Marble in Motion?

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David, Michelangelo, 1504 / GALLERIA DELL’ACCADEMIA

As a way of drawing tourists out of the absurdly congested center of Florence, Tuscan cultural officials are thinking of moving Michelangelo’s David to a new theater under construction on the outskirts of town. The David has moved before of course. It was originally set up in the Piazza della Signoria, in 1504, and remained there until 1873, then the Florentines moved it to the Galleria dell’Accademia to protect it from the elements. And possibly from the Florentines, who broke his arm — as I recall it was with a bench flung from an upper story window — during riots in 1527.

It can’t be denied that the tourist congestion problem in Florence is out of control. On my last trip, in the fall of 2006, the scrum in front of the Duomo was so bad I didn’t even try. (Crowding at the Accademia is not so bad, thanks to timed tickets, which you can order in advance.) But would moving the David do much to change that? The Uffizi, the Bargello, the Duomo — they’re all within a short distance of one another, and the tourists will still be pouring into the center of town to see them. And I thought this point by Jonathan Jones in the British daily the Guardian was worth making — that a relocation to the edge of town would just further a process by which the David has been tamed and domesticated, removed from its original meanings as a civic emblem, a symbol of a city prepared to fight to defend itself, sometimes even against its own oligarchs.

Of course a measure of devitalization is the fate of most art that lasts long enough to have its original context disappear. The wilder, Dionysian side of much Greek art is lost to us in the strictly Apollonian museum settings where we usually see it. And there’s a light that goes off inside of devotional art when it’s transferred from churches to galleries. Even Diego Rivera’s peasant and proletariat murals will lose whatever political force they still possess as the twentieth century fades further into the past.

And who knows what future generations will make of Campbell’s soup cans?