Michelangelo and Damage

This morning I came across an interesting post at Ponte Commedia, which mentions some of the mishaps and damage that have occurred to Michelangelo’s David.1  One particular event stood out to me in this post: the 1991 attack of the David by a disturbed artist, who broke off part of a toe with a hammer.  This post instantly reminded me of another post from When Art History Goes Bad, which discusses the damage that has happened to Michelangelo’s Pieta (including when Laszlo Toth infamously attacked the statue with a sledgehammer in 1972).  If you’re interested, you can see some footage of the attack and damage below:

I don’t know of any other sculptor whose work has caused mentally disturbed people to attack it.  (But if you know of similar attacks on other sculptures, please comment! I’d be interested to learn about them.)  Does Michelangelo’s work get the brunt of such attacks, since these sculptures are some of the most well-known pieces of art in the Western world?  I think so.  It’s sad to think that Michelangelo’s fame and artistic beauty have had such an adverse side effect.

1 You can read an amusing BBC article about some damage and restoration work on the David here.

  • H Niyazi says:

    The motives behind such attacks range from personal to political, to simply being the result of a deranged mind.

    History is littered with examples of defaced sculpture – many depictions of Akhenaten were defaced after his attempt to change Egypt's religion – the Middle ages saw sculptures from antiquity destroyed or defaced.

    Even in 2006, a waxen George W Bush at Madame Tussaud's was attacked! Because Sculpture is a 3 dimensional, tangible object, it can be an obvious target for such damage.

    Personally, I'd like to know what happened to the rounded top of Donatello's Bronze David – whose hat was a depiction of a Jewish head-dress.


  • M says:

    H Niyazi, you're right that sculpture has been destroyed for centuries. I am really interested in studying the different motives for why people destroy art. (This past weekend, in fact, I was studying why the female pharaoh Hatshepsut's images were destroyed after her death.) But I suppose I wasn't clear enough in my post: I think it's interesting that mentally unstable people have wanted to attack to Michelangelo's work. Both Piero Cannato (the perpetrator of the 1991 incident) and Laszlo Toth were obviously disturbed. I can't think of other instances where a clearly insane person has attacked sculpture.

    On a side note, I didn't know that Donatello's "David" originally had a turban! That's really interesting. In the Renaissance, the turban (and Oriental garb) was sometimes used to visually emphasize biblical subject matter, but it has also been interpreted as an anti-Islamic message. Walter B. Denny argues that Islamic menace was at its height during the Renaissance, and the turban began to be used to depict evil people in the Bible, such as Herod the Great (see Denny, "Orientalism" The Muslim World no. 3-4, 1983: 265). You can see an example of Herod the Great in a turban in Matteo di Giovanni's Massacre of the Innocents (1482). Anyhow, that's a long explanation for perhaps why the Jewish headdress is missing from Donatello's "David" – perhaps someone didn't want the biblical hero to be connected with the negative associations of the Orient?

  • Rebekah says:

    So, er, Bertel Thorvaldsens' Christus replica in the Mormon SLC visitor's center had it's arms lopped off by a disturbed person with a sledgehammer when I was a teenager living in that city. I think the same man attempted this twice (2nd time successful). I found this really disturbing at the time, but can't find any correlating articles about it (because it happened so long long ago…)

    It makes me think that the urge to deface certain art must indicate a personal connection with what the image represents. It's funny how this ties in with your previous post about political defacement and makes me think about the thinner and thinner borders between "statement" defacement and "personal statement" defacement… (if that makes sense?)

  • e says:

    Reading this post and watching the video made me wonder about the restoration of damaged art. It seems to me that there should be quite an argument for and against restoring art that has been damaged by an attacker.

    I can understand the need to want to repair something so wonderful so as to bring back its beauty and to make it whole again, but at the same time, I can't help but think that it has got to be controversial to even attempt to "restore" something like a Michelangelo.

    Plus, how do they decide what they'll fix and won't fix? Michelangelo's Young Archer at the Met is horribly damaged, but they've left it that way (for the most part — there's some pins to hold it in place, etc.).

