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Art or porn? Florence defends Michelangelo’s David against frazzled US parents

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and ex-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi holding a press conference in front of Michelangelo's David in 2015.
Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and ex-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi holding a press conference in front of Michelangelo's David in 2015. Copyright Antonio Calanni/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Antonio Calanni/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Anca UleaAP
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Should Michelangelo's David be shown to schoolchildren? Some parents at a Florida school think not - and Florence wants to convince them otherwise.

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Standing at over 5 metres tall, Michelangelo’s towering marble sculpture depicting the Biblical figure David is one of – if not the most – recognised artworks in the world.

It was commissioned by the Opera del Duomo in Florence in the late 15th century and took the Italian master over two years to complete. Today, the giant nude sculpture is a symbol of the pinnacle of the Italian Renaissance.

But for some parents at a charter school in the US state of Florida, it’s nothing more than cheap pornography – and certainly not something their children should be studying in school.

After a sixth grade lesson at the Tallahassee Classical School featured images of Michelangelo’s David, complaints from several parents forced the principal to resign, and the city of Florence to jump to David’s defence.

Florence’s response: If you think David’s pornographic, why don’t you come and see it yourself?

Florence stands its ground

Much like David fought Goliath armed only with his faith in God, Florence is taking on America’s culture wars with determination and more than a bit of disbelief.

Cecilie Hollberg, director of the Galleria dell'Accademia, where the statue of David resides, expressed astonishment at the controversy.

"To think that David could be pornographic means truly not understanding the contents of the Bible, not understanding Western culture and not understanding Renaissance art,” Hollberg said in an interview with the Associated Press.

She invited the Tallahassee Classical School’s principal, school board, parents and student body to view the “purity” of the statue.

Florence Mayor Dario Nardella also tweeted an invitation for the principal to visit so he can personally honour her. Confusing art with pornography was “ridiculous,” Nardella said.

The incredulous Italian response highlighted how the US culture wars are often perceived in Europe, where despite a rise in right-wing sentiment and leaders, the Renaissance and its masterpieces, even the naked ones, are generally free of controversy.

Sunday's front page of the Italian daily publication Corriere della Sera featured a cartoon by its leading satirist depicting David with his genitals covered by an image of Uncle Sam and the word “Shame.”

David’s history of censorship

The chairman of Tallahassee Classical's school board, Barney Bishop, told reporters that while the photo of the statue played a part in Principal Hope Carrasquilla’s ouster, it wasn’t the only factor. He declined to elaborate, while defending the decision.

"Parents are entitled to know anytime their child is being taught a controversial topic and picture,” Bishop said in an interview with Slate online magazine. “Last year, the school sent out an advance notice about it. Parents should know: In class, students are going to see or hear or talk about this. This year, we didn’t send out that notice.”

It’s not the first time Michelangelo’s David has courted controversy for the blatant nudity of its subject.

When the statue was first unveiled, Michelangelo’s nemesis Leonardo da Vinci suggested David cover up with a loincloth. A replica of David gifted to Britain's Queen Victoria is said to have been so shocking to the Queen that a proportionally-accurate fig leaf was commissioned to cover the statue's nether bits.

More recently, a 3D replica of David featured at Expo 2020 in Dubai caused a fuss in Italy because the statue’s genitals were hidden by a surrounding structure.

As for the US drama, The Simpsons seems to have once again predicted the future. In an episode of the animated US series that aired in 1990, an angry mob was protesting the exhibition of David in Springfield.

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“It’s filth,” one of the outraged moms tells Marge Simpson. “It graphically portrays parts of the human body, which practical as they may be, are evil.”

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