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Restoring Michelangelo’s David – or not

Michelangelo’s statue of David survived almost four centuries standing in

the open air in the political heart of Florence, exposed to riots, wars and

rain, before being moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873.

But now, after surviving all that birdshit, David must endure bullshit. The

row over how to clean David has been reported around the world as almost

comic, but it is not funny at all. It is frightening because, ultimately,

those involved will do what they want. And if they permanently damage the

greatest sculpture in the world, that will just be tough.

David, say the placards on the fencing surrounding him, needs cleaning.

He’s a dirty, dirty boy. Having spent several days looking at David – such

a sublime physical and intellectual mystery of a statue that it seems to

breathe – I can honestly say the last thing that occurred to me was, ”Look

at that grime.” But leaving that aside, let’s consider the extreme nature

of the dispute reported so lightly in the world’s media.

There is irreconcilable disagreement about how to spruce up the surface

of Michelangelo’s marble. Agnese Parronchi, the expert engaged to clean

David, favours a ”dry” method involving slow, methodical use of chamois

cloth, soft brushes and cotton swabs, which she previously employed on

Michelangelo’s Medici tombs. Franca Falletti, director of the Accademia,

prefers something wetter and, claims Parronchi, more dangerous to the

stone. Parronchi, who feels so strongly that she has resigned, says the

more interventionist wash is favoured because it is modern and glamorous.

Her own method is conservative and gentle – Michelangelo’s sculptures in

the New Sacristy certainly don’t look like they have been subjected to

anything clumsy.

The row has become international. A letter signed by 39 ”art experts”

calls for nothing to be done without an international commission. Antonio

Paolucci, superintendent of such things in Florence, says, ”Trust us,

Italy is best in the world at restoration,” thus implying that this is all

anti-Italian prejudice. The row over David suggests that, far from careful

custodians, the people responsible for protecting works of art are

competitive, dogmatic and dangerously ready to intervene in things of

immense fragility. Nationalism should be the last thing on Italian minds.

David is a global property, a defining achievement of humanity. Italy

has no more right to damage its surface than the Taliban had to blow up

Buddhist masterpieces. Anyway, this is not Italy-bashing; it is a

Florentine who has sounded the alarm.

This ought to be a moment of crisis for the restoration industry –

industry being a reasonable word for a process that, in recent years, has

seen radical changes to the appearance of Leonardo’s Last Supper,

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel, Signorelli’s

Last Judgement and, in London, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Simply by

disagreeing so publicly and radically over something so important, the

Florentines have exposed the secrets of a practice so apparently

”scientific” that only a tiny elite feel qualified to comment.

Those who do can easily appear paranoid conspiracy theorists. This is an

unlikely way to characterise a professor of art history at Columbia

University, but repetition undermines the arguments of the leading critic

of restoration, James Beck, and his British ally Michael Daley. Their book,

Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal, is the most

comprehensive critique of what they see as a self-serving lobby of

academics, curators and big business gaining advantage from assaults on

defenceless works of art. But their blanket scepticism is only convincing

if you agree that art should never be shored up against its ruin.

Not all restorations are unnecessary, or catastrophic. Beck criticised

the restoration of the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, where, in the 15th

century, Masaccio and Masolino painted frescos of unparalleled spiritual

beauty. When I recently saw these frescos, ”ruined” by restoration, I was

awed by their austere passion – which suggests to me that in this case,

Beck and Daley were barking up the wrong tree.

To which they might reply that they know more. But this is the problem

with restoration and with its critics: everyone claims to know the absolute

truth, when the obvious blinding fact is that we cannot know the final

truth about what The Last Supper looked like the day after Leonardo painted

it, or what The Last Judgment looked like when Pietro Aretino accused

Michelangelo of painting pornography in the Pope’s chapel. This is not an

argument for postmodern scepticism, for saying it doesn’t matter, or we

don’t have access to the art of the past, so let’s treat it ironically. We

can know plenty, but this will be interpretation rather than unarguable

scientific fact.

