Tuesday, 6 January 2009
The David of Michelangelo
When I was young, everyone knew the story. There was war between the Philistines and the Jews. The Philistines were brutal and bullying. Nonetheless, for some unspecified reason, they sent out their champion and invited the Jews to send their own champion to face him in single combat.
The Philistines' champion was Goliath - a giant and a one-man killing machine. The Jews had no idea who to send against him until David, the shepherd boy, volunteered with stories of how he'd killed a lion and a bear while looking after his father's flocks. King Saul did his best for David and dressed him in fancy armour but David couldn't even walk in it. Instead he chose to go out against Goliath in his everday clothes, armed only with a stick, a sling and five round pebbles. And of course, he had his faith in God - this is the Bible after all.
Even if you've never heard the story before, you know how it must end. David took his sling and a pebble and hit Goliath right in the centre of his forehead. When the giant toppled down, David hacked his head off. Then the Philistines fled.
The story's a popular one. I've known about the statues of David by the sculptors Donatello and Michelangelo. But I never wondered why they were made. It was only a few years ago that I learnt the way in which David was seen as the symbol of Florence, which saw itself as a weak city surrounded by larger, threatening states.
Florence certainly faced threats but these days we see it as strong and influential rather than weak and threatened. The symbol of David's weakness overcoming strength is one that could easily be appropriated by any faction, family or individual who ruled Florence. Even the strongest states and leaders often present themselves as victims.
Most states have been victims at some time. Britain, which ruled an empire with the usual mix of occasional benevolence and institutional brutality, saw rebellious "natives" as a threat - and the colonised could be cruel and violent. More recently, the Blitz in World War Two haunts us.
The United States grew out of British persecution of dissenters - and persecuted the American Indians to the brink of extermination. Recently the televised horror of 9/11 showed us America as victim again. What happened in Fallujah was not televised.
And Israel came out of centuries of persecution culminating in the mechanised brutality of the Shoah. When the state of Israel was founded, a horrified and remorseful west recognized the state at once. A culture soaked in Bible readings was bound to sympathise with the people of David. But the land was already inhabited and, shaken by its own war and refugees, the West didn't consider the newly dispossessed Palestinians.
And now we're watching Gaza, the land of Gath and Ashkalon, the land of the Philistines. There's another unequal contest between strength and weakness. Israel faces real threats. But it's a well-armed country, the only nuclear power in the Middle East. Gaza has starved under a blockade and most of its inhabitants are children. In the Bible the giant killing-machine is killed and a massacre ensues. In real life, I don't know what comes next. I long for an end to the violence and vengeance.