WASHINGTON — Michelangelo's "David-Apollo" will be showcased publicly beginning Thursday at the National Gallery of Art to open a yearlong celebration of Italian culture in more than 30 U.S. cities.
The sculpture from 1530 was unveiled Wednesday by Italy's foreign minister to launch "2013: The Year of Italian Culture," which will showcase Italy's art, science, music, design and innovations. Events and exhibits are planned in Los Angeles, Houston, Cleveland, New York, Boston and points in between, involving about 70 cultural institutions.
The masterpiece by Michelangelo will be featured as a centerpiece in Washington until March as a symbol of friendship between the United States and Italy, said Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata.
"It represents innovation and some revolutionary concepts, which were developed by Michelangelo and by the Renaissance artists," he said, "but it represents also the bilateral relations between Italy and the United States."
The sculpture was last shown in the U.S. capital in 1949 when it drew nearly 800,000 visitors. It was a centerpiece for those who attended President Harry Truman's inaugural reception at the museum, he said.
This time, it will be on view for crowds attending the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
"David-Apollo" is special, in part, because it's mysterious and engages a viewer's imagination. It was left unfinished and unresolved, said Alison Luchs, curator of early European sculpture at the National Gallery.
"It seems on the way to becoming something, but we're not sure what," she said. "That's why it goes by a double name, the `David-Apollo.'"
The statue is on loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, which tends to view the piece as Apollo pulling an arrow from his quiver, based on an account by Michelangelo's biographer. Other documentation, though, called it "an incomplete David," Luchs said.
An unfinished block of stone on the boy's back could be a quiver for Apollo's arrows or could be David's sling from the Biblical story. A round mass of stone under his foot may have been intended to be carved as Goliath's head, historians have surmised.
Michelangelo Buonarroti carved the piece for Baccio Valori, who was appointed the Medici governor of Florence. Michelangelo had fought the Medicis with a republican resurgence but needed to make peace with the new leader of Florence.
It remains one of the Renaissance artist's greatest masterpieces and one of his most thought-provoking works, Luchs said. It's different from the famous "David" that Michelangelo carved 30 years earlier for the Cathedral of Florence that towers 16 feet high. This piece is life-sized.
"It's special precisely because it is unfinished," she said. "The unfinished works allow us to see the sculpture taking shape. ... You can really follow the movement of Michelangelo's hand, driving the chisel across the stone."
Ann Stock, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, welcomed the Italian cultural showcase, noting Italy's permanent influences on America.
"Your cuisine graces tables across America, both in our homes and the finest restaurants," she said. "Perhaps most visibly, we owe our continent's name to Amerigo Vespucci, the famed Italian explorer."