Cultural exchange at National Gallery offers glimpse of Italian politics


Michelangelo’s David-Apollo is on loan to the National Gallery of Art. The sculpture last graced the museum in 1949 as a post-World War II sign of friendship between the U.S. and Italy. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
December 12, 2012

On Wednesday morning, Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata stood in front of Michelangelo’s David-Apollo in an atrium of the National Gallery of Art. The sculpture last graced the museum in 1949 as a post-World War II sign of friendship between the two countries. The statue — one of the master’s many unfinished works — was not the only unfinished project in the room.

By the end of the month, Terzi di Sant’Agata will most likely be out of a job and the administration he serves will be out of power.

This is an unwelcome development for an Obama administration that depended on Terzi di Sant’Agata’s boss, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, to contain the European financial crisis. Monti, the esteemed economist, had answered Parliament’s call to run Italy’s technocratic government after the administration of the somewhat-less-esteemed Silvio Berlusconi (see: “bunga-bunga,” corruption trials and really, the past 20 years) collapsed amid a credit crisis that threatened to ruin the country and melt the euro.

After a series of austerity measures and a rare reputation-enhancing stint of governance for Italy, Monti last week lost the backing of Parliament when none other than Berlusconi pulled his party’s support. Facing prison for tax fraud, the billionaire announced that he plans to run for a fourth term. Monti responded by announcing his resignation from the appointed post and is mulling his own run for election.

Terzi di Sant’Agata did his best to put wary Americans at ease.


Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, seen during a foreign affairs council at the EU headquarters in Brussels this month, may be out of his job by the end of the year. (OLIVIER HOSLET/EPA)

“The main structural reforms that have been adopted by this government are irreversible,” Terzi di Sant’Agata said in an empty room filled with high Renaissance works. The Obama administration, he said, should “absolutely not” be worried.

While he declined to comment on whether Monti should run for president, the right-leaning politician was also careful not to say anything negative about his old leader Berlusconi.

“If the American public is interested in looking at the personalities of Italian leaders who are close to America,” he said. “I think that any discussion about the reliability of previous Berlusconi governments is completely misplaced.”

Except for some lurking Italian political reporters, there was little indication in the airy hall that the curtain was dropping on Monti and his foreign minister. The requisite prosciutto and parmigiano were on offer. Ann Stock, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, made the usual bromides to “art,” “cuisine” and Amerigo Vespucci. A performance artist in a velvet jacket carried around a wooden Pinocchio doll and explained that “Gepetto was like Michelangelo” because he extracted “a soul from the wood, and it lied.”

Earl A. Powell III, the National Gallery’s director talked about the important role of Italian art in the nation’s capital, and noted that the David-Apollo was first exhibited at the museum more than 60 years ago, at the time of Harry Truman’s inaugural reception, as a token of gratitude from Italy for postwar aid. Reporters received news releases heralding “A Legacy of Cultural Exchange” and a thick folder titled “ITALY INspires US.”

“It’s a true pleasure to be here again,” said Terzi di Sant’Agata, who according to Italian press reports, may be the next mayor of Bergamo.

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