By Elisabetta Povoledo
Jan. 27, 2016
Boxes covered nude statues in the Capitoline Museum in Rome during the visit by Mr. Rouhani. Credit Giuseppe Lami/ANSA, via Associated Press
A decision to cover up nude statues from Roman antiquity during a visit by President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has drawn ridicule and scorn in Italy — much of it directed at the Italian government — and spurred a debate about the national identity.
The statues, in a corridor leading to a grand hall in Rome’s renowned Capitoline Museums, were encased in tall white boxes ahead of a news conference that Mr. Rouhani held on Monday with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy. One of the statues was the “Capitoline Venus,” a Roman copy of a legendary fourth century B.C. work by Praxiteles; some of the other sculptures were of ancient Greek and Roman gods, dressed minimally, if at all.
As Iran re-engages with the world after reaching an accord last summer to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, the awkward episode seemed like a prime example of culture clash: an austere Islamic government that promotes chastity and piety meets a nominally Roman Catholic but largely secular culture that has a reputation for embracing life’s pleasures.
But it also left Italians asking a basic question: Who ordered the cover-up?
Some media reports suggested the Iranian delegation had asked Italian officials to hide the statues to avoid Mr. Rouhani any potential embarrassment. Other reports fingered nervous (and perhaps overzealous) Italian bureaucrats. One newspaper even reported that in the grand hall at the Capitoline where the two leaders spoke, the lectern was placed to the side — not the front — of an equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, apparently to avoid having images of the horse’s genitals appear in news photographs.
The Italian government evidently did not anticipate the uproar and mocking that ensued. One cartoon making the rounds showed a bewildered Mr. Rouhani, with the boxes in the background, asking Mr. Renzi: “Where did you bring me? Ikea?”
But many Italian critics said the decision to box up the nudes was no laughing matter.
“Covered statues, a global affair,” blazoned the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, which devoted two pages of articles and commentary to the issue.
Massimo Gramellini, a columnist for the Turin newspaper La Stampa, called the covering of the statues a cowardly act of “submission” in a front-page editorial. It was intended, he wrote, to ensure that Mr. Rouhani did not have a “hormonal shock and rip up the freshly signed contracts with our Italian industries.”
Mr. Rouhani is meeting Europeans leaders this week after the lifting of sanctions against his country under the accord Iran signed last summer with six world powers, and the European Union, to curb its nuclear program. Along with Mr. Renzi, Mr. Rouhani met with Pope Francis and was scheduled to meet with France’s president, François Hollande, in Paris on Thursday.
Mr. Rouhani, 67, comes from a religious family, but he has a Ph.D. in law from Glasgow Caledonian University, in Scotland, and is not known as a religious hard-liner. Iran’s politics are extremely complex, however, and religious matters are carefully policed by the theocratic regime that exercises ultimate power in Tehran, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Public depictions of nudity are largely forbidden in Iran.
Mr. Rouhani himself addressed the issue on Wednesday morning, admonishing the media for stirring up a hornet’s nest. “I know Italians are very hospitable people and try to do everything to put their guests at ease, and I thank them for this,” he said diplomatically
Some Italian critics, while not attacking Mr. Rouhani personally, accused the government of putting economic interests ahead of cultural legacy.
“The problem is that those statues — yes, those icons of classicism and models of humanism — are the foundation of European and Mediterranean culture and civilization,” the columnist Michele Serra wrote in La Repubblica. To conceal them, he wrote, “is to conceal ourselves.” To not offend the Iranian president, he wrote, “we offended ourselves.”
Opposition politicians accused Mr. Renzi of being spineless. “This submission, the surrendering of our art and culture, is the essence of Renzi’s politics,” a Forza Italia lawmaker, Renato Brunetta, wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday, accusing the prime minister of using nationalist rhetoric to gain votes but then selling out Italian values.
“You can make deals, discuss ways of achieving peace, without abdicating oneself,” Mr. Brunetta wrote. “Just take the pope. He didn’t cover the crucifixes when he greeted Rouhani.”
It was noted by some that the whole brouhaha could have been avoided by holding the news conference in a different, less potentially offensive setting.
Officials at the Capitoline Museum said Wednesday that the decision had been made by Mr. Renzi’s office, but government officials said they had not known about it.
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini insisted that neither he nor Mr. Renzi had been informed of the decision. “I think there were easily other ways to not go against the sensibility of such an important guest than this incomprehensible choice to cover the statues,” he told reporters Wednesday, clearly annoyed by the attention the issue has gotten.
As Mr. Rouhani left Italy for his meetings with France, some Italians continued to hold forth. “Let’s just see what the French do,” said Stefano Dorelli, a native Roman, musing over tricky questions of protocol. “I wouldn’t believe they would cover statues even if I saw it with my own eyes.”
The French have already experienced some awkwardness in hosting Mr. Rouhani. In November, during a visit by the Iranian president, government officials scrapped a lunch planned at the Élysée Palace, reportedly after the Iranians insisted that wine not be served.