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Florence invites Floridians to see pornographic Michelangelo

March 27, 2023

The mayor of Florence reacted to the uproar and firing of a school principal in Florida, after angry parents said a Michelangelo sculpture was not suitable for children.

 Michelangelo Buonarroti's 1504 sculpture of David as seen from below
Michelangelo's David is seen by many as a sublime example of human creativity, parents in Florida claim it is pornographyImage: Steffen Trumpf/picture alliance/dpa

Florence Mayor Dario Naardella has invited parents, students and a teacher fired from the Tallahassee Classical School in Florida to come to Italy and judge firsthand whether Michelangelo Buonarroti's 1504 sculpture of the Old Testament hero David is in fact pornography.

The invitation was extended after the school's principal, Hope Carrasquilla, was forced to resign when parents vociferously complained about images of the five-meter (17 foot) tall marble sculpture being shown to sixth graders as part of a Renaissance art history course.

Two parents complained they had not been warned their children would be shown the image, while a third called it "pornographic."

On Saturday, Mayor Nardella tweeted, "to mistake art for pornography is just ridiculous."

Nardella's invitation came after Cecilie Hollberg, director of the city's famed Galleria dell'Accademia, extended a similar offer to the principal, school board, parents and student body in order for them to witness the "purity" of the statue.

Over the weekend, Hollberg was quoted by Italy's La Repubblica newspaper saying, "to think that David could be pornographic means truly not understanding the contents of the Bible, not understanding Western culture and not understanding Renaissance art."

Hollberg went on to say it takes a "warped imagination" to associate a religious figure with pornography.

The sculpture is one of the premiere works of the Italian Renaissance, famed for its representation of a perfect human figure created by god.

In Michelangelo's portrait of David, the Biblical slayer of Philistine giant Goliath is seen naked — in classical Renaissance contrapposto — with a stone in his right hand and a sling over his left shoulder.

Created between 1501 and 1504, the sculpture is one of the main draws to the museum, which sees 1.7 million visitors each year — many of them selfie-hungry American tourists who pose before it.

Hope Carrasquilla said she was "very honored" by the invitation, adding, "I've been to Florence before and have seen the David up close and in person, but I would love to go and be a guest of the mayor."

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (1512) from the central panel of the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes
Clothing has long been optional in art history, as here in Michelangelo's 1512 Sistine Chapel depiction of the Creation of Adam Image: Michelangelo

Why are schools on the frontlines of US culture wars?

The Tallahassee Classical School is a so-called charter school, meaning it is taxpayer funded and tuition free but can set its own curriculum — unlike public schools that must follow specific state academic guidelines. 

The school, attended by some 400 student from kindergarten through grade 12, was founded three years ago and follows a curriculum set by Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Hillsdale, an ultra-conservative Christian school, has become a go-to partner for, among others, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has declared a war on what he describes as "woke liberalism" in the state.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis seen waving to supporters before an American flag as red, white and blue confettii fills the room
Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has routinely used schools as a lightning rod to woo supportersImage: Marco Bello/REUTERS

The issue of "parental rights" in schools has gained traction among Republican politicians, their donors and their base, proving to be a popular fundraising and electoral lightning rod as well as one that garners headlines in the right's crusade against the teaching of issues they disapprove of, such as examinations of race history in the US and anything related to sex or gender identity.

DeSantis, who is largely seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate, has vowed to reform Florida's schools and universities to make them a model for others in the country to follow — replacing directors and staff deemed too liberal with conservative allies, banning the teaching of topics like race and sex education, and culling thousands of books from school libraries and state curricula. 

Addressing the controversy over Carrasquilla's firing, Tallahassee Classical School Board Chairman Barney Bishop said it was about more than the image of the sculpture but did not elaborate. 

Other parents from the school have said they plan to defend Carrasquilla at an upcoming school board meeting though the educator said she was unsure whether she would even be interested in getting her job back at this point: "There's been such controversy and such upheaval. I would really have to consider, is this truly what is best?"

Speaking to the issue from the American Academy in Rome, humanities professor Marla Stone said she was perplexed that a lesson on Renaissance art would require a trigger warning: "What we have here is a moral crusade against the body, sexuality, and gender expression and an ignorance of history. The incident is about fear — fear of beauty, of difference, and of the possibilities embedded in art."

js/jcg (AP, dpa)