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David-Apollo Arrives for Italian Diplomatic Mission

It’s endured Renaissance political intrigues, scandalized Chinese censors and partied at President Harry S. Truman’s 1949 inaugural.

Now, Michelangelo’s masterpiece David-Apollo is taking up temporary residence at the National Gallery of Art to kick off a yearlong celebration of Italian culture and serve as an inanimate goodwill ambassador at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

Michelangelo carved it in 1530 for Baccio Valori, the governor of Florence, who was put in charge of the city after papal forces crushed the republican government in which the artist served. It’s unclear whether the nude male figure is supposed to be the biblical David or the Greek god Apollo. But its melancholy pose is a far cry from the more famous giant sculpture of David that Michelangelo fashioned as a symbol of Florentine pride. Art scholars say the round object beneath David-Apollo’s right foot may be an incomplete rendering of Goliath’s head, a rock or some other metaphor for Michelangelo’s defeated state.

When Valori ran afoul of the Medici clan and was himself beheaded, the sculpture was appropriated by Duke Cosimo I, who kept it in his bedchamber.

In more recent times, David-Apollo has been used for cultural diplomacy. Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata recalled on Wednesday how his grateful nation shipped it to Washington to coincide with Truman’s inaugural as thanks for post-World War II U.S. aid.

When it was exhibited in Beijing earlier this year, however, Chinese central television pixelated certain parts of the figure’s anatomy, prompting a public outcry.

The sculpture is on display here through March 3 in a second-floor circular space that allows visitors to follow the figure’s spiraling pose, ponder the enigmatic facial expression and also examine Michelangelo’s chisel marks. Like many of the artist’s works, David-Apollo was never completed, either because Michelangelo took on more work than he could finish or because he simply enjoyed the look of forms taking shape, according to curator Alison Luchs.

“2013 — The Year of Italian Culture” will deliver another big art “get” to the National Gallery in October: The Dying Gaul, an ancient Roman marble sculpture from the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

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