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Since 1st March, 1999
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David: To restore or let rest

Florence, July 15: Five centuries after Michelangelo’s David was unveiled in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, there is another contretemps about how to save this icon of youthful beauty from the ravages of time. Should the marble colossus be restored to its original perfection or simply cleaned of grime' Or should it learn to live with the inevitable streaks and blotches of venerable old age'

In the cradle of the Renaissance, whether a major art work should be cleaned, restored or left untouched is the stuff of intense debate.

Thus, when Florence’s art establishment decided last year that David needed attention, it acted cautiously. It promised only a gentle cleaning of the 14-foot statue, which has stood inside the Galleria dell’Accademia since 1873.

Almost inevitably, a heated battle has ensued. Agnese Parronchi, the experienced restorer first hired to clean the statue, resigned in April, charging that the officially approved method could cause damage. Now a petition signed by 39 international scholars has proposed suspending action pending review by an independent commission of experts.

That said, according to Antonio Paolucci, the superintendent of Florentine art who has the last word on such matters, the cleaning of David will begin in September, with a new restorer.

For the moment, Paolucci is playing down the dispute between the “wet” method proposed by Accademia director Franca Falletti and the “dry” method favoured by Parronchi. “Both are gentle methods, both are very light,” he explained.

But there is no shortage of passion in the arguments brandished by Parronchi and Falletti. When Parronchi was named last September, she seemed perfect for the job, having won acclaim for her cleaning of Michelangelo’s tombs of the Medicis in the Lorenzo Chapel and of his two reliefs, Madonna of the Stairs and Battle, in Florence’s Casa Buonarroti.

She concluded the statue should be cleaned using a minimally invasive “dry” method involving soft brushes, cotton swabs, an eraser and a chamois cloth.

“Because David stood outside for so long, its pores are open and a lot of dust accumulated,” Parronchi said. “But this can be easily removed.”

Here she was backed by James H. Beck, a Columbia University art historian and president of ArtWatch International, who has organised the petition.

In contrast, Falletti’s case for wet cleaning is based on a report prepared by a government art-restoration department. It concluded that the greatest threat to David was posed by a light sprinkling of gypsum, a calcium sulphate which responds to humidity. It proposed removing this by applying wet poultices that would also draw the dust out of pores.

“Agnese Parronchi’s method doesn’t reduce the amount of gypsum,” said Mauro Matteini, the scientist who wrote the report. “It may work aesthetically, but it doesn’t remove the gypsum. Also, even if it is gentle, her brushing is a mechanical process. Why use a mechanical method when you can use a poultice'”

Falletti was even more forthright. “Agnese Parronchi’s method and material are absolutely unacceptable to us,” she said with some irritation. “The issue is removing the dust, not brushing it round. And by definition, you have to brush hard.”

“The problem with the poultices is that they create a uniform look,” Parronchi said, noting that the marble has natural colours and veins.

“The issue is not wet or dry, but uniform or not uniform. My approach respected all the subtleties in the marble.”

The restorer now chosen to do the cleaning, Cinzia Parnigoni, has agreed to use the “wet” method. When she arrives here in the fall, she will also bring with her the experience of “wet” cleaning Michelangelo’s Prisoners, the sculptures that stand in the hall leading up to David.

Falletti estimated that work on David — which tourists will be able to watch — should take seven to eight months.

Beck, though, has still not abandoned hope of delaying the cleaning project.

“I’m for conservation, not restoration,” he said. “To make a work ‘look better’, to make it more ‘readable’, is ridiculous. ‘Readable’ for whom' All we’re saying is that if there is a disagreement like this one, you can’t just go along one path. You need an independent outside commission to weigh the evidence.”

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