Michelangelo's 'David' emerges from the bath

Peter Popham
Tuesday 25 May 2004 00:00
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Last summer a row erupted in Florence over the right way to clean Michelangelo's David, possibly the most famous sculpture in the world.

Last summer a row erupted in Florence over the right way to clean Michelangelo's David, possibly the most famous sculpture in the world.

Yesterday, four months before his 500th birthday, the 16ft marble man emerged from his controversial bath, still streaked with the more stubborn stains accumulated during his 350 years spent in the open, but looking "more fluid, more consistent, more harmonious", according to curator Antonio Paolucci.

Italy's top sculpture restorer resigned in a huff last year when her "dry cleaning" approach to restoring the statue was scorned. International art historians demanded that nothing be done to the 16th-century masterpiece until a consensus was reached on the right way to do it. But the gallery authorities pressed ahead, and yesterday unveiled the result. "The David is exactly as we have always seen it. Its colour has not changed," said Mr Paolucci, superintendent of the Polo Museale Fiorentino, "Only someone with expert knowledge and a thorough and long familiarity with the 'skin' of the statue will be aware that certain aesthetically unattractive regularities are no longer there, that the accumulations of ingrained dirt have vanished, that everything today looks more fluid, more consistent, more harmonious."

The original restorer on the project, Agnese Parronchi, wanted to use only very small, very soft badger-hair brushes, cotton buds, rubber erasers and chamois cloths to ease off the grime that had accumulated since David's last clean-up, a bracing douche of hydrochloric acid in 1843.

But Ms Parronchi's method, it was said, could merely drive the grime further inside the marble's pores. Her bosses wanted her to use a newer, wet approach, by which distilled water and a compress of cellulose pulp and meerschaum clay are applied to parts of the statue through a sheet of rice paper, to gently soak out the dirt.

"If I use that method I'll end up with a hunk of marble in the shape of David," Ms Parronchi retorted, and took her tiny brushes elsewhere.

Ms Parronchi's position was supported byArtWatch International, which has campaigned against many recent efforts of what it calls "the restoration industry", including Leonardo's Last Supper and Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, which have emerged startlingly brighter than before.

The founder of the group, James Beck, a Michelangelo expert who is professor of art history at Columbia University, said that David simply didn't need cleaning. "It's total cultural arrogance from the Florentine authorities," he said "The statue's skin should be allowed to age, almost organically. Instead, they are homogenising it."

But the Florence authorities ignored the protests and appointed another restorer, Cinzia Parnigoni, to do the job.

Yesterday the strain was clearly telling on Ms Parnigoni, who was close to tears during the presentation. "I have felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders," she said. "It wasn't always easy to find the inner strength to carry out the restoration, but I felt the spirit of Michelangelo himself at my side."

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