(New Scientist) The world’s most famous statue, Michelangelo’s David, has been revealed with a new gleam after a controversial clean-up in Italy. The 360,000 Euro restoration removed years of grime from the surface of the 4.5-metre-tall marble statue. The refreshed sculpture of the biblical boy hero will be officially unveiled to the public on the 500th anniversary of his creation in September.

But not everyone is celebrating David’s new look. The lobby group ArtWatch International, for example, thinks the statue did not even need cleaning, and petitioned against the project when it was started in September 2002.

Some experts say the cleaning has made David
Some experts say the cleaning has made David ” more fluid, more consistent, more harmonious”. (Credit: A. Quattrone)

“The restorers are giving David a cosmetic job, without treating his real problem, stability, due to the weakness of the stone on the right leg and the structure of the base,” says James Beck, of Columbia University in New York, and a founder of ArtWatch.

The restoration project itself had a rocky start, with the resignation of its original leader, Agnese Paronchi, on the grounds that the proposed cleaning method was too harsh.

Light and shade

But the project was completed on Monday, led instead by Cinzia Parnigoni of Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, where David has resided since being brought indoors in 1873 from Florence’s Piazza Signoria.

She and her colleagues say the work was strictly for conservation purposes, preventing further chemical erosion of the marble by harmful deposits, particularly the calcium sulphate mineral, gypsum. The method was advocated by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the Italian body which specialises in restoration and conservation of stone.

The team cleaned David’s surface with compresses of rice paper soaked in distilled water. The paper was covered with mixtures of cellulose pulp and the mineral meerschaum to draw out the grime and the gypsum.

The restoration team says that despite the focus being on conservation, the treatment has helped to balance the light and shade better, and has rekindled the brilliance of the marble.

But the changes in appearance are subtle. “Only someone with expert knowledge and a thorough and long familiarity with the ‘skin’ of the statue will be aware that certain aesthetically unattractive irregularities are no longer there, that the accumulations of ingrained dirt have vanished, that everything today looks more fluid, more consistent, more harmonious,” says Antonio Paolucci, superintendent of Florence’s Polo Museum, which collaborated in the project.

Cracked ankle

Challenging critics like Beck, the conservation team says the cracks in David’s ankles are being carefully monitored.

Structural analyses and modelling of the statue by Antonio Borri’s group at Perugia University have established for the first time that the cracks in the ankles arose through traction from a slight forward inclination of the statue while it stood in the Piazza Signoria. This may have been because of subsidence beneath the base following a flood in 1844.

Borri concludes that the stresses on the ankles are “within the limits of safety” provided the statue remains upright. At present, investigators are testing samples of marble matching those carved by Michelangelo to try and work out how much strain the statue itself can take without breaking.

But the big worry is how David would cope with a large earthquake. Engineers are meeting at the gallery to discuss the problems on 9 June.