ROME — 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….“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.” — from the New York Times, January 27, 2016
Quickly seizing the opportunity to spend some of Iran’s newly-released 100 billion (including two billions which were for accumulated interest on Iranian accounts in American banks that had been seized decades ago and were now, under the nuclear deal, to be returned) dollars, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a triumphal progress through Italy and France this past week.
At his first stop, Rome, Rouhani met the Pope, gave a joint conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the Capitoline Museums, and attended a state dinner in his honor. The dinner was notable for one thing — it was likely to have been the only dinner that the Italian state has ever given in its entire history at which wine was not served. This was, of course, in extreme deference to Muslim sensibilities.
Even more astounding was what was done, for the same eager-to-please reasons, to the artistic heritage of Italy. President Rouhani was invited to address the press, side by side with Prime Minister Renzi, at the Capitoline Museums. The Capitoline Museums are full of Roman statues, many of them nude or lightly draped figures. But here again the Italians did not wish to offend, and so they covered those statues up with white oblong boxes, shamefully and shamelessly hiding what an Italian journalist rightly described as “icons of classicism” that were the “foundations of European and Mediterranean culture and civilization,” in order to curry favor with some big-spending Iranians. Those white boxes would make Art History exams even harder. Apparently Hassan Rouhani did not even have to ask that this be done; the Italian government yielded proleptically to what it anticipated would be Iranian demands, on matters both of cuisine and of culture. No wine, no naked bodies.
Such cravenness did not pass without critical comment in Italy, but no one in the government – including Prime Minister Renzi – managed to figure out who might have given the order to hold the wine and bring the boxes. It was, or so Italian officials claimed, a real puzzlement. In any case, plenty of contracts between Renzi and Rouhani, about all kinds of things, but mainly for oil and gas infrastructure, worth billions, were signed, and a good time was had by all.
In France, however, it was a very different affair. French President François Hollande let it be known that there would be wine at the lunch he was giving for the Iranians, and when they objected, he suggested that Rouhani could be offered breakfast – even in France wine is not served at breakfast – instead. That offer was now turned down by the Iranians, and they had to make do on their own. And there have been no reports of any cover-up of statues at the Louvre or anywhere else. Yet, mirabile dictu, the Iranians turned out to be just as eager to sign contracts with the refractory French as they had been with the submissive Italians, including one for 114 planes that was, all by itself, worth $7.5 billion, with many others signed or in the pipeline.
There must be a moral here somewhere. Perhaps it should go something like this:
Don’t play the dhimmi. Don’t give in, and see where it gets you.