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Giving Art the Finger

Jonathan van Bilsen



January 9, 2021

Giving Art the Finger

Here we are, locked down, yet again, with little more than our travelling memories to reminisce over. I was looking at an episode of my travel show to Tuscany, and became lost in the fantastic world of Italian art. It seemed like yesterday I was sitting in the Accademia Gallery staring at the famous statue of Michelangelo’s David. That brought me back to my first trip to St. Petersburg, and the famed Hermitage Museum.

While wandering around this famed European gallery, I can now confess, 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 (this was a few years ago, so you may not be able to touch the art anymore).

It was quite disturbing that so many of these magnificent pieces of art were unattended and exposed to the elements. I remember 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. 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, and he’s 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, but 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 paint smeared on 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.

I remember thinking about a trip I had taken many years ago, to Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum where Michelangelo’s Pieta would be on loan from the Vatican. My scheduled visit to Amsterdam was a week away and you can imagine the 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 Pieta. I was saddened at the atrocity, and needless to say, the artwork did not make it to the Netherlands for my visit. 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 stood there staring at him, I quickly glanced around to make sure I was not being watched.

Tourists have a habit of stepping into turmoil wherever they go. A fellow from Connecticut visited Florence recently, on a sightseeing vacation. 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. She was 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 the 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 a 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.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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