Five centuries after Michelangelo's David was unveiled in Florence's Piazza della Signoria, there is another contretemps about how to save this icon of youthful beauty from the ravages of time. Should the marble colossus be restored to its original perfection or simply cleaned of grime? Or should it learn to live with the inevitable streaks and blotches of venerable old age?
In the cradle of the Renaissance, whether a major art work should be cleaned, restored or left untouched is invariably the stuff of intense debate. Thus, when Florence's art establishment decided last year that David needed attention, it acted cautiously. It promised only a gentle cleaning of the 4.3m-high statue, which has stood inside the Galleria dell' Accademia since 1873.
Almost inevitably, a heated battle has ensued. Agnese Parronchi, the experienced restorer first hired to clean the statue, resigned in April, charging that the officially approved method was too harsh and could cause damage. Now a petition signed by 39 international scholars has proposed suspending any action pending review by an independent commission of experts.
That said, according to Antonio Paolucci, the superintendant of Florentine art who has the last word on such matters, the cleaning of David will finally begin in September, with a new restorer already named to replace Parronchi. On the other hand, 15 months ago, Paolucci canceled plans to restore Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi in the face of international protests. And he is known to dislike scandal.
For the moment, with David, Paolucci is playing down the dispute between the "wet" method proposed by the Accademia's director, Franca Falletti, and the "dry" method favored by Parronchi. "Both are gentle methods, both are very light," he explained. "We don't have a very serious problem of conservation. There are little problems of superficial cleaning. Nothing dramatic."
But there is no shortage of passion in the arguments brandished by Parronchi and Falletti and their respective supporters, arguments in which science and experience have been marshaled for partisan purposes.
When Parronchi was named last September, she seemed perfect for the job, having won acclaim for her cleaning of Michelangelo's tombs of the Medicis in the Lorenzo Chapel and of his two reliefs, Madonna of the Stairs and Battle, in Florence's Casa Buonarroti. Once installed at the Accademia, working from a mobile ladder in full view of visitors, she spent three months making 360 digital graphics of David.
Her conclusion: The statue should be cleaned using a minimally invasive "dry" method involving soft brushes, cotton swabs, an eraser and a chamois cloth. "Because David stood outside for so long, its pores are open and a lot of dust accumulated," Parronchi said."But this can be easily removed. The issue is not one of recovering the sculpture's original look because there is not one millimeter of its original surface left."
Here she was backed by James Beck, a Columbia University art historian and president of ArtWatch International, who has now organized the petition to Paolucci urging a halt. "There was no reason to clean David," said Beck, who keeps a second home outside Florence and has frequently campaigned against what he considers unnecessary restorations. "But if it had to be done, it should be done in the gentlest possible way. Agnese's approach was merely heavyduty dusting."