Money and pride are at stake as the city of Florence and the Italian government battle for ownership of the statue of David.
Michelangelo's David pits city against state
Italians take themselves seriously. It is not uncommon to find yourself in a kitchen with three grown men arguing as if to the death about how much garlic should go into a tomato sauce. Italians rarely concede an argument, and never apologise.
It is hardly surprising then, that the city of Florence and the state of Italy are bickering about who owns Michelangelo's David, the vast Renaissance statue of the warrior who fought Goliath and won. The statue is a biblical symbol of rebellion against brutality, a depiction of purity over corruption, an erotic statue of a beautiful male model, a perfect example of early Renaissance art.
But whatever the sculptor may have intended to create from his huge lump of marble more than 500 years ago, on completion in 1504 David was almost immediately politicised by the Republican government, which decided, contrary to the original plans, to position him right in the centre of the Piazza della Signoria as a defiant show of Florentine independence and strength.
And David remains a political figure. The Italian ministry of culture and its lawyers now insist that David's Florentine independence, symbolising the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, was relinquished with Italian unification in 1861. Unsurprisingly, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, is not about to entertain this idea and has said publicly that all the documentation proves that "David is ours". The government already pockets the US$10 million (Dh36.7 million) a year in ticket sales to see the masterpiece and is accused by Florentines of failing to keep its side of the bargain in maintaining and restoring the city's art. If it can prove it owns David, the government will be free to raise ticket prices with no obligation to fund maintenance.
Daniela Murphy, the president of the Associazione Bastioni, a Florence-based organisation dedicated to art restoration, declares that David, if he belongs to anyone, belongs in one sense "to the universe". The idea of possessing art is anathema to many, especially a piece of public art such as David that was never intended as something that people would have to pay to look at. David was supposed to be part of the Florentine view and is an integral part of the Florentine experience, along with being ripped off in pavement cafes for ice cream and espresso and taking a horse-and-carriage ride around the ancient centre of the city.
However, when pressed, Murphy concedes that "the commissioner of the David was the Republic of Florence which, in 1501, paid Michelangelo 400 florins to get the job done, therefore Florence, according to me, is the legal owner of the David and not Rome".
Marco Folin, the author of Courts and Courtly Arts in Renaissance Italy and a renowned expert in Renaissance art, is appalled at the Italian government and views the issue as a one of cynical greed.
"I cannot find the words to criticise Italy's present government enough," he says. "They have no interest in art or the preservation of the country's historic treasures. They are just trying to extract as much money as possible from the museums and they want to raise ticket prices without investing in the museums themselves."
Tuscans, of course, are unlikely to take lying down the claim that Michelangelo's David does not belong to them. Like pasta sauces, mushroom hunting and truffles, culture is a vital part of life in Tuscany. My children, who were at school in Tuscany until recently, spent a whole term studying the statue of David. They went to the Fantiscritti quarries in Carrara from which the vast block of not-very-high-quality marble was taken. We know this because in 1991 someone attacked David's toes with a hammer, and the chips that scattered during the attack were analysed and traced to Carrara.
My children studied the process of sculpture and the techniques Michelangelo used, along with his belief that the image of David lurked within the unhewn marble waiting to be revealed. They learnt that sculpture was considered during the Renaissance to be the finest form of art because it mimics creation. They learnt that Michelangelo finished David in 1504, over 20 years after two other sculptors had had an unsuccessful bash at the chunk of unforgiving rock. Once the original sculptors had given up on it, the block of marble lay around for years in the yard of the cathedral workshop. An inventory in 1500 describes the abandoned marble as "a certain figure of marble called David, badly blocked out and supine". A year later documents show that the Operai, or the authorities, ordered it "raised on its feet" so that an experienced sculptor could come and assess it. Leonardo da Vinci and others were consulted, but the 26-year-old Michelangelo got the commission. The schoolchildren's term-long project culminated in a triumphant class visit to the Accademia to see David himself. (The statue was moved from outside the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio to the interior of the Accademia in 1872.)
David was originally supposed to go high up on the façade of the Duomo, a fact that probably explains why parts of him appear to be out of proportion. His overly large head, hands and upper body would have looked correct seen from far below.
But whatever Michelangelo's intentions, the fact that the statue is now iconic and embedded in Florentine culture is undisputed.
To whom David really belongs, however, is a dispute that is yet to be settled.
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The David file
HEIGHT 5.17 metres
MADE OF Carrara marble
COMPLETED September 8, 1504
DISPLAYED AT Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, Italy
FROM HIS MAKER, MICHELANGELO "It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn't look like David."
FROM GIORGI VASARI, THE RENAISSANCE BIOGRAPHER "Whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or in other times, by no matter what craftsman."
THE BIBLICAL DAVID "Had beautiful eyes and was nice to look at" (Samuel 16:12)