How Michelangelo's 'David' statue came to be at the center of a controversy over freedom of expression

Michelangelo's David has been an iconic figure in Italian culture since its completion in 1504. But curators now fear the marble statue's religious and political significance is being undermined by the thousands of fridge magnets and other memorabilia sold in Florence that focuses on David's genitalia, AP reports.

The Louvre Museum in France is home to some oft-reproduced masterpieces. PHOTO Shutterstock (Archive)

The director of the Galleria dell'Accademia, Cecilie Hollberg, has defended the creation since her arrival at the museum in 2015 and has targeted those who profit from David's image, often in ways she considers “humiliating”.

In this sense, she herself is a kind of David against Goliath, a Goliath of unfettered capitalism, with its army of street vendors and souvenir shops selling aprons with the statue, t-shirts with her engaged in obscene gestures, and ubiquitous figurines, often in Pop Art neon colors.

At Hollberg's request, the Florence prosecutor's office launched a series of court cases citing Italy's landmark cultural heritage law, which protects artistic works against derogatory and unauthorized commercial use. The Galleria dell'Accademia has secured hundreds of thousands of euros in compensation since 2017, Hollberg said.

Legal actions

Legal action followed to protect masterpieces in other museums, including Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, Donatello's David and Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

The rulings challenge a widespread practice that intellectual property rights are protected for a set period before entering the public domain – the lifetime of the artist plus 70 years under the Berne Convention, signed by more than 180 countries, including Italy.

More generally, the decisions in question raise the question of whether institutions should be arbiters of good taste and to what extent freedom of expression is limited.

Not only legal issues arise, but also philosophical issues. What does cultural heritage mean? How much do you want to give institutions control over ideas and images that are in the public domain?” said Thomas C. Danziger, a lawyer specializing in the New York art market.

He recalled Andy Warhol's famous series inspired by Leonardo's Last Supper.Are you going to stop artists like Warhol from creating what is derivative work?Danziger asked.

“Many people would see this as a land grab by the Italian courts to control and monetize works of art in the public domain that were never intended to be taxed“.

“Everyone should be free to make copies of that work”

In Italy, the scope of the cultural code is unusual, as it essentially extends copyright indefinitely to the museum or institution that owns it.

The Vatican has similar legal protections for its masterpieces and is seeking remedies through its judicial system for any unauthorized reproduction, including for commercial use and damage to the work's dignity, a spokesman said.

Elsewhere in Europe, Greece has a similar law passed in 2020 that requires permission to use images of historic sites or artefacts for commercial purposes and prohibits the use of images that “amend” or “offend” monuments in any way.

France's Louvre Museum, home to some oft-reproduced masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, says most of its collection pre-dates 1848, which puts them in the public domain under French law.

The court cases have called into question whether the Italian law violates a 2019 European Union directive that says any work of art that is no longer protected by copyright enters the public domain, meaning that “everyone should be free to make, use, and distribute copies of that work“.

The European Commission did not address the issue, but a spokesperson told the source it was currently checking “compliance with national laws implementing the Copyright Directive” and that it will analyze whether the Italian cultural heritage code affects its application.

Italy's cultural heritage code, in its current form, has been in force since 2004.