Has 'David' got too big for Florence?

A proposal to move Michelangelo's most famous sculpture from its home in a Florentine gallery has provoked uproar among the art elite. Peter Popham reports

After moving indoors 135 years ago, Michelangelo's David may be on the move again. This week, in a letter to the minister of Culture and the Mayor of Florence, the ranking arts administrator in Tuscany proposed shifting the world's most famous image of manhood from the Galleria dell'Accademia in the centre of Florence to an as yet unbuilt culture centre further out.

The reason is to be found in the queues of tourists waiting to get in to the gallery, often for the sole reason of gazing at the marble that made Michelangelo famous. The centre of Florence is full, says Paolo Cocchi, Tuscany's culture councillor. The city "has already reached the point at which tourism becomes unsustainable", he wrote. "To enlarge the area visited by tourists and reduce congestion in the centre would bring benefits for everyone."

But Mr Cocchi's modest proposal has elicited a torrent of invective from Florence's art elite. The director of the Galleria dell'Accademia was particularly down on the idea. To move the 4.1m-tall sculpture would be "extremely risky", said Franca Falletti. "There are cultural and conservation reasons that render this idea baseless and inopportune. The proposal is one that absolutely cannot be shared. For historical and scientific reasons we can affirm that David's home is in the centre of Florence."

Local right-wing politicians in particular smelt a nasty leftish sort of rat. "A bizarre idea that must be rejected," fumed Paolo Amato, a senator in Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. He detected ignoble ambitions behind the proposal: "[The idea of moving] Michelangelo's David is a promotional operation done for reasons of property speculation, with the sole object of increasing the value of the new auditorium project that is being backed by [the Culture minister Francesco] Rutelli."

Antonio Paolucci, the former head of Florence's museums, declared it "a nonsensical idea with neither head nor tail that returns periodically to torment us". But nobody is going to move Michelangelo's masterpiece from the museum that was built to receive it."

Riccardo Mazzoni, editor of Il Giornale della Toscana, the Florence daily, said it was "an absurdity dreamed up to give prominence to Mr Cocchi". "David is extremely fragile. Moving it would be very risky. It would be like moving the Mona Lisa from the Louvre to the outskirts of Paris."

Yet the man with more power than anyone else over whether the idea dies or becomes a serious proposal – Florence's culture councillor Giovanni Gozzini – was less dismissive. "An interesting and useful proposal which we can discuss," he remarked. "In Florence we have 10 to 11 million tourists per year, and they move within an area of less than 1sq km. Yet there are many other things to see."

The abuse was inevitable: in its immense pride, Florence is a remarkably conservative place. Since about 1600 its self-allotted task has been to keep change to a bare minimum.

But by his choice of the word "sustainable", Mr Cocchi touched a nerve. Italy's genius for conservation has brought the world to its door. But hop-on, hop-off tourism is causing terrible damage to Italy's most beautiful towns. The centres of Florence and Venice and Rome and smaller towns like San Gimignano have already lost much of what made them delightful to more discerning visitors; the characteristic shops and cheap trattorias and craft workshops swept away by the tourism monoculture. And still the numbers keep growing.

When David emerged from the artist's block in 1504 – Michelangelo was only 26 at the time – a committee of local artists including Leonardo and Botticelli met to decide where this unsurpassed symbol of heroic republicanism should be placed. Eventually it took up its place outside the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio, the republic's council chamber, where it remained for the next 360 years.

For the sake of better protection, in 1873 it was moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia. The sensitivity of the sculpture for Florentine opinion can be gauged by the fact that the recent restoration was preceded by 11 years of raucous argument.

One reason for the appalled reaction to Mr Cocchi's proposal is the intimacy of the sculpture's relationship to the Galleria dell'Accademia. "The museum's design... was created in the 19th century almost as a way of rendering sacred this totem of art history," said Mr Paolucci. "It was realised with typical 19th-century taste, but in its own way it continues to fascinate today: it multiplies the fascination of the masterpiece. That's why nobody will move it from the place where it is now."

But what if the original in the Galleria were to be replaced by a copy? After all, that's what happened in 1910 when the aching gap outside Palazzo Vecchio where David had formerly stood became too much for the Florentines to bear.

The same cunning strategy ought to keep everyone happy – the Galleria, which would avoid a devastating loss; Mr Cocchi, who would see tourists move beyond the city centre; and the investors speculating on the value of the site of the city's old Leopolda railway station, where the new cultural centre is meant to rise by 2011. The world's top architects would surely line up for the chance to give the old boy an even more beautiful home than he enjoys today.