(Source: AP)
Cracks are believed to be caused by displaying the statue on an angle for nearly 400 years

One of the art world's most iconic statues has an Achilles heel -- weak ankles.  Michelangelo's marble David statue was analyzed by Italy's National Research Council (CNR) and the findings aren't good -- the statue is at risk of cracking at the ankles and toppling down, potentially ruining or seriously damaging the timeless piece.

I. A David That Towered Above Its Peers

Michelangelo is regarded as perhaps the most iconic artist of the Italian Renaissance.  A master of many mediums, perhaps his most iconic work was completed in 1504 with the public unveiling of his sculpture of the Biblical/Torah religious figure David, done in the traditional style of Roman and Greek nudes.

Michelangelo won the commission at age 26 after other artists such as Leonardo da Vinci evaluated the source marble and declined to commit to the work.

The statue was one of Michelangelo first artistic statements to the world, and remained one of his best works even at the end of his prolific career.  His faithfulness to the Greek tradition is notably illustrated in both his decision to depict David as a nude (somewhat controversial at the time with the factions of the Catholic Church) and to sculpt David to have an uncircumcized penis, in accordance of the Greek tradition, but in defiance of the Judeo-Christian tradition. 

David on display
The original David -- a towering 5 meter high giant -- is on display indoors these days. 
[Image Source: EPA]

Unlike some other famous sculptures of David done by his contemporaries which largely focused on a boyish image of David after he had felled Goliath, Michelangelo portrayed a brooding, more mature looking David who appeared to be steeling himself to strike against Goliath.  The action of the static stone statue was accentuated by the Italian master's use of contrapposto -- the shifting of weight onto one foot and twisting of the shoulders.  

The statue is known for political -- as well as religious -- controversy.  The finished David fixed a fiery gaze towards Rome, based on the positioning Michelangelo and Florentian officials planned, transcending art and becoming an icon of civil liberties.

Previously the most impressive depiction of David had been Donatello's bronze statue of the Medici family, wealthy bankers of the time who ruled Italy and would control the Catholic papacy for four Papal regimes.  The Medici family came to wealth in Florence, but had been expelled in 1494 over allegations of political corruption.  Florence, a free nation state, was for the next two decades threatened by the power of the family, who eventually were allowed in 1512 to return from exile.

The Donatello bronze casting of David -- completed by Donatello in the 1440s -- had recently been taken from the Medici Palace following their expulsion and was placed in the courtyard of the Palazzo della Signoria, a public courtyard.  Under construction from 1501 to 1504, the Michelangelo's David would join Donatello's in the courtyard after its 1504 unveiling.

David state
David stares at Rome, the center of the Medici's power at the time of the statue's unveiling in Florence.  [Image Source: Caravaggista]

The decision to have the statue stare at Rome -- the epicenter of the Medici family's power base in exile -- was perhaps matched by the symbolism of the fact that the free Florentian state's commission dwarfed Donatello's:  Donatello's effeminate David statue was only 1.58 m (5.2 ft.) tall, Michelangelo's more masculine David towered at 5.17 m (17.0 ft.).

II. Bad Marble

In modern times the statue was moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, or "Gallery of the Academy of Florence", an art museum in Florence.  A replica was installed in place of the original at its previous location in the courtyard public palace.  Another fiberglass replica was later added to the Florence Cathedral's roof.

The statue has survived the past five centuries and countless wars and earthquakes.  But today scientists believe it is threatened.  Research into the health of the statue's marble was ironically assisted by a vandal who attacked the statue in 1991, damaging one of its feet.

By studying the marble debris, the researchers definitively identified the marble to come from the Carrara region in Tuscany, Italy -- not exactly good news.  
Italy Carrara quarry
The marble that made David almost certainly came from a quarry in the Carrara region of Tuscany.
[Image Source: Italy Magazine/BigStock]
That region's marble has microscopic holes in it that makes it more prone to damage and deterioriation that deposits mined elsewhere.  The fact that Michelangelo's David -- which weighs over 12,000 pounds -- has survived is a relative miracle.

white marble
While beautiful and sculptable the region's white marble is pitted with tiny microscopic holes that can hasten its deterioration. [Image Source: Italy Magazine/BigStock]
But the marble may be finally showing its age.  Cracks have begun to appear in the ankles.

Preservationists want to move the statue to an earthquaked proofed sanctuary room at the gallery, but even that may not be enough.  The cracks have been plastered over, but have reopened, even without any major earthquakes in the region.

II. Statue Could Break at the Ankles, Topple

The researchers for the CNR studied the danger of the statue cracking at the ankles and toppling by building plaster replicas and exposing them to forces stronger than Earth gravity in a centrifuge.

Their findings indicate that the initial damage was due to a combination of man and mother nature.  The statue was placed at an angle of roughly five degrees while on display between 1504 and 1873 in the palace courtyard.  During that time, the gravitational force on the marble -- already riddled with tiny holes -- caused larger cracks to appear.  Cracking and lesions on David's ankles and the tree stump behind the statue's right ankle were first noticed in the middle of the nineteenth century.

If the study is correct, the statue was likely saved by the decision to move it indoors and keep it erect since 1873.

A final thing worth noting about the damage is that part of what made it more likely to happen is part of what made the statue so eye-catching and beloved -- the contrapposto.  By placing the left leg off to the side, most of the weight is born on the right leg, which is relatively straight.  While this creates the pleasing artistic effect, it likely also subjected the statue's Achilles heel -- its ankles -- to higher stress.

David cracks
The tree trunk behind David's right foot, and his left ankle/calf have developed cracks that reappear even when plastered over. [Image Source: ANSA]
Researchers have scoured the record and concluded that the statue was subjected to 127 minor quakes, but none over 5 on the Richter scale.  Still, in its fragile state even a small quake could worsen the cracking, eventually toppling the statue.

In addition to researchers from Italy's CNR, the study was assisted by researchers from the Università degli Studi di Firenze (UniFl) in Florence.  UniFl Earth Science Dept. Professor Francesco Landucci was the senior author of a paper on the work.  The researchers published their results in the Journal of Cultural Heritage.  

Professor Antonio Borri, a researcher at Umbria, Italy's Perugia University, has also led recent studies examining the damage.  So far these studies all paint a rather dire picture of the statue's health.

The biggest question going ahead is how to conserve the statue.  There are no clear answers based on the study, but following through with the plans to move it to an earthquake-proof room would be a good start.

A side note: April 30 marked the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo's passing.

Sources: Journal of Cultural Heritage on ScienceDirect, University of Florence [press release; translated], [second press release; translated],

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