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Heritage protection vs freedom of expression?

FLORENCE, Italy: Michelangelo's David has been a towering figure in Italian culture since its completion in 1504. But curators worry the marble statue's significance is being diminished by the thousands of souvenirs sold around Florence focusing on David's genitalia.

The Galleria dell'Accademia's director, Cecilie Hollberg, takes aim at those profiteering from his image, often in ways she finds «debasing.» Examples are aprons of the statue's nude figure, T-shirts of it engaged in obscene gestures.

At Hollberg's behest, the state's attorney office in Florence has launched a series of court cases invoking Italy's landmark cultural heritage code, which protects artistic treasures from unauthorized commercial use. The Accademia has won hundreds of thousands of euros in damages since 2017. Legal action has followed to protect other museums' masterpieces, including Leonardo's «Vitruvian Man» and Botticelli's «Birth of Venus.»

The decisions challenge a practice that intellectual property rights are protected for a specified period before entering the public domain: the artist's lifetime plus 70 years, according to the Berne Convention signed by 180 countries, including Italy. Questions are being raised: should institutions be the arbiters of taste? to what extent is freedom of expression being limited?

New York-based art market lawyer Thomas C. Danziger asked about the «stranglehold» that institutions will be given over images that are in the public domain.

He asked if other artists would be prevented from producing similar «derivative» work like Andy Warhol's famous series inspired by Leonardo's «Last Supper.»

The unusual scope of Italy's cultural code extends in perpetuity the author's copyright to the institution that owns it. The Vatican's similar legislative protections on its masterpieces seek remedies through its court system for unauthorized reproductions, including for commercial use and damaging the work's dignity, a spokesman said.


Greece's law requires a permit to use images of historic sites for commercial use. It forbids the use of images that «offend» the monuments in any way. France's Louvre museum notes that its collection, which includes