The restorations carried out on some of the world’s masterpieces have

been presented as scientific interventions, based on research so modern and

up to date that it makes all previous restorations look like the amateur

efforts they were. ”Thanks to the progress of scientific and technical

knowledge,” says the official guide to the restored Last Supper in Milan,

”it has been possible to make analyses and examinations covering the

chemical, physical, environmental, static, structural and climatic

conditions, besides an exhaustive and detailed photographic


Clutching this guide, hot and sticky with anticipation, you buy your timed

ticket, hang around Milan for a few hours, come back, and finally pass

through a James Bond-style vacuum-sealed airlock to enter the presence of

Leonardo’s restored wall painting, and see . . . what? The ultra-scientific

attempt to peel back the layers of five centuries of restoration of a

painting that began to decay on the damp wall as soon as it was done has

resulted in a deeply ambiguous and baffling image. Are we seeing something

like the ”real” Last Supper, or just a more flaky, scratchy and hence

authentic-looking pastiche?

There is no consensus at all. Leading Italian Leonardo scholar Pietro C

Marani was involved in the restoration and wrote the panegyric above. The

equally eminent British art historian Martin Kemp led the critical charge

against what was done. Both these historians have a deep grasp of Leonardo

– but their views on the restoration are irreconcilable.

How could they not be? History is always up for debate. There are

endless arguments over the causes of the English civil war. There will

never be a final decision as to whether it was a social revolution, a

political coup or a religious war. Knowledge of history is not positivist

knowledge on a 19th-century model. And yet art history, when it enters the

territory of restoration and starts fooling about with infra-red cameras,

claims exactly that kind of definitive truth.

The reality is that restoration, like history and criticism, is

subjective and partial. The least it should be, therefore, is careful. How

can you have the temerity to insist that you so comprehend the art of 500

years ago that you can alter its appearance?

Which brings us back to David. The art, rather than science, of restoration

has to favour non-intervention except where to fail to intervene would be

irresponsible. The Uffizi gallery recently demonstrated good practice when

it called off, for now, a restoration of Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi

after the Florentine company Editech discovered that the structure of the

painting was more complex than previously thought. I don’t accept the

”scientific” status of the contention that only the drawing is by

Leonardo and the layers of colour came later, but at least it saved this

pictorial enigma from intrusion.

There are good reasons to act when paintings have been damaged by

previous restorers, and this is rectifiable (though The Last Supper is a

counter-example), and even more so when a fresco is about to fall off the

wall. But how does any of that apply to a sculpture so hardy and durable it

survived centuries out of doors and still looks great?

The public reasons given for cleaning David are slight. What is really

being proposed is a stripping-away of history – because what marks are on

Michelangelo’s sculpture are the natural marks of time. The only serious

damage to David has been the breaking of his arm in riots against the

Medici. This is part of the history of a political masterpiece: the

embodiment of Republican virtue and vigilance. I might have misunderstood,

but the Accademia’s presentation of the arm as one of the ”problems” to

be dealt with seems to imply actually concealing this ancient damage, and

hence effacing history.

The very insistence on cleaning has something hygiene-obsessive about

it, suggesting sterilisation, blandness, a desire to make David accessible

to people who don’t want to be bothered with imagination. We can see David

clearly; this is stone, not a painting lost under layers of varnish. Every

crooked line – there are no straight, smooth lines – of his silhouette is

visible, the ”dirt” doesn’t ruin the uncanny representation of muscles

and bones.

Cleaning him is depressingly of a piece with the misunderstanding that

Michelangelo’s art attains, or wants to attain, classical ”perfection”.

David stands at the end of a vista of Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves,

which shows just how wrong this is; Michelangelo was a poet, his art is

poetry, and the movement he inspired was mannerism, not classicism; an art

of introspection and emotional stress.

Michelangelo’s David lives as art, as something that happens between the

artist’s mind and yours. Anyone who plans to unsettle this relationship had

better think and think again, ask for a lot of advice and then perhaps not

do anything.— Â

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