Restoring Michelangelo's David

Plans to Clean Masterpiece Spark Art World Controversy

David

hide captionPlans to clean Michelangelo's David have many in the art world up in arms. The famous statue is housed in the museum Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, Italy.

Enlarge image.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News
Statues waiting to be restored

hide captionA group of statues waiting to be restored in the offices of the Opificio Delle Pietre Dure.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News
Marble and stone in the Opificio courtyard

hide captionMarble and stone from all over the Mediterranean and Asia sit in the courtyard of the Opificio, where they will be used for "spare parts" in restored art works.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News
Restorer at work

hide captionAn Opificio worker cleans a statue of St. Matthew by Donatello.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News

Michelangelo's marble statue of David will turn 500 years old next year. Art conservation authorities in Florence, Italy, where the Renaissance masterpiece is located, have decided it needs sprucing up. But an intense debate is under way over whether to subject the nude giant to a dry cleaning or to give it a bath. And the dispute is raising questions about art restoration in general. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Florence.

Leading the project to restore David is the Opificio Delle Pietre Dure, Italy's premier restoration institute for stone and marble. Every statue in the city is under its care and supervision. The Opificio's restorers plan to clean David by applying compresses of distilled water to the marble surface to draw away dirt. But the method is so controversial that Agnese Paronchi, a veteran restorer who had been first chosen to clean David, resigned in protest last April.

The problem, Paronchi explains, is that dust settles unevenly on sculptures. She argues that compresses of distilled water should not be used because they act in a uniform manner — they're too harsh and could cause damage.

"If I use that method," Paronchi tells Poggioli in Italian, "I'll end up with a hunk of marble in the shape of David."

Among those who share Paronchi's opposition to the current plans to clean David is Columbia University professor James Beck. He has organized a petition addressed to the Italian cultural authorities — and signed by about 50 art scholars from around the world — asking for a halt to the project. Instead, Beck has proposed the creation of a commission of experts to judge all possible restoration methods.

Beck has long criticized the profit motives he says are often behind restoration projects — which open opportunities for spin-off books, exhibits and the lucrative lecture circuit. Moreover, he derides as "pseudo science" the battery of chemical and other tests restorers use to determine what art works originally looked like.

"The terrible truth is that all those things can aid a restorer, but the restorer is the one who decides what to take off and what to put back on," Beck says. "And there is no science that can do that, any more than there is any science that can paint an Impressionist painting."

Another concerned scholar is Ross King. He has written about the poor restoration of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" — the colors on the fresco are now faded and pale. King says that catastrophe should serve as a warning about both the seductive promises of science and the zealous interventions of the restoration industry.

The controversy rages on, but as of now, the David cleaning project is set to begin in September.

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