By Tina Marisa Rocchio
I awoke in my loft apartment in Rome last week to the news that a Florida principal had lost her job because she’d shared Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus with her sixth graders. I balked, “The world is upside-down.” Messages began arriving from friends all around Italy. “How do you explain this?” They asked, as if I were the mouthpiece for my home nation. A nation I understand less and less, it seems, as levels of vitriol and hatred, cynicism, and division rise, rendering it beyond recognition.
I try to take a Ted Lasso approach to life and interactions: who doesn’t like pizza and ice cream? What’s not to like about a mountaintop on a sunny day or a beachside gin and tonic (or a non-alcoholic equivalent) at sunset? Can we all agree that puppies and kittens are cute and bring joy? Do we all love our children? The same, I reason, holds true for believing in equity for and acceptance of all, regardless of provenance or identity. Just as it holds true for the awe-inspiring feat that is Michelangelo’s David.
Yet, principal Hope Carrasquilla of Tallahassee Classical School was invited to resign for not adequately informing her six-graders’ parents that she would be showing potentially “controversial material.”
I first saw Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia while on a high school trip in 1981, two months before the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. It was during that trip that I decided Italy was where I would live. Indeed, six years later I was a student at the Italian university of Florence, taking courses just next door to the David, who I visited often. And I’ve been here ever since.
For those who are unfamiliar, a few notes from the museum pages of the city of Florence tell us some of what makes the David so monumental -- literally and figuratively.
In 1460 two noted sculptors attempted to work with the block of marble measuring over 18 feet in height without success. Forty years later, the block was dusted off and put out to bid to Andrea Sansovino, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, all respected sculptors of that period when minds opened across the land with bursts of creativity and inventiveness. The Renaissance. The Cathedral of Florence awarded the commission to Michelangelo Buonarroti who worked on it in isolation from 1501-1504. The result is the depiction of David just before he kills his brother, Goliath. The supreme sculptor was able to bring the biblical figure so realistically to life that the tendons and muscles on the figure strain, the veins pulsate, his eyes express the intensity and gravity of what is about to take place.
Some of the questions my Italian friends posed upon hearing the news:
How can a school call itself ‘Classica’ if it considers Renaissance art potentially controversial, and in what world -- in che mondo -- do parents determine the curriculum?
In Italy, a Classical education means tracing and absorbing the very roots of Western thought from the Ancient Greeks and Romans through the Renaissance. In the Classical tradition, it is widely believed that such historical perspective provides the understanding of humanity necessary to embark on any further study or career path. Understanding humanity being the key notion. Even as a small child in a Roman primary school, my daughter was reciting by rote memory everything from Babylon to the Renaissance. The number of naked statues she passed on her way to and from school was only surpassed by the ones in her schoolbooks. And as for the parents’ intervention, it was mostly centered around learning the week’s lunch menu to avoid repetition at dinnertime. God forbid a child have too many eggs in one day or the same kind of pasta at lunch and at dinner!
As it simultaneously represents artistic and technical perfection while retelling one of the most momentous allegories of the Bible, how can viewing Michelangelo’s David, widely considered the apex of Renaissance sculpture, be even remotely controversial? Is the contemporary applicability of that allegory lost on the Floridian school board who forced their principal out of its charter? How can a school -- an institution of learning -- fear intellectual pursuit and acquisition of knowledge?
Cecile Holberg addressed some of these queries in her statement the day after the news reached Italian shores (and by shores, of course, I mean cyberspace). The director of the Galleria dell’Accademia said, ‘To think that David could be pornographic means truly not understanding the contents of the Bible, not understanding Western culture and not understanding Renaissance art.’
Yes, but this does not explain why some parents of American children have such fear of and admonition for essential parts of our history. The board of the school in question capitulated to their fear, treating each parent as a client, allowing the parents -- the non-experts -- to determine the validity of academic content and, ultimately, the future of a dedicated and trained educator. The families’ need to control what their children see and learn appears to come from a place of fear and polarization; the will of the institution to bend to that fear undermines the educational process and reduces it to a transaction. The whole mechanism, history tells us, brings us to a very dark, very un-Renaissance place.
For much of the week, my Italian friends sent me snippets of the initial news item, complete with snapshots of David, along with their comments. For the last two days, they’ve doubled down. They cannot fathom how parents fear for their children’s safety when confronted with beauty and history, yet neglect to beat their chests in protest when confronted by the indisputable danger of gunfire. How can this be? they ask me. If only I knew.
Rocchio is from The Valley and now lives in Italy.