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Giving Art The Finger

What better place to write a CAPS article than in Italy's renaissance town of Florence and what better subject to write about then art? Sitting here in the Accademia Gallery staring at the famous statue of Michelangelo’s David makes me think back to my first trip to St. Petersburg and the famed Hermitage Museum. While wandering around I committed an act of severe terribleness, and immediately was overcome with immense remorse. I walked over to Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous 'Madonna and Child' and when no one was looking touched the paint with my bare finger.

The thought of laying my finger on original paint from the fifteenth century, created by one, if not the most famous artist in history was my driving force. I no sooner touched the image when I pulled back my finger in guilt and quickly looked around to make certain I was not seen.

It was quite disturbing that so many of these magnificent pieces of art are unattended and exposed to the elements. I remember a few years back staring at the Sphinx in Giza and wondering why the letter 'D' was crudely carved into its ear. The defacement dates back to the late 1800's when sand covered all but the Sphinx’s head and British tourists casually walked up and carved their own form of graffiti into the ancient artifact. Although I certainly did not deface anything, I did feel bad for having touched the painting.

I continued my trek and came upon a series of Ruben's (definitely one of my favourite painters, who of course is Dutch). The gigantic canvases came to life as I stared at them, but suddenly I noticed one piece of art was roped off and covered with a cloth. I pondered the area and looked for an attendant, to ask why it was being restored and none of the others.

He explained, in textbook English (with a Russian accent), that someone had tossed a flask of acid onto the canvas. I was stunned and the guard continued toward the painting. He stopped and held back the cloth for me to see. I gaped in awe as I saw veins of lead- based paint smear the masterpiece. Even the section where restoration had taken place was left with permanent streaks, embedded for eternity. All I could do was shake my head.

The revelation of what had happened took me back to a trip to Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum where Michelangelo’s Pieta was on display. My scheduled visit was a week away and I was excited. You can imagine my shock when I heard on the news that a madman had jumped the barrier in St Peter’s Basilica and, using a hammer, administered twelve blows to the face of the Virgin Mary. I was stunned at the atrocity and wondered how anyone could be so reckless. Needless to say the artwork did not make it to the Netherlands for my visit, but I was fortunate to view it several years later when it was behind bullet-proof glass, in its restored state, but the damage still visible.

Not all the damage to works of art is caused by madmen. Shortly after Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Pope Julius II, a new pope was appalled by the nudity in many paintings in the Vatican. He was so disturbed by it that he ordered clothes be painted on all the figures that were nude. No doubt the renaissance painters are still turning over in their graves. The Pope did not stop with the Sistine Chapel and ordered his guards to remove certain anatomical parts from all the male statues. Somehow David was missed and as I stand here staring at him I quickly glance around to make sure I am not being watched.

I do love tourists, as they somehow manage to step into turmoil wherever they go. I refer specifically to a fellow from Connecticut who came to this wonderful city with his family on a sightseeing vacation a few weeks ago. No doubt he was a confident connoisseur of fine art and had a mission in mind when he approached the statue of D'Ambrisio's Virgin Mary, noted for her beautiful lines and the gentle way her fingers flowed from the hand. Our friend decided to see if his hand was bigger than that of statue and held his palm against it. Totally ignoring the 'Do Not Touch' sign he laughed jovially as his dear wife took a photo.

Then it happened; an unexpected crack and suddenly, without warning one of the 500 year old fingers snapped from the statue and fell with an echo onto the floor. The tourist watched in horror at his destruction of one of Italy's and perhaps the world's most treasured antiquities. The irony of the entire event has to be that our 55 year old culprit was an emergency physician in the local New Fairfield, Connecticut hospital.

The entire appreciation for art by the millions of us who are grateful for the opportunity to drift into the creative world of artists is constantly spoiled by a few who feel the need to go beyond the boundaries of accepted and enforced standards. I still feel guilty for my infantile act in the Hermitage, and have gained a greater respect for the finer things in life. Who knows, maybe one day Pope Francis will open the famed locked cabinet in the caverns beneath St. Peter’s Basilica and return the sacred anatomical parts to all the male statues in the world's centre of art.

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