Florida principal ousted over ‘David’ images gets to see the real thing

When the principal of a Florida charter school lost her job in March after she showed sixth-grade students images of Michelangelo’s “David” — prompting complaints from parents, including one who deemed the material “pornographic” — she probably didn’t imagine the fallout would take her all the way to Florence. But on Friday, Hope Carrasquilla was standing in front of the sculpture at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, a guest of the museum’s director and an accidental participant in a debate about nudity in art that has raged for centuries.

“There is nothing wrong with the human body in and of itself,” Carrasquilla said while visiting “David” on Friday, according to a statement from the museum. She likened the setting to a church, remarking on the “purity” and “humanness” of the sculpture. Galleria director Cecilie Hollberg said she was delighted to introduce Carrasquilla to “David,” which she described as representing the religious principle of good triumphing over evil — and, she reiterated, “nothing to do with pornography.”

Carrasquilla’s former employer, Tallahassee Classical School, is following a curriculum from the conservative Christian institution Hillsdale College in Michigan, and her husband has described her as a “strong evangelical Christian.” The chair of the Florida school’s board said there were several issues with the former principal, including not notifying parents ahead of time that their children would be shown images of “David” — and that the parents believed the material was “controversial” and not age-appropriate for their children, The Post reported.

The news made its way to Florence, where the Galleria director — along with the mayor of the city — extended an invitation to Carrasquilla. She and Hollberg have been in touch since.

Carrasquilla’s ouster came as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is championing efforts to remold the state’s education system, including imposing a ban on lessons about gender identity and sexuality at public schools. The controversy has sparked a surge of interest in the Renaissance statue — and a renewed discussion about the line between the explicit and the aesthetic.

William Wallace, a professor of Renaissance art at Washington University in St. Louis, noted that some art historians distinguish between nakedness — “an unwelcome state of distraught or shameful undress” — and nudity, which he describes as “a celebration of the human body.” Michelangelo’s “David” is decidedly the latter, he said, calling the work “a proclamation and celebration of God’s greatest creation, we humans.”

This wrangle is only the latest in what Wallace calls “a long history of censorship and iconoclasm” that seeks to destroy or suppress art that has “disturbed morality.” Usually, he said, this happens without reference to the history and context of a work.

“David” has sparked heated discussion since its debut in the 1500s, when it scandalized Catholic clergy, prompting authorities to cover the sculpture’s genitals with bronze fig leaves. In 1995, a Hong Kong newspaper faced thousands of dollars in fines and potential imprisonment of its journalists after a tribunal ruled that an image of the sculpture that appeared in print was “indecent.” (That ruling was later reversed.) More recently, when a 3D replica of “David” appeared at the 2021 Dubai Expo, most visitors could only see the figure’s head.

Jill Burke, a professor of Renaissance visual and material cultures at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said that pornographic images are meant to elicit an erotic response, but this is “certainly not the David’s intention.” As the largest free-standing nude sculpture made since the fall of pagan civilizations, she said, its nudity instead can be understood as a representation of the ideal human form, inspired by classical works.

“Calling the ‘David’ pornographic says more about that particular viewer than the art object,” she said. “Most people are able to separate an aesthetic response from a sexual one.”

The idea that an ancient marble statue would cause desire “seems a bit odd,” said Nicola Beisel, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. But she also raises the question: If it did cause desire, what’s wrong with that?

To her, the controversy reflects ongoing culture wars in Florida, where the restrictions on teaching gender identity and sexuality have drawn outrage from LGBTQ advocates and education experts. It’s notable, Beisel said, that desire aroused by a male body would presumably be ascribed to a woman, a gay man or a trans person.

Claudia LaMalfa, an art history professor at the American University of Rome, said “David” is a fundamental piece of arts education that shows “a genius at work.” The debate around its nudity reflects something greater at stake, she said.

“If Michelangelo’s ‘David’ can no longer be used to ask young students to think,” she said, “then the modern democratic system of teaching fails.”

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