Has a new art installation opened up at the Capitoline museum? One might be forgiven for thinking so: nude sculptures were recently encased in white wooden boxes so that only their heads could be seen. So modern! So fresh! So radical!
Except there was nothing radical about it. Instead, Italian authorities took the decision to cover up the ancient nude statues in honour of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s official visit to Rome, during his first trip to Europe since international sanctions against his country were lifted. Rouhani and his entourage could not, reportedly, cope with the sight of marble sculptures of naked women, including a Venus dating back to the second century BC. Nor could he cope with being photographed too near the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, because the Iranians objected to the horse’s ‘attributes’, as one Italian paper put it. For Rouhani’s sake, let’s hope the Sistine Chapel wasn’t included in the itinerary.
This kind of zealous fig-leafery sends the wrong message to Islamic leaders wishing to visit European cities: that their presence will ensure that women – stone or perhaps flesh – will cover up in their honour. This shouldn’t be the case. The depiction of the human form, nude or otherwise, is a central theme in Western art. If Rouhani wishes to engage more with his European counterparts, he is going to have a hard time avoiding this fact.