Who’s Covering Up the Italian Statue Cover-Up?

Unknown parties obscured nude figures in Rome during a state visit by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters

Offense, annoyance, and accusations of “cultural submission” rippled across Italy after naked Roman statues were covered up during a state visit to the Capitoline Museums by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

“Plywood boxes and panels were placed around the objects to obscure them from the Iranian president’s vision, or at least in photo-ops,” Ishaan Tharoor reported Tuesday. “Rome’s nude statues covered to spare Rouhani’s blushes,” read one headline chronicling the incident.

The backlash gathered on social media where many Italians used the hashtag #statuenude to tweet pictures of, well, nude statues in protest. One representative remark: “When in , do as the do.” The incident inspired both satire and screed outside of Italy as well.

Labeling the episode “Italy’s shambolic appeasement of Islamism,” Nervana Mahmoud posed a rhetorical question: “Should a sovereign non-Muslim nation sacrifice its historical legacy to please foreign dignitaries?”

The answer is simply no. There should be a line of demarcation between hospitality and cultural appeasement. It is alarming that the Italian PM fails to understand the difference, and how his seemingly benign gesture has more troubling implications. Does the Italian PM understand that his gesture will be interpreted in Iran and among other Islamist groups as the West bowing down to them and their beliefs? How can Italy or other Western nations expect Iran to be a partner against ISIS, while Iran shares a basic common value with ISIS—the rejection of art and Western values?

Others yet pointed out that nude statues had similarly been covered up in Italy before without inspiring controversy or comment.

One day after the flap, an even bigger question remains: Who is covering up the cover-up? Both Iranian and Italian officials deny having requested the move for modesty.

“I think there easily would have been other ways to not offend an important foreign guest without this incomprehensible choice of covering up the statues,” Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini told reporters, adding that neither he nor Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had anything to do with it.

One politician for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party claims that the Capitoline superintendents covered the statues at the request of the prime minister. According to reports, an inquiry was subsequently ordered by the general secretary of Renzi’s office.

Rouhani also said he didn’t make the request, although he did express some appreciation to his hosts. “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,” he said.

Rouhani then departed for France, where a high-level dinner between French and Iranian officials was canceled in November after Iran reportedly demanded that wine not be served.