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David, Michelangelo, sculpture, 1501, Florence. Corbis / Bettmann.
In 1501, 25-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti begins working on his colossal masterpiece, the 17-foot-tall marble David. From a huge block of marble that has been abandoned decades earlier by another sculptor, Michelangelo takes on the challenge of living up to Donatello and other precursors who had sculpted the same heroic figure. The David, portrayed in the Bible as a young shepherd who slew the giant Goliath and went on to become a valiant and just Hebrew king, is a fit symbol of courage and civic duty to guard the city of Florence.
Michelangelo is a painter, sculptor, and architect. In this era, all three forms of art are thought to be based on disegno, an artistic discipline built on knowledge of the male human form. Sculpture is considered the finest art form because it mimics divine creation: The sculptural image is found within the block of stone much as the human soul is found within the physical body.
The David is considered a masterpiece, an ideal male form combining heroic strength and human uncertainty. It is erected in 1504 in the public plaza of Florence, the Piazza della Signoria. In 1873, the original is moved to the Accademia delle Belle Arti, where it is better protected for posterity, and a copy of the work is erected in the plaza in 1882.
Over the centuries, the genitals and pubic hair on Michelangelo's David cause consternation, especially when the work is reproduced and displayed in other locations. For example, in 1939, a copy of Michelangelo's masterpiece is installed at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA, with one addition: A fig leaf is added to cover the genitals and pubic hair of the statue. The leaf is removed in 1969, and the statue remains in its original state until toppled by an earthquake in 1987.
In November 1969, a poster image of the statue is confiscated by a vice squad in Sydney, Australia, and the manager of the store is charged with obscenity. Daniel Thomas, curator of the New South Wales Art Museum, calls the action "incredible, utterly ridiculous." The charges are ultimately dropped.
Debates about the appropriateness of displaying reproductions or photographs of the David in such places as schools, dormitory rooms, and churches continue. On the Internet, one company offering marble reproductions of the statue allows purchase of a fig leaf at no extra charge. Today, the image, uncensored or censored, has become iconic in popular reproductions on T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, and in advertising.
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