If you have been anywhere near social media this week, it’s likely you’ve heard about the recent controversy that has pushed a small Florida school into a global spotlight. At the Tallahassee Classical school, sixth graders were learning about Michelangelo’s David, a standard part of the curriculum. There was nothing standard, however, about the response. Three parents complained about their children being shown a “pornographic” statue, leading to the principal’s resignation and a viral, international response.
Completed in 1504, Michelangelo’s 17-foot-tall David shows the titular Biblical hero waiting in anticipation for his foe, Goliath. Created when Michelangelo was in his 20s, it has today become one of the most recognizable works of Italian Renaissance art. First intended to decorate one of the buttresses of Florence’s cathedral, it was instead moved to the piazza in front of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s one-time seat of government. There, David faced southward, towards Rome, a symbol of the young republic’s underdog status and resilience against the mighty Papal States. Today, it is instead on display in the Galleria dell’Accademia, where it looms at the end of a grand hallway lined with Michelangelo’s Slaves.
The David has been an essential part of the art history curriculum since Vasari first collected artist biographies in his famous Lives. From the careful rendering of anatomy to the contrapposto pose full of coiled energy, this sculpture reveals many facets of the Renaissance style lauded by Vasari and subsequent art historians. A celebration of the idealized human form and a reflection of the artistic fashions of the early sixteenth century, its nudity is far from unusual. The walls of the Vatican, the seat of the Holy See, are filled with nude or semi-nude figures. Michelangelo himself painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the current site of the Papal Conclave, depicting several such individuals. Still, This Florida school is not the first to take issue with figures, even religious ones, which are shown without clothes. In Post-Tridentine Rome, the nudes in the Sistine Chapel were viewed with a much more critical eye. The Roman artist Daniele da Volterra was commissioned to cover their genitals with clothing, earning him the unfortunate nickname Il Braghettone, or The Breeches Maker.
While Michelangelo’s reputation as one of the great artists in the art historical canon has largely ensured the study of his oeuvre ad infinitum, this recent controversy reveals that even he is not exempt from outrage. After the school began receiving complaints from parents, it gave its principal, Hope Carrasquilla, two choices—resign or be fired. Barney Bishop III, chair of the school board, made the issue clear; above all else, it was a question of parents’ rights. The outrage revolved around an email the administration accidentally forgot to send to parents, informing them of the inclusion of the nude David in that particular class. In an interview with Slate, Bishop also insisted that Carrasquilla had not been fired, but had rather resigned, although he also acknowledges that it was a forced resignation.
In Bishop’s view, it is the parent, not the teacher, or even the school board, who decides what is or isn’t appropriate for students to learn. This is, of course, a strange sentiment in light of the extensive training, education, and certifications that most educators and administrators must earn. Why shouldn’t these professionals be allowed to shape the curriculum without fear that it might lead to their termination if a handful of parents disagree? However, as Bishop stated in his interview with Slate, in Florida “Parents will decide. Parents are the ones who are going to drive the education system here in Florida. The governor said that, and we’re with the governor.”
This cannot be considered without bringing into the conversation the recent wave of legislation, especially in Florida, surrounding parents’ rights in education. Legislation like the “Parental Rights in Education” bill signed into law in 2022, restricts or entirely prohibits discussions of gender and sexuality in schools. Bishop’s views on this are clear: “We’re not gonna teach 1619 or CRT crap. I know they do all that up in Virginia. The rights of parents, that trumps the rights of kids. Teachers are the experts? Teachers have all the knowledge? Are you kidding me? I know lots of teachers that are very good, but to suggest they are the authorities, you’re on better drugs than me.”
Responses to this have been swift, with social media fueling the spread of the story and subsequent interviews. The mayor of Florence himself tweeted in support of the principal (who he incorrectly identifies as a teacher), inviting them to Florence and adding “Art is civilization, and whoever teaches it merits respect.” In an article with the Associated Press, Cecilie Hollberg, director of the Galleria dell’Accademia where the David is currently housed, invited Florida’s school board, former principal, parents, and students to visit the museum and see for themselves the “purity” of the statue, adding “To think that David could be pornographic means truly not understanding the contents of the Bible, not understanding Western culture and not understanding Renaissance art.”
The crux of this story is the restrictive policies—often centered around sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism—which are increasingly shaping children’s education throughout the United States. What this incident reveals is that even a masterpiece that has been praised for centuries is not exempt from this type of outrage. Museums play an important role in preserving and communicating art and history to the public. However, if these policies continue to be enacted, their ability to educate will be severely impeded. We must turn a critical eye to the biases and discrimination that are at the heart of incidents such as this one in order to best protect museums and schools, curators and educators, teachers and students, from the restrictive mindset of a loud minority.
Winfield, Nicole, and Terry Spencer. “Is the David porn? Come see, Italians tell Florida parents.” AP News. March 27, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/italy-michelangelo-hillsdale-florida-florence-david-56d2977c3fceefd02f475f9d4d0be3d9
Kois, Dan. “An Interview With the School Board Chair Who Forced Out a Principal After Michelangelo’s David Was Shown in Class.” Slate. March 23, 2023. https://slate.com/human-interest/2023/03/florida-principal-fired-michelangelo-david-statue.html
Gabbatt, Adam. “Art, not pornography: Florence museum invites Florida parents to see the David.” The Guardian. March 27, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/mar/27/michelangelo-david-florida-florence-museum-school
Akers, Torey. “Florida school principal fired for showing students Michelangelo’s ‘pornographic’ David sculpture.” The Art Newspaper. March 23, 2023. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/03/23/florida-principal-fired-michelangelo-david-pornographic
Akers, Torey. “Florence’s mayor invites Florida students and their former principal to experience the ‘purity’ of Michelangelo’s David.” The Art Newspaper. March 27, 2023. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/03/27/florence-mayor-invites-floridians-michelangelo-david
Velie, Elaine. “Florida Principal Ousted Over “Pornographic” Michelangelo Sculpture.” Hyperallergic. March 24, 2023. https://hyperallergic.com/810358/florida-principal-ousted-over-pornographic-michelangelo-sculpture/
Kim, Juliana. A principal is fired, invited to Italy after students are shown Michelangelo’s ‘David’.” NPR. March 27, 2023. https://www.npr.org/2023/03/27/1166079167/tallahassee-classical-michelangelo-david-principal-fired
Article by Francesca Bisi
MA Candidate in Art History and Museum Studies, Tufts University