Michelangelo’s David the Tranquil Heroic Naked Guy vs. Michelangelo’s David the Conquering Warrior Hero


“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.”

— Virgina Postrel

armalite-gallery-1This controversy is news to me. Author  Virginia Postrel has an item about this in Bloomberg that I recommend, with the (wonderfully not-subtle) headline: Michelangelo’s David Has a Right to Bear Arms

So a gun company, ArmaLite, depicts Michelangelo’s David with a powerful firearm. Potent image. Effective advertising, too. It gets attention. Did ArmaLite think the Italian cultural establishment would view this…favorably? The backlash was perhaps stronger than they anticipated. What does David represent? Asymmetrical warfare, for one.

Come to think of it, Glenn Reynolds wrote a whole book on asymmetrical warfare (the digital revolution) in his classic An Army of Davids. Virginia Postrel’s book The Power of Glamour, makes her uniquely positioned to comment on the controversy.

First, some housekeeping notes.

In 2013, when punditfromanotherplanet was new, we sometimes liberally copied whole articles, rather than just select quotes. We had the misfortune of arousing author Virginia Postrel’s attention, and displeasure. The issue was quickly resolved (more on this after the jump) It was instructive. We’re more cautious now, with respect to author material, selecting shorter sections of text. And we particularly like reading and promoting the books of writers we like. Speaking of which, have I mentioned Postrel’s book yet?

Housekeeping done. So what’s the reaction in Italy to the gun ad? Not happy. Here’s a quick outline: Italian authorities made public their displeasure with ArmaLite‘s advertising campaign featuring Michelangelo’s David holding one of its rifles. The Guardian chronicles the freakout:

To the horror of many in the Italian cultural establishment, the world-famous marble statue has been pictured in an advertisement cradling not a slingshot but an American-made rifle.

An image of David brandishing an AR-50A1 sold by ArmaLite, a 60-year-old Illinois-based small arms engineering company, has provoked such ire in Italy that the culture minister took to Twitter to demand the advert be “immediately” ditched.

“The advertisement image of the [statue of] David armed offends and infringes the law,” read a post by Dario Franceschini. “We will take action against the American company which must immediately withdraw the campaign.”

As Postrel notes, the Italian cultural establishment never complained when the image of David was appropriated for hip underwear ads, or other commercial or contemporary fashion applications. 

[Virgina Postrel‘s book, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion” is available at Amazon]

armalite-galleryThe questions it raises are about what the statue represents, historically, is worth exploring. We would expect that the original meaning of Michelangelo depiction of David has become diluted in contemporary perception, distorted in popular culture, for fun and profit. Not unique to this one statue. But is is the depiction of David’s nakedness and beauty central to what the figure represents? Or is Michelangelo’s David primarily an image of a heroic warrior? Is David’s heroism, his weapon, and his victory, more central to what the statue represents?

As Postrel demonstrates, David’s not just a beautiful naked guy. David is unmistakably a warrior. The weapon ad, though distasteful to some, makes more historical sense than ads that focus on his lack of clothing. In a comparison sure to disrupt the narrative, Postrel’s assertion that David is the equivalent of a Minuteman brings a fresh perspective to the discussion. Postrel says:

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.

Read the whole thing.

Italy, as it turns out, has rules.

Italian law requires that the likeness of the work be licensed by the government for commercial use and that the content must be pre-approved by the museum director and the Florence museum superintendent. Whether that law has any bearing on the American company is doubtful. U.S. law protects the use of copyright material for advertising, if the ads are substantially transformative.

Elisabetta Povelodeo, for the NYT ArtsBeat column, reports on the Italian culture official’s lack of amusement. On the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, guns.com has a report that is, rather than a fierce pro-ArmaLite defense, that we might expect from a gun site, is a refreshingly clear, sober article reporting the controversy. Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie has a good review of Postrel’s article. And lest we forget, Glenn Reynolds wrote a whole book on revolutionary asymmetrical digital warfare, An Army of Davids.

Michelangelos David Has a Right to Bear Arms – Bloomberg View

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. Her book, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion was recently published by Simon & Schuster. Her website is at vpostrel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @vpostrel.

Picking up from the comments above, disclosure: In 2013 when this site was new, punditfromanotherplanet sometimes (0kay, often) liberally copied whole articles. (a habit since corrected) Postrel discovered her work here, with attribution, but well over the line with regards to length of text copied, and got understandably annoyed. Postrel took to Twitter to complain. Yikes! We interacted briefly to sort it out. The good news: an opportunity to correspond with an author I admire. The bad news: getting my ass kicked by an author I admire. Though I offered a defense, Postrel was right. It was the worst first impression we’ve probably ever made.

As a result, punditfromanotherplanet reviewed its policy, and avoided Postrel’s articles for a few months, hoping to demonstrate good manners, conform to customs, and restore good will, before referencing her work again. We hope we succeeded. We still quote liberally from outside sources, in long sections, perhaps too liberally sometimes, but are more careful to respect the customs, and author’s rights. We all count our traffic, and every hit counts. Here, too.

Punditfromanotherplanet always responds immediately to complaints. We’ve only had the one. That one. Again, we particularly like promoting an author’s book. Have I mentioned Postrel’s book yet?

3 Comments on “Michelangelo’s David the Tranquil Heroic Naked Guy vs. Michelangelo’s David the Conquering Warrior Hero”

  1. Brittius says:

    Reblogged this on Brittius.com and commented:
    I only have one complaint: The AR-50A1, will make Michael Angelo’s David, need a much larger grape leaf. (If you know, what I mean…)

  2. Good post and good advice here. I copy too liberally sometimes but haven’t got called out yet, thankfully.

  3. […] Pundit from another Planet “They commissioned statues of David because he was a martial hero who had felled an […]

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