    Plus, I sort of like the reminder of damage in a way — so that it can be remembered that such awful things are done to such beautiful pieces of art.

  • H Niyazi says:

    M! One must be careful at labelling someone "clearly insane"!

    I'm probably a bit more cautious about such labels given my line of work, but we don't really know the complex psychological Histories of those two.

    At a very basic level, the fact that these are very public pieces of art is a way of the attacker ensuring they bring attention to themselves. Whether it is cry for help or part of a deeper pathology is something I'm not qualified to specualte on.

    The Ottoman-styled turbans were definitely prevalent in Christian art – particualrly in Venetian Art – who felt direct pressure from the Ottomans perhaps more than any other Italian City State. My homeland of Cyprus was under Venetian control prior to its occupation by the Ottomans.

    The Ottoman Navy actually battled with the Venetians in the 16thC – present among this battle was one of Caravaggio's descendents. Caravaggio himself was born close to teh date of this famous Victory, which by some of his family was seen as an auspicious event.

    There is a great example of making the characters in the Turbans 'the bad guys' in Tintoretto's "St Mark Freeing a Slave" – where this Eastern archtype was worked into a depiction of a medieval legend!

    Despite the racial profiling(!), its' one of my favourite Renaissance works – It was one of my older posts, but just in case you missed it:


    If the detail was originally there, David's hat would only missing a rounded top – I dont think even Donatello would have the gall to depict him in a turban! That being said – even this Jewish association didn't please someone – and the ball has been long gone



  • sonoroy says:

    I still can't think of another artist's work that was subjected to more than one attack by more than one mad persons. The fame of the work must some how play out in some warped way in the minds. At some level they know that millions will feel loss over what they do.

    Every time I see the Pieta I feel the loss because today's security requires that we view it from a distance. No longer can we walk up to it, so we can not experience the work in the same way as we might with other sculptures.

  • H Niyazi says:

    @sonoroy – whilst not a sculpture of course – the other famous multiple attack victim of the Art world is Rembrandts Night Watch – which was attacked at least 3 times during the 20th Century: twice with a knife – once during WW1, then in the 70s, and later by some acid in the 90s.


    Scary stuff


  • H Niyazi says:

    darnit! I've just realised I said above that Caravaggios "descendents"(sic) fought in the naval battle against Ottomans that occurred shortly before he was born!

    'Relatives' is perhaps a better word. I posted that while at work – my male brain should endeavour to multitask less!

    For those interested, the source of that info is Andrew Graham-Dixon's recent Caravaggio book – "A Life Sacred And Profane" Interesting stuff!


  • M says:

    Rebekah: I didn't know that about Thorvaldsen's "Christus." That's interesting. It doesn't surprise me, though (and those arms would be easy to lop off.) I'm going to see if I can dig up any news about that attack. And I can see what you're saying about the boundary between "statement" defacement and "personal statement" defacement – I think that they could be interrelated in many instances.

    e: I know what you mean about damage. In some ways, it's nice to have a work of art reflect its true history and past. I think the best argument for restoration, though, is that it provides future generations and people to experience the work of art (as best as possible, since it obviously will be a little different after restoration). But I completely see your point. Oh, and I know there are several factors which determine if a work of art should be restored. Some works of art are not restored because it could potentially cause damage (if the work of art is frail) or if it is too expensive. Or, like you mentioned, some choose not to restore in order to maintain the "integrity" of the work.

    H Niyazi: Thanks for the information and link about the Jewish hat. Most interesting! I also really enjoyed reading that article about Rembrandt's "Nightwatch." I hadn't heard of those attacks before. (I also am getting very anxious to read that new Caravaggio book by Dixon! It sounds great.)

    sonoroy: I also wish that we could see the Pieta in the way that it was originally intended to be seen. The Virgin was intended to be seen from the side, so that her extended arm and hand would be inviting the viewer to look on Christ's body. It's a pity that the sculpture is now pushed behind glass, so one can't experience it in the same way.

  • heidenkind says:

    Wasn't the Mona Lisa attacked by a crazy person at some point?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.