To Drill or Not to Drill

One of the most daring things Michelangelo ever did was to poke holes in the eyes of his David.

He must have hesitated before doing it, before drilling with a gimlet. If he botched it, he would ruin the whole statue. Eyes aren’t a little detail. They are the first place you look.

He would have made experiments with small models of the David and looked at them in various kinds of light. But there was no way of knowing for sure what the effect of those eye-holes in the colossal statue would look like in the Piazza.

Sculptors have always doubted about making those holes, which are meant to simulate the black of pupils. The idea is to get a glance from the figure, to make it seem to have life INSIDE. The best Greek statues don’t have punctured eye-balls, mainly because the Greeks were trying for an ideal, a balanced representation of the body as a whole. They didn’t want a look from the figure to disturb the viewer’s quiet contemplation of it. They didn’t want an INSIDE to their stone gods and heroes.

The young Michelangelo wanted just that: life, movement, the sign of a will. He couldn’t picture a figure that seemed to move in every part of its body EXCEPT the eyes, which were just blank hemispheres.

He had drilled the eyes of a little figure in the Bologna Cathedral and it had not come off too well. They seem to stare—they look like false eyeballs. In his Bacchus he made the holes less deep—mere shallow basins, and the look didn’t satisfy anybody. Should he try holes in the big David’s eyes?

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