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Covering up statues in Rome: Servility, denial of free expression, or clever political move?

February 4, 2016
Giulia Aloisio Rafaiani
4 min read
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi
'When Rouhani is in Rome...', by Mana Neyestani
'When Rouhani is in Rome...', by Mana Neyestani
'A Miracle in Rome', by Shahrokh Heidari
'A Miracle in Rome', by Shahrokh Heidari

One thing that cannot be said regarding President Hassan Rohauni’s trip to Rome is that it went unnoticed.

Not only did the official visit conquer the front pages of the most important international newspapers, but it also managed to spark a lively and enduring debate among the most prominent intellectual, political and social circles of Italy and Europe.

Unfortunately — but not unexpectedly, considering the “well-established” political reputation of both countries involved — no attention was paid to the future business that Italy and Iran might conduct together, nor on the fruitful exchange of views and opinions between the leaders of the two countries.

Rouhani’s trip triggered a much more controversial debate, with the central question being: What is worse, the arrogance of the Iranians or the excessive acquiescence of the Italians?

First, here’s a brief, relatively unbiased recap of the peculiar events that took place in Rome on January 25. 

As President Hassan Rouhani landed in Rome as part of his first official visit to Europe, the primary concern of the Italian authorities was to do everything in their power to avoid any offence to the Muslim president.

After all, Italy and Iran share a long history of love and interest.

Not only was Italy Iran’s biggest European trading partner until a decade ago, with the Italian oil company ENI being one of Iranian oil’s biggest customers before sanctions, but the former royal families of the two countries have a history:  Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the Italian princess Maria Gabriella di Savoia were once engaged, a union broken up by  Vatican veto in the 1950s.

So in order to honor such a glorious past and renew such an advantageous friendship, the Italian government decided to prioritize the happiness of its old, precious ally over freedom of expression and Italy’s rich cultural history. It covered some of the most beautiful nude statues exhibited at the Capitoline Museum – including a Venus sculpture from the second century BC — with large, blocky wooden panels.

For Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government, Rouhani’s serenity came first.

Understandably, the move gave rise to controversy.

Why shouldn’t Italy be proud of its artistic heritage? Why should it be so willing to give it up in order to facilitate business with a dictatorial leader? Why should it hide its culture and origins to bow to the extravagant and disrespectful demands of a visiting president?

Criticisms over Renzi’s servility came both from the leftist parties and the opposition.

One of the strongest reactions came from Italian art critic Vittorio Sgarbi. “The real paradox is that the ruins of Persepolis are well visible in Iran, while the Roman ruins are hidden in Rome,” he said. “The ridiculous behavior of the government indicates a state of subjection unworthy of a free country.”

“Common sense should have been used to respect both the sensitivity of our guest and our aesthetic and cultural heritage,” said Italian journalist Alessandro Cecchi Paone, one of the most respected voices when it comes to the country’s culture and ancient history. “For instance, the ceremony could have been hosted somewhere else... After all, there are plenty of outstanding historical locations in Rome.”

Renzi did not comment, but the Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, blamed the decision on the management of the Capitoline Museum, stating that both he and Renzi were unaware that such a measure had been adopted.

Predictably, the museum denied this claim. It’s not hard to guess the truth, considering that Renzi also accepted Iran’s demands to prohibit alcohol from an official dinner Rouhani attended.

It’s worth remembering that the Italian prime minister has displayed such “sensitivity” toward the culture of visiting leaders before: a nude statue was covered in Florence when the crown prince of Abu Dhabi came to Italy in October 2015.

Thanks to the government’s display of subjection to the leader of a rich and useful country, Italy has become once again an international joke, ridiculed by media including The New York Times and Le Monde. The UK’s Guardian’s headline read: “Rome spares Iranian president’s blushes”.

But Renzi got what he wanted.

He got the support of Rouhani, who stood up in his defence: “This is just a journalistic matter. I can only say that Italians are very welcoming and they try to do everything they can to put their guests at ease. I thank them for that.”

In light of the facts, it could also be assumed that the diplomatic incident was simply a well-orchestrated move to prove the Italian government’s devotion and dedication to Rouhani.

But we will never know.

For now, the only thing that seems clear is that some of the well-documented characteristics of Iran and Italy will not change anytime soon — not Iran’s unwillingness to embrace democracy and its values, nor Italy’s inability to resist the charm of a dictator.


Related articles:

When Rouhani is in Rome...

A Miracle in Rome

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