A Florence Museum Won Its Lawsuit Against a Publisher That Used a ‘Mortifying and Humiliating’ Image of Michelangelo’s ‘David’

Italian law allows public institutions to request fees for reproductions of important artworks, regardless of their copyright status.   

Michelangelo, David (1501–04). Collection of the Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence.
Michelangelo, David (1501–04). Collection of the Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence.

An Italian court has ruled in favor of Florence’s Gallerie dell’Accademia in its lawsuit against the publishing house Edizioni Conde Nast, which used an image of Michelangelo’s David without permission. 

The publisher reportedly projected David’s face onto the head of a model for a picture that appeared on the cover of a magazine. However, the company did not obtain a license from the museum, which owns the image rights to the famed 500-year-old sculpture, even though the artwork belongs to the public domain. 

The case hinged on article nine of Italy’s constitution, which protects symbols of the nation’s cultural identity and historical memory. A related law allows the country’s public institutions to request concession fees for commercial reproductions of artworks of cultural heritage, regardless of their copyright status.   

In a statement, the museum claimed that by “insidiously and maliciously [juxtaposing] the image of Michelangelo’s David with that of a model,” the publisher was “debasing, obfuscating, mortifying, and humiliating the high symbolic and identity value of the work of art and subjugating it for advertising and editorial promotion purposes.”

The August 2020 edition of <em>GQ Italia</em> with model Pietro Boselli superimposed over Michelangelo's <em>David</em>.

The August 2020 edition of GQ Italia with model Pietro Boselli superimposed over Michelangelo’s David.

The Florence court ruled on May 15 that the publisher must pay the museum two separate amounts: €20,000 for the licensing fee, and an additional €30,000 for the way in which David’s image was distorted for the magazine. 

Cecilie Hollberg, director of the Galleria dell’Accademia, called the ruling a “great achievement” for the institution. “A principle has now been affirmed that goes beyond the individual case,” she added.

“I appreciate the ruling of the Court of Florence on Michelangelo’s David, which recognizes the principle of an image right for cultural heritage,” said Gennaro Sangiuliano, Italy’s Minister of Culture, in a statement. “It must be said that the use for commercial purposes for cultural goods must be paid while it must be free for images for educational and study purposes. It is comforting that the judges think like the Ministry of Culture.” 

This is not the first time an Italian institution has sought legal action over depictions of famous artworks. Earlier this year, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice brought a lawsuit against the German toy company Ravensburger over a puzzle featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian Man drawing. The court ruled in favor of the museum and blocked Ravensburger from producing future editions of the product. 

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