Italy is fighting back against souvenirs focusing on Michelangelo’s David genitals

Rome: Michelangelo’s David has been a towering figure in Italy since its completion in 1504. But in the current era of the quick buck, curators worry the marble statue’s religious and political significance is being diminished by the thousands of refrigerator magnets and other souvenirs sold around Florence focusing on David’s genitalia.

The Galleria dell’Accademia director, Cecilie Hollberg, has positioned herself as David’s defender since her arrival at the museum in 2015, taking swift aim at those profiteering from his image, often in ways she finds “debasing”.

In that way, she is a bit of a David herself, up against the Goliath of unfettered capitalism with its army of street vendors and souvenir shop operators hawking aprons of the statue’s nude figure, T-shirts of it engaged in obscene gestures, and ubiquitous figurines, often in Pop Art neon.

At Hollberg’s behest, the state’s attorney office in Florence has launched a series of court cases invoking Italy’s landmark cultural heritage code, which protects artistic treasures from disparaging and unauthorised commercial use. The Accademia has won hundreds of thousands of euros in damages since 2017, according to Hollberg.

She won her first case against ticket scalpers using David’s image to sell marked-up entrance packages outside the Accademia’s doors. She also has targeted GQ Italia for imposing a model’s face on David’s body, and luxury fashion brand Longchamp’s cheeky Florence edition of its trademark Le Pliage bag featuring David’s more intimate details.

“There was great joy throughout all the world for this truly unique victory that we managed to achieve, and questions and queries from all over about how we did it, to ask advice on how to move,” she said.

Legal action has followed to protect masterpieces at other museums, not without debate, including Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, Donatello’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

The decisions challenge a widely held practice that intellectual property rights are protected for a specified period before entering the public domain – the artist’s lifetime plus 70 years, according to the Berne Convention signed by more than 180 countries, including Italy.