Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Italian PM Matteo Renzi admire the bronze statue of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius during their meeting. Gregorio Borgia/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.'Cover them up, for goodness sake' or similar pleas were no doubt uttered on the day that Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and Italy's Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, held a joint press conference at Rome's Capitoline Museum on 25 January.
Historic statues at the museum were boarded up for the occasion. Rouhani's delegates said their president didn't want photos appearing of him standing next to an occasional artistic marble breast or penis.
Various newspaper commentators and a deluge of netizens on Facebook and Twitter condemned the veiling of nudity as ‘provincial’. Italy, in their view, had committed an act of cultural submission. The common judgement of the people was that Renzi's government should have upheld the values of freedom and put Rouhani in his place.
Following on from Paris's past example of refusing Rouhani's requests (“No wine? Fine, but we'll cancel the banquet!”), prominent Italian journalist Gianni Riotta said, as reported by the Guardian,
"they [the Italian government] handled it in such a goofy way. This says far more about the strong strain of provincialism that is still in Italy than the accusation that we bend our knee to Islam. The French are also provincial, but they do everything their own way. They think their food is the best in the world, their soccer is the best in the world. Nobody blames the French for being French."
Baffling sweeping statements indeed. Provincial? But in what sense?
Corriere della Sera's Pierluigi Battista – as well as many others in the Italian press – similarly argued that:
"Rouhani should've adapted to Italy, not the other way round” continuing with "We've got nothing to be ashamed of. We shouldn't think that artistic nudity is something deplorable or shameful."
Battista summed up the outrage of zillions of Italians: the trending hashtag statuenude (naked statues) in a nutshell. This was rather an interesting stance for Battista, a seasoned and judicious opinion-maker with a fine humanist background, to take.
Frankly, I find the whole debate odd. You'd think we in Europe would be beyond such banalities in 2016. Who on earth still blushes in front of Marcus Aurelius' horse's huge 'undercarriage'? Of course we are not ashamed of nudity in our artistic heritage. Do we really need to state the obvious?
Actually, the covering up of naked statues was a missed opportunity: it was not a way to exert moral superiority on Italy's part, but to have a laugh: chance- pictures of two dignitaries with boobs and buttocks resting on their heads, for real, not just photoshopped. Precisely what Rouhani was trying to avoid. (It wasn't about much else, after all.)
Luckily, La Repubblica's Tomaso Montanari took a different stance:
"To expose naked statues in public spaces was a Renaissance achievement: a fundamental step towards the creation of a space free from religion. A secular space, one of paramount importance for the development of knowledge, which is akin to tolerance. Covering those statues for a few hours ... is an act ascribing to that tolerance, the very best part of our identity."
Now, I may well be wrong but I think this: even if PM Matteo Renzi and Culture Minister Dario Franceschini freaked out having witnessed the media reaction ("The person responsible will pay for this!"), to accept a simple request made by a foreign leader (the statues were only covered up for a couple of hours) was the right thing to do and there was nothing provincial about it.
The Westernised world is freer than other parts of the world and to campaign in favour of local dissenting voices is great. However, the occasion in Rome wasn't really the right occasion to do so. It was for signing huge trade agreements - Iran has re-entered global business and nations have to deal with theocratic leaders as best they can. (Italians often hear strange things from the Vatican, perhaps that’s why so many are highly strung.), You need to pick your fights internationally. If you want to make money, you don't get into a fight over a couple of plywood screens. If you are unable to deal with theocratic leaders, board yourself up, instead of your statues, and don't invite anybody over.
If, in reality, you've got a bone to pick with Iran for its poor human rights records, then call on the EU to put pressure on Tehran. Pointing the finger at Rouhani for being an imposing prude and Renzi for being a spineless leader runs the risk of sounding like a badly concealed political attack and also smacks of cheap, reflected superiority: the stuff needed by some to shake off their self-perceived provincialism and feel better about themselves. A case of much ado about nothing, then?
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