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‘David-Apollo’ Opens Year of Italian Culture

by Gail Sullivan

Diplomats, members of Congress and Italian-American community leaders gathered at the National Gallery of Art in December for the unveiling of the “David-Apollo,” a nearly 500-year-old Michelangelo masterpiece on loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, Italy.

No, not that David. Michelangelo’s sculpture at the Accademia Gallery in Florence is “the” David today, but circa 1500, Davids were in high demand. In fact, the marble statue, standing nearly five feet tall, might not be a David at all. It’s unclear whether the unfinished work is David the biblical giant slayer, or the sun god Apollo, drawing an arrow from his quiver.

Photos: Rob Shelley © National Gallery of Art
Michelangelo’s “David-Apollo,” on display at the National Gallery of Art until March 3, is the inaugural event of “2013 – The Year of Italian Culture in the United States,” a massive program showcasing the best of Italian arts and culture in some 70 U.S. museums and cultural institutions.

The story behind the sculpture is as fascinating as the enigmatic statue itself. Michelangelo carved “David-Apollo” for Baccio Valori, who was appointed interim governor of Florence by a Medici pope in 1530. The gift was a peace offering from Michelangelo, who sided with the republicans during a clash with the ruling Medici family. When the pope died, Michelangelo left Florence, never returning to finish the statue, which was later appropriated by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici after Valori, too, joined a failed rebellion against the powerful Medici dynasty, whose reign helped give birth to the Italian renaissance.

The renaissance, along with works from the classical, baroque and contemporary periods, will all be showcased as part of “2013 – The Year of Italian Culture,” a massive series of more than 180 events celebrating Italian art, music, theater, cinema, cuisine, design, science and academic achievements. The Italian-sponsored program organized in conjunction with some 70 U.S. cultural institutions across America will bring a taste of Italy to more than 40 U.S. cities, including D.C. (The Washington Diplomat will feature “2013 – The Year of Italian Culture” in its upcoming March 2013 issue.)

Photo: Tricia Zigmund © National Gallery of Art
Among the guests at the official unveiling of “David-Apollo” at the National Gallery of Art were, from left: Enzo Viscusi, Eni Group senior vice president; Claudio Bisogniero, ambassador of Italy to the United States; Ann Stock, U.S. assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural Affairs; Earl A. Powell III, National Gallery of Art director; Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, Italian minister of foreign affairs; and Enrico Tommaso Cucchiani, chief executive officer of Intesa Sanpaolo.

Kicking off the festivities was the unveiling of “David-Apollo” at the National Gallery on Dec. 12. Though the exhibit (running through March 3) only comprises a single, uncompleted statue, “David-Apollo” is sure to attract large crowds. The figure’s pose invites viewers to circle the sculpture, contemplating its competing David/Apollo identities from every angle.

The undefined mass under the right foot may have taken shape as Goliath’s head. The figure’s arm reaches back into an unfinished mass of stone that might have been a David’s sling or Apollo’s quiver. And chisel marks, a sign of a work in progress that would eventually have been polished away, are still visible. As a result, the unfinished work offers a glimpse into Michelangelo’s artistic process, as his vision took shape in stone.

Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata (also Italy’s former ambassador in Washington) presided over the official unveiling and called it “a magnificent beginning to a year-long voyage of discovery of Italy.” The theme of the “Year of Italian Culture” is research, discovery and innovation. “David-Apollo captures just this spirit,” Terzi said.

Formed amid political power struggles, the statue continues to straddle scandal and diplomacy in modern times. When it was exhibited in Beijing last year, the statue’s nether-regions were blurred in a report by Chinese government-run television, causing an online stir.

“David-Apollo” also created quite a stir when it first came to Washington in 1949, attracting nearly 800,000 visitors to National Gallery of Art, where it was displayed for Harry Truman’s inaugural reception as a sign of Italy’s gratitude to the United States for post-war assistance. Now, it’s returned in time for President Obama’s second inaugural.

Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gallery Archives
President Harry S. Truman, center, and his wife and daughter, left, join Vice President Alben Barkely and his daughter at an inaugural reception held at the National Gallery of Art featuring “David-Apollo” on Jan. 20, 1949.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a member of the Italian-American Caucus, reminded the crowd at the National Gallery of the historic ties between Italy and the United States, “a country founded by an Italian, named by an Italian, and developed by tens of millions of Italian Americans in our country.”

“Much of the beauty that you see in the Capitol was painted by the artist Brumidi,” Pelosi added. Constantino Brumidi, an Italian-born artist, painted the fresco in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol dome.

Americans will have plenty of opportunities to experience more examples of Italian achievement with the yearlong festival. Scheduled exhibitions include Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex on the Flight of Birds” at the National Air and Space Museum in May, and a multimedia exhibit at the Library of Congress about Martin Waldseemuller’s 1507 world map (the first to feature “America”) in December.

The National Gallery will also showcase “The Dying Gaul,” a marble sculpture of a Celtic warrior agonizing over his wounds that is admired for its emotionally evocative power and attention to detail. The statue will be on display October 2013 through February 2014, as part of “The Dream of Rome,” a project initiated by the mayor of Rome to exhibit timeless masterpieces in the United States from 2011 to 2014.

Other highlights include a conference on 50 years of cooperation between Italy and NASA, as well as a major symposium on Niccolò Machiavelli to coincide with the 500th anniversary of “The Prince,” both in March.

The embassy is also working to get the word out on “2013 – The Year of Italian Culture.” The festival’s logo will be projected on the façade of the Italian Embassy in Washington, as well as other important buildings in major U.S. cities. In addition, some 200 buses in D.C. will feature verses by famous Italian poets translated into English as part of “Poetry on the Bus: Next Stop Italy.”

For more information on “2013 – The Year of Italian Culture,” visit

About the Author

Gail Sullivan is a freelance writer for The Washington Diplomat.



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