September 8, 1504

Plaster cast of original statue of 'David', by Michelangelo, Florence, Italy, 1501-4. Cast by unknown maker, Florence, Italy, about 1857.

Plaster cast of original statue of ‘David’, by Michelangelo, Florence, Italy, 1501-4. Cast by unknown maker, Florence, Italy, about 1857.

On this date, the original statue of David by Michelangelo was unveiled in Florence, Italy.

Interestingly, a replica of the statue of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ was originally presented to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857, but was immediately given by the queen to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). The story goes that on her first encounter with the cast of ‘David’ at the Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity that a proportionally accurate fig leaf was commissioned. It was then kept in readiness for any royal visits, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks. In a photograph of the Art Museum taken around 1857-9 the figure of David is shown wearing a fig leaf. The fig leaf is likely to have been made by the Anglo-Italian firm D. Brucciani & Co., based in London.

Male nudity was then a contentious issue. A letter sent to the Museum in 1903 by a Mr Dobson complained about the statuary displayed: ‘One can hardly designate these figures as “art” !: if it is, it is a very objectionable form of art.’

In relation to Mr Dobson’s complaint, the then director Caspar Purdon Clarke noted: ‘The antique casts gallery has been very much used by private lady teachers for the instruction of young girl students and none of them has ever complained even indirectly’ (museum papers, 1903).

Tin fig leaves had been used during the early years of the Museum on other nude male statuary, but later authorities at South Kensington were dismissive of objections. Nowadays, the fig leaf is no longer displayed on the David. Instead, it is housed in its own case on the back of the plinth of the figure.

Hopefully, that’s where it will remain.

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