ATLANTA -- David, fresh from his triumph over Goliath, is again the fair-haired boy sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio and possibly modeled by the 15th-century Florentine's student, Leonardo da Vinci.
The 4-foot-high bronze statue, on loan to the High Museum of Art, stands on a pedestal with its original gold highlights, including David's hair, clearly visible for the first time in centuries. Anatomical details previously obscured have been made plain.
"It's an enormously successful restoration," said period expert Andrew Butterfield, vice president of the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries in New York City. "It's made it possible to see how the sculpture was intended to look."
There's a significant difference from the way the statue is usually displayed at the National Museum of the Bargello in Florence: The severed head of Goliath, traditionally between David's feet, now lies next to his right foot.
Some experts believe Leonardo, an apprentice to Verrocchio known for his handsome features, was the artist's model, although Butterfield is not among them. "In my opinion, the evidence is extremely slender," Butterfield said.
Guest curator Gary Radke, professor of art at Syracuse University, said setting the head off to the side makes the hero more dynamic. "He seems to be striding before he goes on. The sense is that the artist captured a fleeting moment," he said.
When the statue returns to Florence later this year after a stop in Washington, D.C., it will be displayed briefly as it is now. Then Goliath's head will be put back between David's feet, where it had been for more than 500 years.
While David would have regarded Goliath as evil personified, the artist did not, Radke said.
"He's portrayed as a worthy enemy, not a monster, a fellow human being on the wrong side, really very sad."
David appears from some angles to be pensive and from others to be smirking, and the skill Verrocchio used in creating that ambiguity was passed along.
"That genius is what he taught to Leonardo, playing with a tiny shift in flesh at the corners of the mouth," Radke said. "A lesser sculptor would have given us the smirk but not the more serious side as well."
That approach came in handy when Leonardo painted "Mona Lisa," said Radke, who is among those who believe the apprentice posed for Verrocchio's statue.
The statue was commissioned in the 1460s by the powerful Medici family. It was sold in 1476 to the city of Florence, where residents regarded David as a symbol of their underdog status in Italy.
Since then it has always been displayed indoors, but normal wear and tear led to the need for restoration. Last year, a deal was made with the Bargello to restore the statue and display it in the United States. A team headed by Ludovica Nicolai undertook the restoration. There was quite a bit of work to be done.
"Sculptures had great meaning, but they weren't sacred," Radke said of the way the work was treated for centuries. "They were pieces of interior decoration."
Over the years, the statue was coated with finishes. "The finishes were organic. They can decompose. They would put on another layer, just like maintaining furniture.
"They would add another layer, to make the surface more uniform. It became very stylish in the 18th century for sculpture to be black because of a false idea of ancient Roman sculpture. The varnishes were not always of the same material, and they put on cleaning products not suited to each other. That can cause damage to the surface of bronze."
Sodium bicarbonate in solution with water was applied to a surface, softening the layers of coating, which was then gently swabbed and picked away.
"Restorers have to have the patience and skill of a dental hygienist, but to clean your teeth at that rate would take three months," Radke said.
The restorers also used lasers to vaporize dirt that had accumulated on top of the fragile gold leaf.
Butterfield said the gilding, now so apparent, is an example of a Renaissance sculptor using color to advantage. "The gold adds to the beauty of the piece. The sculptor was thinking in terms of his control of light and shade," he said.
After the statue leaves Atlanta Feb. 8, it will be displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from Feb. 13 to March 21.
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