Back in January, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made an official visit to Rome, something strange happened to the statues he might have seen. Giovanni Tiso, a New Zealand-based writer and translator, tells here the story. Rouhani’s visit, and the Venus cover-up, might have taken place three months ago, but it is worth retelling the story, and putting it into context, because this is the kind of casual censorship that in many ways defines our time. As Giovanni writes, ‘this kind of artistic censorship is remarkably common in Italy, to the point of being frequently unreported’. And not just in Italy. The cover-up of Venus is a reflection, it seems to me, not simply of centuries-old attitudes to the naked body, but also of a very contemporary obsession with not giving offence or being offended; not simply of old-fashioned shame, but also of new-fangled cultural sensitivities. Which is why the Italian authorities acted to protect Rouhani’s tender eyes, even though no request for such action apparently ever came from the Iranians. This article was first published in the Australian magazine Overland. My thanks to Giovanni Tiso for republishing it on Pandaemonium.
The figure above is the Capitoline Venus, the Roman copy of a second-century BC Greek original which ordinarily graces the hall of the Capitoline Museums in Rome. She’s in the so-called ‘modest’ position as per the canon of the Venus pudica, the left hand covering the groin, the right hand doing a rather poor job of concealing the breasts. However, even this proverbial modesty was deemed insufficient last month, when it was decided to place the Venus in a box – or rather, to build a box around her – to protect the sensibility of visiting dignitaries. Hence, this:
Chief among these dignitaries was Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in what was his first trip to Europe since the embargo against his country was lifted. During the visit, Rouhani signed contracts for the supply of goods manufactured in Italy to the tune of 17 billion euros, a sum that would have amply covered the costs of the four sheets of plywood that hid the Venus from view. Nonetheless, that crude act of censorship was quickly seized upon by the press.
In no time, it was established that nobody had really asked for the boxing up to occur. Italian authorities have a way of scattering in a crisis, like cockroaches scuttling under the fridge when you turn the light on in the kitchen. So after politicians from both sides – including the minister for culture and the arts – had taken turns denouncing the decision, the finger was pointed towards the prime minister’s office in charge of protocol. Rather conveniently, however – or so we were assured – this office operates with the highest degree of independence from the rest of the government machine, thereby protecting elected representatives from censure.
The Iranian embassy, we were further told, had not asked for the clumsy gesture either. True, some discussions were had. According to one journalist, questions were raised about the conspicuous testicles of Marcus Aurelius’ horse in the equestrian statue which also graces the hall:
But they, the testicles, were spared the plywood treatment. At any rate, the decision was finally attributed to an unspecified bureaucrat’s ‘over-zealousness’, and even the most fervid of the clash-of-civilisations proponents eventually moved on.
Not me, though. I think this is worth putting into its larger context.
Firstly, this kind of artistic censorship is remarkably common in Italy, to the point of being frequently unreported. As journalist Giovanna Vitale has pointed out, for instance, it’s been only four months since a nude by Jeff Koons in a Florentine palace included in the itinerary of sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed al Nahyan was concealed by this elegant and totally unobtrusive screen.
And – in case you think it’s only heads of state of the Muslim faith who are reserved this peculiar treatment – it’s eight months since posters of a Tamara de Lempicka exhibition in Turin, such as the one copied below, were covered to save the Pope from certain emotional trauma.
The politics is equally slippery and easily forgotten. For instance: the well-known art critic and right-wing politician Vittorio Sgarbi, who fulminated against this latest act of surrender to barbaric religious obscurantism, is the same Vittorio Sgarbi who a little over two decades ago vigorously defended the removal of not one, but four artworks featuring naked female flesh from the palace that houses the Italian chamber of deputies by order of one of his party colleagues, the very Christian Irene Pivetti. Three of those were Venuses of various epochs. The fourth was a painting by the futurist master Mario Sironi, who is hardly known for his photographic realism. But you can always see a naked breast if you’re really looking for it.
And, in case you still deemed the irony insufficient, Truth herself was recently asked to cover up by one of our politicians – none other than Silvio Berlusconi. Pictured below is a scandalous detail of Tiepolo’s ‘Truth Revealed by Time’, and the same stray breast after a cover-up job so rudimentary it may as well have been done by a passing child, ahead of Berlusconi being photographed in front of the painting.
One could go further back in time: most famously of all, perhaps, to the life’s work of the sixteenth-century artist Daniele da Volterra, known as il Braghettone (roughly: ‘the pants painter’) ever since he was put in charge of pasting various items of clothing over the exposed genitalia in Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ – which was barely dry at the time. Although the most original of sins may be the fig-leafing of Masaccio’s Adam and Eve as they are chased from Eden.
This is not just to say that Italians are an oddly prudish people. It’s that we are also oh-so ambivalent and easily scared. It was a Pope who commissioned the ‘Last Judgment’, or the ‘Truth Revealed by Time’ sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the tomb of Alexander VII, of which Innocentius XI apparently said: ‘Truth is generally disliked. I’m afraid people are going to like this one altogether too much.’ We undress, and then we hastily dress up again. Silvio Berlusconi kept a ready supply of young women available for sex parties in a tenement building on the outskirts of Milan, but his office sprung into action as soon as they heard he was about to be photographed in front of a naked breast modelled by a woman who died three centuries ago.
It’s a complicated mix of power, fear and shame. Perhaps the office of the protocol really wanted to spare Hassan Rouhani a moment of discomfort, but discomfort for what? What power could that modest, two thousand year old Venus exercise that the nudes at the National Museum in Tehran could not? No: that fear of the naked body is really our fear, which we project onto powerful men as if it was them who couldn’t bear the sight. Even Berlusconi, the most secular of leaders, had to be protected from the indignity. Something had to be done.
Seeing as this tradition goes back at least five centuries, there is every chance that we will continue to stumble and amuse for some time to come. Yet the deeply ridiculous nature of every one of these acts conceals their likely correlation with our Olympic levels of misogyny and homophobia. It is, in other words, no laughing matter. Yet laugh we must, if only so that we don’t cry.