- - Sunday, December 16, 2012

A 482-year-old youth has arrived in Washington as part of a campaign many see as aimed at countering Italy’s current negative economic image.

Michelangelo’s “David-Apollo” sculpture went on display at the National Gallery of Art on Thursday, launching a wide-ranging, yearlong cultural offensive in the United States and elsewhere called “2013: The Year of Italian Culture.”

“My country’s cultural heritage is a unique natural resource,” said Italy’s Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di. Sant’Agata in unveiling the statue, on loan from the Bargello Museum in Florence until March 3.

What better time then, to showcase Italy’s cultural strength than when its growing economic weakness has brought the country to the brink of disaster? Stagnant growth, political uncertainty, and a crippling debt (120 percent of GDP) that is second only to that of Greece makes Italy one claimant for the title of “sick man of Europe.”

The government in Rome has not actually labeled the Year of Italian Culture a timely reminder that there is more to Italy than economic and political bad news. But many felt Mr. Terzi came close in his speech when he defined culture as “indeed a fundamental pillar of our foreign policy.”

In short, faced with serious economic problems the Italians are doing what they do best: Pushing Italy’s rich and varied cultural achievements.

Some 30 U.S. cities — including Washington, New York, Boston, Houston and Cleveland — are being targeted with a variety of events. Exhibitions of renowned masterpieces ranging from classical and the Renaissance to baroque and contemporary are scheduled in more than 70 American museums and cultural institutions.

Caravaggio’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” and Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten Codex on the Flight of Birds are among the treasures slated to go on display. Works by modern Italian artists, including Giorgio Morandi and Giorgio de Chirico, will also cross the Atlantic in 2013.

But fine art is only one component of the Year of Italian Culture. The wide-ranging celebration of Italian music, design, cinema, technology, science, fashion and cuisine will also include a series of concerts in Washington and New York to mark the 200th anniversary of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s birth and a tribute to the films of the often controversial director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Michelangelo’s sculpture is making a return visit to the nation’s capital. It was first shown here in 1949, as a token of gratitude for postwar aid to Italy, especially under the Marshall Plan. The loan coincided with President Harry S. Truman’s inauguration then — even as it will now be on display during Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

Mystery surrounds the statue: It is one of Michelangelo’s most important works, but the artist never finished it, and never revealed his intentions in creating it. Its double name is a result of scholars’ speculations about the youth’s true identity.

For example, if the lump of stone on the statue’s back was intended to be a sling, then the figure is David armed to slay Goliath; in which case, the other block of unworked stone at his feet could well be Goliath’s head. Or maybe not.

Either way, the youth’s slender form shaped by the hands of a genius more than four centuries ago serves as a reminder of what a nation could achieve in the past, and an inspiration in attempting to shape a better future.

WHAT: Michelangelo’s David-Apollo

WHERE:National Gallery of Art, on the Mall between 3rd and 7th streets at Constitution Avenue Northwest

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