Michelangelo's Marble Masterpiece Is Being Cleaned for His 500th Birthday

Roundup: Talking About History

Ann Beveridge, in the Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Australia) (April 16, 2004):

As a symbol of naked male beauty, power, defiance and erotic attraction, Michelangelo's David is said to be without equal. Ever since the towering white-marble colossus was first displayed in the main square of the Italian city of Florence in 1504, where it was pelted with stones by political protesters, it has inspired and inflamed human passions.

Its significance today as one of the world's greatest art treasures puts it beyond price. Yet, throughout five centuries of history, the legendary David has been a constant victim of violence and controversy.

The most recent international row surrounded the present "clean-up" of the giant figure in time for his 500th birthday later this year. It's his first wash for more than a century, and it has caused a row that has split the art world. Allegations were made that some methods, if used for his "birthday bath", could damage the masterpiece.

But the $650,000 project went ahead and will be finished in late May, four months ahead of David's birthday celebrations, at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, where it is housed.

Renowned Italian art restorer Cinzia Parnigoni, who is in charge of the clean-up, began work on it in September. She has already painstakingly removed about two thirds of the grime and dull-grey patina of time.

Meanwhile, with his masculine perfection undergoing such intense personal scrutiny, tests have revealed potentially serious problems with a weakening of the ageing giant's ankles, which support a 5m statue weighing six tonnes.

A CAT scan may be used to assess future effects of the damage but Parnigoni says "There are no fears that he will fall." Cracks were first noticed back in 1873, when the colossus was permanently moved indoors to the Florence gallery.

For nearly four centuries before that, David stood outdoors in Florence's main square, the Piazza della Signoria. It was exposed to pollution and weather. Rainwater eroded the stone and widened the pitted holes in the marble. There are ugly patches of beeswax dropped from the torches of citizens climbing over the masterpiece to stand upon its heights centuries ago.

The 16th-century painter Giorgio Vasari wrote of this Renaissance icon, which represents the biblical shepherd (and later king) David just before he slays the giant Goliath: "The grace of this figure and the serenity of its pose have never been surpassed. Anyone who has seen Michelangelo's magnificent David has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead."

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