National Gallery of Art unveils the only presentation in the United States of the David-Apollo by Michelangelo, on loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargelloe. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

The last time Michelangelo’s “David-Apollo” came to Washington, the nation was preparing to inaugurate Harry S. Truman for his second term as the nation’s 33rd president. The statue, sent to the United States as a goodwill gesture by the Italian government, crossed the Atlantic on the USS Grand Canyon, was escorted from Norfolk and then greeted at the National Gallery of Art by a Marine color guard, standing at attention.

This time, the roughly life-size and tantalizingly unfinished statue arrived with less fanfare, but its appearance is just as welcome. When it was first seen in the United States, it was the first in-the-round sculpture by Michelangelo displayed in the United States. It is still very much a rarity. While here, it has the distinction of being the most substantial of any Michelangelo work on U.S. soil, including a disputed sculpture, “The Young Archer” (on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art), which might be a Michelangelo; a painting in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth that might be a product of the artist’s teenage years; and a “Pieta” in a private collection that some scholars think is from the artist.

The visiting statue, depicting a youth in a sleepy, serpentine posture, with one arm drawn back toward his head, is not, the David, the monumental and unambiguously heroic statue displayed at the Accademia Gallery in Florence. It is a later, smaller, rougher and decidedly more enigmatic sculpture, the product of some of the darkest days of Michelangelo’s career. Even its title advertises the ambiguity at the core of this strangely languid figure. Two 16th-century references have given rise to its double appellation: In 1550, Giorgio Vasari, author of a seminal collection of artist biographies, referred to a Michelangelo statue of Apollo “who draws an arrow from his quiver,” and a 1553 inventory of a works owned by a Medici collector refers to “an incomplete David” by Michelangelo.

The work itself, with chisel marks very much apparent, seems to support both possible conclusions. A large, round form under the young man’s right foot could well be the unfinished head of David’s foe, the giant Goliath. And a long, unfinished area of stone on his back suggests what may have been a quiver of arrows, one of Apollo’s identifying markers. Because it is unfinished, it might be that both subjects were at one time intended. So it belongs to a class of unfinished Michelangelo works, so numerous that they have puzzled scholars for centuries, leading some to conclude that the artist was a painfully diligent perfectionist, a Platonic idealist unable to suffer the physical manifestation of his ideas, or simply an artist who was overworked, overly ambitious and often subject to forces beyond his control.

“Michelangelo seems an artist who likes to keep his options open, especially in sculpture,” says Alison Luchs, curator of early European sculpture at the National Gallery. The mystery of the statue’s subject may have been the result of a simple, pragmatic choice: The artist started down one path and then repurposed the statue to another form. Or a result of his open-ended technique: He might have changed his mind about which direction the sculpture ultimately wanted to go. Or it could reflect a deeper philosophical ambiguity: that he was emotionally and intellectually unable to decide whether he wanted to end up with a pagan God or an Old Testament figure deeply associated with his identity as an artist from Florence.

David-Apollo by Michelangelo, on loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargelloe. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

If it was meant to be David, it was a decidedly different take on the subject from the artist’s earlier, 1501-04 foray, now perhaps the most famous statue in the world. David was a long-standing and robust theme for Florentine artists, who tended to avoid the biblical king’s later, rather checkered career, rich in adultery, disappointingly immoral children and other sordid domestic details. The youthful David, however, was convenient civic propaganda, humble but blessed in war, a defier of odds and a symbol of friendship. Since about 1330, the youthful David had emerged as a uniquely Florentine artistic obsession, with major sculptures from Donatello, Verrocchio (whose sweetly adolescent bronze David visited the National Gallery in 2003) and, of course, Michelangelo.

Unlike the artist’s earlier David, a towering 17-foot statue that had been adopted as Florence’s avatar in stone, the David-Apollo isn’t pensively looking to battle or bristling with determination, but staring downward with what seem to be closed eyes. Even the unfinished round form under his gently bent right leg might be simply a result of the artist’s habit of “finding” the ground by sculpting the leg downwards to the foot, a technique that allowed him flexibility and rendered a more natural-appearing stance. All of this, and especially the figure’s sensuality, convinced the art historian Kenneth Clark that even if aspects of David had crept into the finishing the statue, “Apollo it remains, for the sleepy sensuous movement of the body cannot be interpreted as the action of the young hero.”

Fuch’s ultimate answer — or lack of one — is the most appealing. The statue was carved in the early 1530s, after the Florentine Republic had been crushed by the Medici and their allies. Michelangelo had devoted himself to the lost cause, overhauling and modernizing the city’s defenses. When the city fell, and the anti-Republican bloodletting began, he was in peril of his life. The statue was carved for a Medici henchman who served as governor of the city after its defeat.

Thus, it might carry signs of the artist’s ambivalence and sticky position: caught between loyalty to his Medici patrons, and his patriotic love for the doomed Republic. The statue remains in a suspended state of completion, unwilling to emerge from the stone fully in one identity or the other. Or as Luchs writes in an essay accompanying the statue’s display, “he may have sought to put off the final choice between a beautiful but authoritarian pagan god and the young biblical tyrant-slayer, a hero of the lost republic.”

The David-Apollo is on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 3.