Italian authorities were indignant when they discovered that the Illinois weapons maker ArmaLite had an advertising campaign showing Michelangelo's David holding one of its rifles. "The advertisement image of an armed David offends and violates the law," tweeted tourism minister Dario Franceschini. Angel Tartuferi, director of the Accademia Gallery, which houses the sculpture, agreed: "The law says that the aesthetic value of the work cannot be altered."
This moral posturing is clearly about something other than respect for the sculpture's "aesthetic value" or "cultural dignity." Otherwise, officials would crack down on the David boxer shorts sold by countless Florentine vendors. And where was the outrage in 1981, when the David was flogging Rush brand poppers, amyl nitrite drugs used to enhance sexual pleasure, in magazines aimed at gay men?
It seems that it's fine to use the David to sell things as long as you emphasize his nudity rather than his meaning.
"The role of the David is ... to give us something naked so we can make fun of the fact that male nakedness is forbidden," writes Barry Hoffman in "The Fine Art of Advertising," his 2003 study of how ads re-appropriate images from fine art. "In advertising, the David is not an object to be venerated and respected. He is a friend to be joked with."
Hoffman cites a Levi's ad from the 1970s that shows the David wearing cutoff shorts. "They are the denim fig leaf that turns the David from a distant piece of stone into a rather attractive contemporary," he writes.
Just last year, the Canadian underwear brand Garçon Modelfeatured the David, along with other classic sculptures, in its look book. In 2012, a David replica wearing a union suit of distinctive Missoni zigzag knitsuddenly appeared at the intersection of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street in New York's meatpacking district -- high-art advertising for the Italian fashion brand.
ArmaLite's ads broke the unwritten rules. Instead of highlighting the hero's body, they emphatically made him a warrior. Hence Franceschini's objection to an "armed David," even though every David is armed. "David famously used a slingshot to defeat the giant Goliath, making the gun imagery, thought up by the Illinois-based ArmaLite, even more inappropriate," writes Emma Hall in Ad Age.
To the contrary, the gun imagery, while incongruously machine-age, was utterly appropriate. David did not use a "slingshot." He used a sling. As historians of ancient warfare -- and readers of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "David and Goliath" -- know, a sling was no child's toy. It was a powerful projectile weapon, a biblical equivalent of ArmaLite's wares.
Nor did Florentine patrons commission statues of David because he looked good without his clothes. They commissioned statues of David because he was a martial hero who had felled an intimidating foe. They made him a beautiful nude to emphasize his heroism, not to disguise his bloody deed. (Donatello's David has his boot triumphantly on Goliath's severed head.) Michelangelo's giant was meant as an inspiration to locals and a warning to would-be invaders. He wasn't an underwear model. He was a Minuteman. Putting a gun in his hand may look weird, but it's a lot truer to his original meaning than a souvenir apron.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Virginia Postrel at email@example.com
To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org