Renaissance art

A Florida School Focused on Classical Western Civilization Fired a Principal Over a Lesson Showing Michelangelo’s ‘David’

The latest education outrage out of Florida? A Tallahassee school board fired a principal after parents complained about a “pornographic” lesson featuring Michelangelo’s David (1501–04), the 14-foot-tall nude marble Renaissance masterpiece.

The monumental sculpture, today housed at Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, is one of art history’s most iconic artworks—but that didn’t help save Hope Carrasquilla’s job at Tallahassee Classical School when parents objected to its inclusion in a lesson for the sixth-grade class.

Following the controversy, Barney Bishop, the chair of the school board, demanded her resignation, which Carrasquilla tendered on Monday during an emergency board meeting. The board named teacher Cara Wynn as her successor.

“It saddens me that my time here had to end this way,” Carrasquilla, who had held her post since the beginning of the school year, told the Tallahassee Democrat, which first reported her ouster.

Michelangelo's masterpiece David at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.

Michelangelo’s masterpiece David at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.

Tallahassee Classical, a kindergarten through grade 10 charter school, has gone through three principals since opening in the fall of 2020. It is affiliated with Hillsdale College, a private conservative college in Michigan that has designed a “classical education curriculum model” billed as a return to the foundational tenets of Western civilization.

After a decade in “classical education,” Carrasquilla knew that “once in a while you get a parent who gets upset about Renaissance art,” she told the Huff Post. But she never thought she would lose her job over it. (Bishop, the board chair, has insisted in various news outlets that there were other issues that more directly led to Carrasquilla’s forced resignation.)

Parents had not been informed that the teacher would be including David in instruction about Renaissance art—a violation of a rule put in place two months ago by the school board requiring teachers notify families of “potentially controversial” lesson content two weeks ahead of time.

By not sending out notice, “we made an egregious mistake,” Bishop told Slate.

He clarified that one of the parents was upset that the teacher had allegedly told children that the sculpture was “non-pornography” and that they shouldn’t to tell their parents about it.

“Non-pornography—that’s a red flag. And of course telling the students, ‘Don’t tell your parents’—that’s a huge red flag!” Bishop said. “That word is inappropriate in that classroom.… you don’t need to be saying that word in a classroom in Florida!”

Florida, of course, has become a flashpoint for conservative education legislation under Governor Ron DeSantis, such as the Parental Rights in Education Act, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” act, which limits teachers’ ability to discuss anything related to sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms. Another bill banned the teaching of critical race theory in kindergarten through grade 12.

“We agree with everything the governor is doing in the educational arena. We support him because he’s right,” Bishop told the Independent, claiming that Tallahassee Classical was at the “cutting edge” when it came to Florida’s new educational standards.

Only three parents objected to the David, two on the grounds that there was no advance warning, the other out of concern that the full frontal nudity was not appropriate viewing for sixth graders. But that was still a major problem for the Tallahassee Classical board.

“Parental rights trump everything else,” Bishop told Huff Post, noting that the school had been founded in response to the “woke indoctrination that was going on.”

“Parents choose this school because they want a certain kind of education,” he added in Slate. “We’re not gonna have courses from the College Board. We’re not gonna teach 1619 or CRT [critical race theory] crap.”

The unexpected controversy surrounding perhaps the world’s most famous sculpture mirrors a plot point in a 1990 episode of the Simpsons. After successfully protesting the violence in the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons, Marge Simpson is solicited to help block a local exhibition of David, which detractors dub an “abomination” for its depiction of “evil” body parts. Marge, on the other hand, thinks the statue is a masterpiece that everyone in Springfield should see.

This isn’t the first time that the satire of the “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” episode has hewed closely to real life events—in 2016, a Russian woman started a campaign to add clothes to a 16-foot-tall plastic copy of David on view in St. Petersburg. And, in 2021, a 3-D-printed copy of the work was displayed with strategic barriers blocking the genitals from view at the Italian pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai.

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New Analysis Reveals That the Famed ‘Ugly Duchess’ Renaissance Painting May Not Depict a Woman After All

A new exhibition at the National Gallery in London is taking another look at Flemish artist Quinten Massys’s mystifying 1513 painting An Old Woman, popularly known as The Ugly Duchess.

According to a statement in the exhibition catalogue, the figure in the 16th century work “challenges every traditional canon of beauty.” It describes “an elderly woman with lively eyes set deep in their sockets, a snub nose, wide nostrils, pimply skin, a hairy mole, bulging forehead, and a prominent square chin.”

But not everyone agrees. In “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance” (on view from March 16 through June 11), curator Emma Capron advocates for a different read of the enigmatic work. The leading expert in Renaissance art is making the case that the old woman is not a woman at all.

“She is most likely a he, a cross-dresser as a play on gender,” Capron told The Guardian. “We know that Massys was very interested in carnivals, where men would impersonate women.” Indeed, notes the statement in the catalogue, a festival dance known as the moresca—in which a sought-after young woman would “often be played by a cross-dressed man”—was popular in Northern Europe at the time.

Francesco Melzi, after Leonardo, ‘The bust of a grotesque old woman’ (1510-20). Red chalk on paper. The Royal Collection / HM King Charles III Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Courtesy of the National Gallery.

Francesco Melzi, after Leonardo, The Bust of a Grotesque Old Woman (1510-20). The Royal Collection / HM King Charles III Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

The work has hung in the National Gallery for more than 80 years, where it is one of the museum’s “best-known faces.” Informally, it is referred to as The Ugly Duchess as it served as the inspiration for Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations of the mercurial duchess in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the 1865 children’s classic.

Over the years, medical experts have contended that the subject suffered from Paget’s disease, in which bones weaken and eventually become disfigured. But Capron takes a different view. “It’s not Paget’s,” she said, “nor any of the other suggestions like dwarfism or elephantiasis.” Rather, “[Massys’s] images, sometimes grotesque, sometimes simply fanciful and satirical, are partly metaphors for the social disorder of the time,” explained Capron. He is also “just having fun.”

Furthermore, the exhibition claims that a drawing attributed to Leonardo da Vinci’s lead assistant Francesco Melzi, called The Bust of a Grotesque Old Woman, was the basis of Massys’s An Old Woman. Melzi’s image, on loan from the Royal Collection, is thought to be a copy of a lost original by Da Vinci’s own hand. Familiar with the exaggerated physiognomic types popularized by Da Vinci, Massys adapted the woman’s visage from one of the Italian master’s own caricatures.

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

Leonardo da Vinci, A Satire on Aged Lovers (ca. 1490). The Royal Collection / HM King Charles III Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

There is another piece to the puzzle. An Old Woman is one of a pair of paintings by Massys; the companion piece is An Old Man. They are reunited in the exhibition. However, the woman is on the left, whereas in most Renaissance paintings their positions would have been reversed. The woman is also holding a rosebud—a flower with sexual connotations—as a token of her love. Here again the roles are reversed. The gesture went unrequited as the man has his hand raised, seemingly rejecting the romance she is offering.

It “may be another clue that An Old Woman is a man in woman’s clothing,” noted Capron.


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