Nude statues in Rome’s Capitoline museum were covered by white boxes for the state visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani earlier this week, leading to an outcry from the Italian public. The covered statues:
— Agenzia ANSA (@Agenzia_Ansa) January 26, 2016
There are conflicting reports as to whether the cover-up was requested by the Iranians or enacted as a preemptive cringe by the Italians. Nevertheless, commentators and the public on both sides of the Atlantic have been swift to condemn the move.
However, anyone who thinks that this was just a matter of hiding genitals from Iran’s repressive, easily-offended theocrats is missing something really important. The Capitoline—like the Vatican—is one of the foremost repositories of classical artworks, most of which are nudes (and at least some of which were clearly covered here). And the rediscovery and adaptation of these works in Rome during the Renaissance says much about what makes the West different from Iran under the mullahs. By hiding them, the Italians were hiding a statement about who we are.
The classical nude was not just as fine art but as a profound statement about the nature of mankind and our place in the world. The nude embodied the Greek ideal of anthropos metron, that “man is the measure of all things.” Further, it highlighted both the beauty and vulnerability of humankind before a cruel world. Take a look at the Dying Gaul, a Roman copy of a 3rd Century Greek sculpture and one of the masterworks in the Capitoline’s collection:
As the Gallic warrior stares down at the wound that’s killing him, his sword dropped beside him, his face bears a look of pain, regret, even sadness, masked to the best of his ability by stoicism. His nudity emphasizes both his prowess and his vulnerability, and the inescapable fact that the one could not save him from the other.
Renaissance thinkers blended Classical ideas with Christian thinking: man could be seen not as just a fallen creature in a vale of tears but as the foremost of God’s creations, whose good in this life was important to the Almighty.
Art helps make these otherwise high-minded notions into something publicly accessible. When the Florentines put Michelangelo’s monumental, nude David in the center of their city in 1504, it said something important in a way that even an illiterate manual laborer could understand. Later, the Florentine sculptor would design the buildings of the modern Capitoline to house a collection that Pope Sixtus IV had donated to the people of Rome;in 1734, Pope Clementine XII would declare the Capitoline open to the general populace, making it the world’s first public art museum.
Humanism, moderation, an appreciation for our common humanity, and the humane treatment of even those we disagree with on matters of the highest import—so much of what separates us from Iran’s brutal regime is on display to anyone walking through the Capitoline museum. Conversely, the covering up of such art has historically been a bad sign: When the Vatican ordered Daniele da Volterra to paint loincloths over the figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in 1565, it signaled an era of epistemic closure and the hardening of intellectual battle-lines that would make the Wars of the Reformation even more brutal.
Maybe covering up the statues was the price of doing business. (Although we’d note that the French managed to get contracts signed while refusing to hold a state dinner at which there would not be any wine.) But if so, we hope at least everyone was aware of the magnitude of what they were doing. More than just genitalia was being covered up.