Sculpture Censors

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Classical nudes were covered by large wooden boxes in preparation for Iran’s President’s visit to Rome.

I always find it fascinating when the media panics over the border between art and erotica. It’s not a new concept—some critics reject artworks out of fear that it may offend members of the public, whether based on religion, culture, personal comfort or other. Art history has seen its ups and downs—the classic nude was the staple of the cultural expression of ancient Greece and Rome, but was lost for centuries as new values (ahem, Christianity) came into play. Even after the revival of the classic nude, there were moments when the naked body was still seen as shameful or offensive (the fig leaf, a common symbol of censorship, has become an ongoing debate—some historians still see the added leaves to cover the genitals of classical art, specifically in the Vatican, as vandalism to the original piece, while others now argue that those added leaves are a part of history). Whatever the case, censorship in art has always been a touchy debate.

In the most recent news of art cover ups, an unnamed official at Rome’s Capitoline Museum actually ordered to hide some of the more ‘obscene’ nude statues in the museum with large white boxes—completely blocking any view of the statue. What was the reason: the recent visit to Rome by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had this official nervous about offending him. And what is more baffling, is that this order wasn’t given by Italy’s Culture Minister Dario Franceschini or Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi.

It’s a strange concept for me to understand—yes, I can admit that there are certain works of art that could be offensive (one that comes to mind is Egon Schiele, whose sexual figures border that line between sexual art vs. erotica)—but for the classical nude sculpture that typically graces Italy’s museums, I see no need to cover that up. Perhaps this official was taking the ‘better safe than sorry approach,’ but for a country that is so proud of their contributions to the art world, you would expect them to want to show off their collections, not hide them.

In Reuters’ report on this news, they cited Rome’s newspaper La Repubblica, calling out the decision, saying: “Covering those nudes … meant covering ourselves. Was it worth it, in order not to offend the Iranian president, to offend ourselves?” It’s a valid point, for sure, but in a world of continuous PC culture and fragile political ties, maybe hiding a few sculptures was worth avoiding the potential political backlash. Just a thought.

Read more about the visit here.