Learn Italy’s fifth study week in Florence took place in late January this year – it was cold, but dry and bright. As on former trips, Renaissance sculpture was one focus of our interests. Intent on enjoying some of the most famous statues in the history of western art, we visited the Bargello museum, looking forward particularly to the huge Gothic room on the piano nobile that is devoted mainly to Donatello and his followers.
A quick glance towards the far left corner of this room led to a pang of alarm. Where was Donatello’s fabulous bronze of David? His extraordinary wide-brimmed and flower-bedecked hat should have been immediately visible above the lesser works. This surely is the most famous statue of the whole collection, and not to see it would be a great loss. For a long time we have been told that Donatello’s ‘David’ was the first free-standing bronze statue and the first male nude in western art since Roman times – though art historians now argue over the likely dates of the statue’s creation, and dislike this kind of categorisation on principle.
All is not lost, however, for the visitor to the Bargello. The ‘David’ is indeed visible, but lying comfortably on his back in a wooden frame, surrounded by lasers, microscopes and other electronic equipment such as you might find at a very upmarket dentist. Working on his stomach with a delicate pick-like instrument is a be-goggled and white-coated woman, the leading Italian expert in statue restoration. The statue, the apparatus and the restorer are contained in a low-walled booth, but we can watch Dr Nicolai at work, and see ‘David’ clearly from a new angle, including parts that we have never seen before, such as the underside of his base or the top of his hat. And we can put our questions to two lively students, so that the serious work can continue uninterrupted by our curiosity. Eighteen months of painstaking and minutely careful labour will bring back ‘David’ to something closer to his original state – it is hoped that the process will reveal a lighter bronze, as well as gilding on his hair and boots, decoration that was concealed by the waxy varnish applied to the statue in the late eighteenth century to make it the same dark colour as other bronzes in the Uffizi, where the statue then stood.
What a brilliant way to satisfy the needs of tourists while maintaining the beauty of a unique and priceless object! It was a bit like visiting a friend in hospital, to be told the cheerful news that a cure is absolutely certain, and has already begun.
Wherever one travels in Italy one encounters the dreaded cul-de-sac of chiuso per restauro – but perhaps other imaginative ways will be found to allow art lovers to enjoy something of what they have come to see, while preserving Italy’s limitless artistic heritage for future generations.