The Cultural Fight Over Michelangelo’s David

Some in Italy are trying to stop what they consider ‘debasing’ use of the sculpture

Replicas of Michelangelo’s David are the subject of legal battles. (Image credit: Illustration by Julia Wytrazek / Shutterstock)

By Justin Klawans in The Week:  A recent report in The Associated Press describes how Italian cultural curators are becoming worried that the “marble statue’s religious and political significance is being diminished by the thousands of refrigerator magnets and other souvenirs sold around Florence.” Many of these souvenirs revolve around the sculpture’s visible genitalia, the AP said, and the city streets often feature “street vendors and souvenir shop operators hawking aprons of the statue’s nude figure, T-shirts of it engaged in obscene gestures, and ubiquitous figurines, often in Pop Art neon.”

This is not the first time that people have been angered by the nude sculpture, including some beyond Italy’s borders. In 2023, a Florida charter school made headlines after its principal was forced to resign following a Renaissance art lesson that featured the statue. But why are new concerns now being raised about the commercialization of David in Italy itself?

Why is David at the center of a fight?

The director of Florence’s Accademia gallery, Cecilie Hollberg, has been working to try to defend David from those profiting off the sculpture’s image. Many of these items are “debasing” to the heritage and culture of the statue, Hollberg said to the AP. Hollberg has been taking cases to court, arguing that this widespread usage of David’s image violates Italy’s cultural heritage code, “which protects artistic treasures from disparaging and unauthorized commercial use,” the AP said. The Accademia has won hundreds of thousands of euros in these court cases since 2017, according to Hollberg.

The first instance of Hollberg defending David occurred when she sued “ticket scalpers using David’s image to sell marked-up entrance packages outside the Accademia’s doors,” the AP said. Since then, the director of the gallery has gone after major brands, including GQ Italia, for using David’s face on a model’s body, as well as a bag from fashion brand Longchamp that highlighted the statue’s genitalia.

Other actions have been taken to try to protect similar Renaissance artwork, per the AP, including legal proceedings against knockoffs of “Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man,’ Donatello’s David and Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus,'” the AP said. But despite Hollberg’s efforts, many unauthorized uses of David — and other Renaissance pieces — can still be found throughout Florence.

What is the bigger picture?

The ongoing fight in Italy “[raises] important questions: Should institutions like the Accademia be the arbiters of taste, and do such decisions limit freedom of expression?” Euronews said. This is especially true when it comes to derivative works, Thomas C. Danziger, an art market lawyer based in New York, said to the AP. Danziger noted that acclaimed artist Andy Warhol created an entire series of paintings based on da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” asking if it made sense to “prevent artists like Warhol from creating what is a derivative work?”

Some critics “view this as a land grab by the Italian courts to control and monetize artworks in the public domain that were never intended to be charged for,” said Danziger. The debate over Italy’s cultural code remains “hotly debated because it’s unusually broad in scope, and … essentially [extends] in perpetuity the author’s copyright to the museum or institution that owns it,” Euronews said.

More here.