Art world in a lather over plans to clean up David for his birthday

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Is David about to be destroyed by the philistines? Almost exactly 500 years after the world's most celebrated statue was first exhibited in Florence, the Italian art world is being torn apart by a row over plans to restore Michelangelo's 14ft high masterpiece.

The Italian government has given orders for the vigorous cleaning of the statue to begin in September, despite the objections of 39 international experts and a warning from a renowned art restorer that the work could be ruined.

Agnese Parronchi, the woman commissioned to clean the marble hunk for his 500th birthday next year, resigned from the top job in art restoration in April after the Academia Gallery in Florence ordered her to adopt what she believes is an intrusive "wet" cleaning method.

Now, despite an anguished petition in support of Ms Parronchi from scholars all over the world, Antonio Paolucci, the head of the government department responsible for monuments and artistic treasures in Florence, has told another restorer to go ahead with the intensive, €350,000 (£245,000) job.

Ms Parronchi told The Independent that her preferred "dry" cleaning method, using chamois cloth, soft brushes and cotton swabs - a method already proved on other Michelangelo statues - was the only safe one. Instead, the gallery had ordered her to apply poultices of distilled water and chemical solvents to remove the dirt and salt.

"I believe that the salt that has formed over the years at the interior of the statue is part of the masterpiece itself," she said. "The statue is just like a human being, when we have a dirty face we are no doubt less attractive. What we rush and do is simply brush the dirt away so we are beautiful again. Dirt is never uniform, so intervening in a uniform way doesn't make sense. You risk ruining the balance."

Franca Falletti, the academy's director, said the chemicals would be applied for measured amounts of time, depending on the degree of dirt. "With any intervention, there is a risk: you clean one thing and destroy something else," she said. Ms Falletti told The New York Times that Ms Parronchi's gentle approach was "absolutely unacceptable".

The argument turns partly on whether the statue should be restored to something approaching its original condition of 1504, or simply relieved of its worst coatings of grime. Ms Parronchi said that not an inch of the statue's original surface remained. In 1810 it was covered in wax. In 1843 the wax and Michelangelo's original polished surface were burnt away with acid.

The statue, she said, was partly what time and grime had made it. The cleaning method favoured by the Academy would make its surface too uniform, hiding the natural colours and veins of the marble.

On the contrary, argued Ms Falletti, "wet" cleaning would remove the ravages of the centuries and allow the statue to appear again as something closer to the icon of eternal youth that Michelangelo intended.