ArtWatch Alert: David in Danger!!

Call it a catfight. That is what the British press has labeled the latest dispute regarding Michelangelo’s David. The diagnostics on the famous statue began with minimal fanfare last September, with Agnese Parronchi at the helm of the project. The issue only recently re-surfaced in the Italian press, when Parronchi, whose restoration credits include Michelangelo’s sculptures in the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo, walked off the project in protest after reaching an impass with the powers-that-be at the Accademia regarding the specific methods to be employed.

The matter seems clear cut enough. Parronchi steadfastly argued for a conservative “dry cleaning,” while Franca Falletti, Director of the Accademia, preferred a more aggressive method reliant upon distilled water. The entire debate was one of methodology, of differing concerns and potentially divergent aims. The media might have taken this opportunity to bring attention to the legitimate need for discussion regarding restoration issues, to understand that all interventions involve subjective choices, and that the need for transparency regarding decisions is of the utmost importance.

They might have. Rather, in an unfortunate turn of events, UK’s Sunday Telegraph has focused the issue on the politics of gender. Bruce Johnston’s headline, “Women fall out over cleaning world’s most perfect man” set the tone for his item about the controversy. Sure, the issues of methodology were addressed, but were undermined by irrelevant physical descriptions of Parronchi (the “down-to-earth,” 46-year-old, “bespectacled native Florentine”) and Falletti (her “elegant” senior). The restorer and director’s respective comments and the resulting debate are framed as indicative of “jealousies and personal rivalries,” rather than a necessary and legitimate debate about conservation/restoration techniques. The Guardian followed suit, and even widened the issue, closing its item with a reference to the “cut-throat, female-dominated art-restoration industry in Florence” and discussing its attraction as a career option for “upper middle-class women”.

It is unconscionable that the media would downplay this critical moment for the restoration debate, in which a restorer — and one who has proven her meddle — has been faced with an unenviable decision. She must either acquiesce to the demands of gallery management, against her better judgment, and undertake what she considers a dangerous procedure on the world’s most famous statue, or abandon the project, in which case a restorer who will fulfill the demands of management will inevitably be hired.

If the safety and well-being of the David are foremost in the minds of all the parties involved — and we must give the benefit of the doubt that this is so — then this is not a time to walk away from an impass, or to impose ultimatums. Rather it is a time to widen the debate, to present evidence and gather the opinions of many interested and informed parties, restorers, art historians and museum officials alike.
By Denise M. Budd