There was a very disturbing scene at Rome’s famous Capitoline Museum recently during a joint press conference between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Italian Premeir Matteo Renzi. The museum had nude sculptures covered up so not to insult the Islamic sensibilities of Rouhani and his staff. One of the statues was the “Capitoline Venus,” a Roman copy of a legendary fourth century B.C. work by Praxiteles. Ironically, it is piece that symbolized the modesty of Venus in covering up after a bath. Not modest enough, it appears, for the Iranians.
The willingness of Western leaders to yield to such medieval objections, even in a place of Western culture, is highly troubling. Devout Muslims (and other orthodox religious people who may be offended by such art) can of course choose to avoid Western art and culture. However, when you visit Rome (one of the great centers of Western Civilization) you can expect to see great art works including nude sculptures.
Of course, the Romans are not alone in such measures. Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the two naked figures in the Great Hall of the Main Justice building were covered by blue drapes after a memo discussed the need for “hiding the statues.”
What is interesting is that not only does Culture Minister Dario Franceschini deny an knowledge of the plan but Rouhani insists that the Iranians hadn’t requested any such measures. Yet, he said “I know that Italians are a very hospitable people, a people who try to do the most to put their guests at ease and I thank you for this.”
Now Italians are pointing figures at each other. Officials at the Capitoline Museum said that the disgraceful decision was made by Mr. Renzi’s office, but Franceschini insisted that neither he nor Mr. Renzi knew of the decision. Putting aside who is responsible (though it would be good to confirm so someone can be held accountable), it is curious that this location would be selected given the sensibilities of the Iranians.
Western Civilization cannot survive the onslaught of religious extremism if we hide our culture and history behind shipping boxes. If the museum was acceptable to the Iranians for a meeting place, they should be in for “a penny or a pound.” This is the wonderful legacy of Rome and should not be shoved under a bed like some teenager’s copy of Penthouse. Indeed, such a visit could be transformative for the Iranians. This could have been a lesson in cultural pluralism and tolerance. Instead, someone reinforced the Iranian view that art should not be tolerated and should be concealed to protect their sensibilities. Italians deserve to know who created this fiasco and how that person will be held accountable.
What do you think?