In modern history, Rome’s ancient treasures have been covered up for the sake of political expediency only twice: once for Adolph Hitler, and once for Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who this week visited the Eternal City as part of his first European tour.
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Back in 1938, Benito Mussolini had decided that the crumbling ruins of the past were not sufficiently grandiose and imperial-looking for Hitler’s upcoming visit, so he had them hidden behind huge cardboard reconstructions that, from afar, gave the impression that the ancient Roman monuments had been rebuilt or perfectly restored.
The locals were unimpressed, and despite the Fascist regime’s stranglehold on freedom of expression, they made their feelings known by reviving an old tradition from papal times: posting anonymous protest leaflets on Roman statues displayed around the city.
One of these so-called “talking statues” – a battered image of a Greek hero – was nicknamed Pasquino; and here is what he had to “say” about the Fuhrer’s visit:
“My poor Rome made of marble,
They’ve dressed you up in cardboard
To show you off to a bad painter
Who comes to be your new master.”
Today, it is difficult not recall Pasquino’s “words” when seeing how some of Rome’s cultural treasures were covered up for Rohani’s visit. In the famed Capitoline Museums, where the Iranian leader met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to discuss trade relations and other moves to revive the Rome-Tehran relationship, large white panels went up to cover the nude statues of Venus, Dionysus and others mythological figures in order not to embarrass or offend Rohani’s cultural sensitivities.
While apparently done for different reasons and in completely different circumstances, the two great Roman cover-ups can both be seen as a portent of things to come, and share a common trait: they stink of surrender.
The Hitler cardboard job was a pathetic show of nationalistic bluster and grandeur that tried to hide the fact that Italy was slowly submitting to Germany, becoming, as Pasquino correctly predicted, Hitler’s lapdog in an alliance that would spell disaster for both countries and the rest of Europe.
While Rohani should not and cannot be compared to Hitler, the cultural cover-up that was done in his honor represents another form of capitulation that now involves not just Italy, but all of Europe’s democracies. The entire continent appears to have given up on defending its core values and on demanding that its culture and beliefs be respected, whether by visiting heads of state or refugees streaming across its borders.
It is an ideological surrender that is evident in the cover-up of the nude statues; the sluggish reaction of German authorities to the mass sexual assaults in Cologne by groups of foreign men, or Europe’s inability to integrate its millions of Muslim immigrants. For how can there be integration and respect for our values of democracy, freedom and equal rights, when we ourselves are so poorly attached to them and unwilling to stand up for them?
When Western women, whether they be tourists or high level politicians, visit Iran or other nations ruled by Islamic law, they are expected to don a headscarf and cover up as a sign of respect for local culture and religious beliefs.
But when the roles are reversed, it is again the West that is asked, or submissively volunteers, to understand and adapt to the morals and beliefs of others.
It matters not whether Rohani’s delegation requested that the statues be covered or his hosts spontaneously sought to avoid any potential embarrassment during the meeting. By covering up the cultural treasures of the Capitoline Museums, Italian authorities have sent, probably inadvertently, a strong, symbolic signal of cultural surrender.
For those statues are not just priceless works or art. They are not even just the distant legacies of ancient Greece and Rome, the cradles of democracy and Western civilization. They are the masterpieces that were rediscovered during the Renaissance and studied by great artists who came up with a fresh vision for the world, one that gave renewed importance to “humanitas” - humanity and human dignity - and which ultimately set off the series of scientific, political and social revolutions that created the modern world.
But today, the heirs of Michelangelo and Leonardo seem quite ready to forget the ideals of humanism for a few billion euros in trade and the friendship of a dictatorial regime.
With those panels, everything that those masterpieces stand for – including the idea that the female body is not an impure, sexual object that needs to be sequestered behind robes or cardboard – was covered up. And all, as Pasquino would put it, to honor the new masters of Europe.
Ariel David is a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Haaretz and other English-language publications. He has worked for five years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, covering Italy and the Vatican.