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A fight to protect the dignity of Michelangelo’s David raises questions about freedom of expression

Florence, Italy –

Michelangelo’s David has been a prominent figure in Italian culture since its completion in 1504. But in the current era of quick money, curators fear that the marble statue’s religious and political significance is being diminished by the thousands of refrigerator magnets and other souvenirs sold in Florence focusing on David’s genitals.

Galleria dell’Accademia director Cecilie Hollberg has positioned herself as David’s defender since her arrival at the museum in 2015, targeting those who profit from his image, often in ways she finds “degrading.”

In this way, she is herself a bit of a David versus the Goliath of unfettered capitalism, with its army of street vendors and souvenir shop owners hawking aprons depicting the statue’s naked figure, T-shirts bearing obscene gestures, and ubiquitous figures. often in pop art neon.

At Hollberg’s behest, prosecutors in Florence have launched a series of lawsuits citing Italy’s landmark cultural heritage law, which protects art treasures from derogatory and unauthorized commercial use. The Accademia has received hundreds of thousands of euros in damages since 2017, said Hollberg.

“There was great joy all around the world about this truly unique victory that we were able to achieve, and questions and questions came from everywhere about how we did it, and we asked for advice on how we should move forward,” she said The Associated Press.

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

The decisions challenge a widespread practice under which intellectual property rights are protected for a certain period of time before they become publicly available – the artist’s lifetime plus 70 years, according to the Berne Convention signed by more than 180 countries, including Italy became.

More broadly, the decisions raise questions about whether institutions should decide on taste and the extent to which freedom of expression is restricted.

“It raises not only legal but also philosophical questions. What does cultural heritage mean? “How much stranglehold do you want to give institutions over ideas and images that are in the public domain?” said Thomas C. Danziger, a New York-based art market lawyer.

He referenced Andy Warhol’s famous series inspired by Leonardo’s “Last Supper.” “Are you going to stop artists like Warhol from creating a derivative work?” asked Danziger. “Many people would see this as a land grab by the Italian courts to control and monetize publicly owned artworks that should never be charged a fee.”

The Italian Cultural Code is unusual in its scope, as it essentially extends the author’s copyright in perpetuity to the museum or institution that owns it. The Vatican has similar legal protection for its masterpieces and seeks remedies through its court system for any unauthorized reproduction, including for commercial purposes and for violating the dignity of the work, a spokesman said.

Elsewhere in Europe, Greece has a similar law passed in 2020 that requires permission for commercial use of images of historical sites or artifacts and prohibits the use of images that “alter” or “insult” the monuments in any way.

France’s Louvre Museum, which houses some oft-replicated masterpieces such as the “Mona Lisa” and the Venus de Milo, notes that its collection largely predates 1848, making them public domain under French law.

Court cases have debated whether the Italian law violates a 2019 European Union directive that says all works of art that are no longer protected by copyright enter the public domain, meaning that “everyone should have the freedom to make copies of that work.” , to use and to share”.

The EU Commission has not addressed the issue, but a spokesman told the AP that it is currently examining “the conformity of national laws implementing the Copyright Directive” and will examine whether Italy’s cultural heritage law affects its application.

Hollberg won her first lawsuit against ticket sellers who used David’s image to sell admission packages at a premium outside the doors of the Accademia. She has also taken aim at GQ Italia for forcing a model’s face onto David’s body, and luxury fashion brand Longchamp’s cheeky Florence edition of her signature Le Pliage bag, which features David’s more intimate details.

Longchamp noted that the depiction was “not without irony” and said the bag was “an opportunity to express with amusing lightness the creative force that has always animated this wonderful city.”

No matter how many lawsuits Hollberg has filed – she won’t say how many – the spread of David likenesses continues.

“I am sorry that there is so much ignorance and so little respect in using a work that has been praised for centuries for its beauty, for its purity, for its meanings, for its symbols, to make tasteless products out of it.” Plastic said Hollberg.

Building on Hollberg’s success and bolstered by improved search engine technology, the private company that manages Florence’s landmark cathedral has begun going after commercial companies that use the famous dome for illicit and sometimes denigrating purposes – including men’s and women’s underwear.

To date, cease and desist letters have been sufficient to achieve compliance without having to resort to the courts, increasing sales by more than half a million euros (US$541,600) per year to over 30 million euros (US$32 million). Dollars) increased, Luca Bagnoli, president of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, told the AP.

“We generally support freedom of artistic expression,” Bagnoli said. “When it comes to reinterpreted copies, it becomes a little more difficult to understand where artistic freedom ends and our image rights begin.”

Italy’s cultural heritage law in its current form has been in force since 2004, and while Hollberg’s cases were not the first, they represented an acceleration, experts said.

The case law is still being examined. A court in Venice ordered German puzzle maker Ravensburger to stop using the image of the “Vitruvian Man” in the first case involving a company outside Italy. The ruling implicitly rejected Ravensburger’s argument that the law was inconsistent with the EU copyright directive, lawyers said.

Experts say the aggressive stance could backfire, hampering the licensing of Italian artworks, a source of revenue, while restricting the reproduction of masterpieces that serve as cultural ambassadors.

“There is a risk for Italy because you can choose a work of art that does not fall under this legislation,” said Vittorio Cerulli Irelli, an intellectual property lawyer at Trevisan & Cuonzo in Rome. “In many cases it is the same for you to use a painting by Leonardo that is in the UK or a painting by Leonardo that is in Italy. Just go with the easiest choice.”


Associated Press writers Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Greece, and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.

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