The scene is clearly absurd. As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani toured the world famous Capitoline Museum in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Monday, ugly white plywood boxes were used to cover beautiful antiquity artworks — apparently because they show naked human figures.
It seems someone thought that Rouhani and the Iranian delegation might be offended.
In the light of a controversial nuclear deal with Iran that included the lifting of sanctions, the covering of statues has been taken as an international scandal. Luca Squeri, an Italian member of parliament, suggested that it was not an act of respect from Rome but one of "submission." Nervana Mahmoud, a writer who frequently blogs about the Middle East, called it a "shambolic appeasement of Islamism." Some unfavorably contrasted the Italian attitude to that of the French, who had boldly and stereotypically insisted on serving wine at a formal meal with the Iranians.
For all the international furor over the statues, a more mundane fact was also being covered up: Statues depicting nudes can and often do cause offense all over the world. The situation in Rome may be unusual, but it's hardly unique. In fact, this wasn't the first time in recent months that Italy has covered up statues: When the crown prince of Abu Dhabi visited Florence in October, a statue of a nude man by U.S. artist Jeff Koons had a windbreaker placed around it to protect its modesty.
Ancient statues depicting naked bodies have also caused problems when they travel abroad. In 2013, Greece's Ministry of Culture canceled plans to exhibit two ancient statues in Qatar after it emerged that the Qatari government was planning to cover up the statues. "In a society where there are certain laws and traditions, authorities felt women would be scandalized by seeing such things, even on statues," a Culture Ministry official explained to the Guardian at the time.
The prudishness about nude statues isn't limited to the Islamic world. Here are just a few other examples: In 2012, a five-star hotel in Shanghai covered up two statues of a man and a woman after Internet users criticized them as pornographic. In 2005, the mayor of the Canadian city, Penticton, insisted on covering the genitalia of a newly installed nude statue with a metal plate (even after the plate was taken off, persistent attempts to vandalize the statue's genitalia led to it being moved). In 1995, Hong Kong, then still a British colony, covered up a statue of a life-size nude man after a court declared the artwork obscene, outraging art lovers. "The emphasis is on the face, not the genitals," a frustrated legislator told reporters at the time (the decision was later reversed).
Unsurprisingly, Americans can get offended by statues depicting naked people, too. In 2004, a garden center in Tennessee covered up a number of classical-style nude statues with what the Associated Press described as "two-piece crimson velvet sarongs" after complaints from the public (the center later said that the newly clad statues were helping sales). In 2002, the U.S. Justice Department was reported to have spent $8,000 on curtains to hide a number of nude statues from photo ops, only to have them removed in 2005. There were calls, ultimately unheeded, to clothe two nude statues outside the entrance of the L.A. Coliseum ahead of the 1996 Olympic games.
The District, home of this publication and the U.S. Capitol, has sometimes been singled out as a particularly nude statue-heavy place. In 2008, a Texas man even tried to get the GOP to take action. "You don't have nude art on your front porch," rancher Robert Hurt was quoted as telling the platform committee at the state party convention. "So why is it important to have that in the common places of Washington, D.C.?"
The absurdity of those plywood boxes in the Capitoline Museum is comparable to other absurd examples of nude-statue controversies. However, the importance being attributed to those boxes is not — and likely reveals more about the deeply divided opinions on the Iran deal than anything else. The Iranians seem just as surprised by all this as anyone else. On Wednesday, the Iranian president told Italian reporters that there had been no discussion of the statues at all before the visit.
"All I can say is that Italian people are very hospitable," Rouhani told reporters, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. "They try to do everything to put you at ease, and I thank you for this."
More on WorldViews