A May 24 Style article misstated the height of Michelangelo's "David." The statue is about 17 feet tall. (Published 06/04/04).
Michelangelo's "David" emerged from its first bath in over a century Monday bearing a pearly white complexion with some more visible irregularities and drawing a few worries about the statue's structural integrity.
While the cleaning removed decades of grimy buildup, adding more dimension to the statue's iconic physique, it has also highlighted the imperfect nature of the marble Michelangelo used to sculpt it. "We now see the irregularities, but these were problems inherent to the marble," said Cristina Acidini, head of the institution that oversees restoration in Florence.
The damage dates back to the original block of marble, she said. By the time Michelangelo tackled it in 1501, the 18-foot-block had already languished for more than 30 years in an outdoor storage space near Florence's cathedral, where it had been scrapped after an excess of veins and cavities in the marble foiled attempts by previous sculptors to give it form. Before its unveiling in 1504, Michelangelo spent months polishing its surface to reinforce his masterpiece with a weather-resistant patina.
That protective layer is now gone thanks to centuries of exposure to the elements and a series of overzealous cleanings. In 1814, the statue was coated in wax. Nearly three decades later it was scrubbed raw with steel brushes and given a hydrochloric acid bath, leaving its surface visibly scratched and porous.
Making matters worse was its location in Piazza della Signoria, which is today marked by a replica of the statue. The biblical figure who defeated Goliath was carved as a symbol of Florence, an independent republic that sought to outmaneuver its more powerful neighbors. The 14-foot-high masterpiece was placed outside in public view, before the seat of the Florentine government. This decision left "David" vulnerable to attack -- a mixture of lime and sand was used to repair damage to the statue's left arm after it was broken off during a 1527 riot. The repair, which became increasingly visible as it aged, was replaced during the restoration with fresh plaster.
While the decision to transfer the statue to the Galleria Accademia in 1873 provided refuge from the elements, Acidini said, the move ended up traumatizing "David" at his weakest point: the ankles, which support most of the statue's six tons.
Nor did the transfer seal off the statue from potential attacks. In 1991, a frustrated painter charged the statue with a hammer, shattering the second toe on the left foot.
The legacy of neglect and mismanagement raised the stakes for the statue's latest restorers.
"There were moments when I had to step back from reality and find the strength to go on," said Cinzia Parnigoni, the lead restorer.
Parnigoni is the second restorer to work on the David. The first, Agnese Parronchi, resigned last year shortly after applying her first touches to the statue. At issue was Parronchi's insistence on using a "dry" method of chamois cloths, soft brushes and erasers to do the job instead of the "wet" method prescribed by her employers at the Academy.
Parnigoni worked with a poultice of cellulose pulp and sepiolite applied to the statue over a sheet of paper and left in place for some minutes before being removed. She worked on scaffolding in view of the public since last September.
James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University and president of ArtWatch International, led a campaign to halt the cleaning. He said it failed to address the statue's structural weakness.
"There have been no studies on the base of the statue," he said. "Instead what we have is the Las Vegas treatment."
At a news conference Monday, Galleria Accademia director Franca Falletti said, "Without a doubt the David is now more aesthetically pleasing and its conservation is more secure. I'm satisfied with the final results. As far as the controversy is concerned, I hope it's behind us."
In September the city of Florence will mark "David's" 500th birthday with an arts festival.