associate professor of astronomy and mathematics at Carroll College.

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