Censoring art history (ctd.)

April 29 2016

Image of Censoring art history (ctd.)

Picture: Pandeamonium

Remember the hoo-ha earlier this year when Rome's nude classical sculptures were covered up for a visit by the Iranian president? On the Pandaemonium site, the writer Kenan Malik gets to the bottom (so to speak) of who ordered it:

In no time, it was established that nobody had really asked for the boxing up to occur. Italian authorities have a way of scattering in a crisis, like cockroaches scuttling under the fridge when you turn the light on in the kitchen. So after politicians from both sides – including the minister for culture and the arts – had taken turns denouncing the decision, the finger was pointed towards the prime minister’s office in charge of protocol. Rather conveniently, however – or so we were assured – this office operates with the highest degree of independence from the rest of the government machine, thereby protecting elected representatives from censure.

The Iranian embassy, we were further told, had not asked for the clumsy gesture either. True, some discussions were had. According to one journalist, questions were raised about the conspicuous testicles of Marcus Aurelius’ horse in the equestrian statue which also graces the hall. But they, the testicles, were spared the plywood treatment. At any rate, the decision was finally attributed to an unspecified bureaucrat’s ‘over-zealousness’, and even the most fervid of the clash-of-civilisations proponents eventually moved on.

Malik also wonders why the Italians have a track record for this sort of thing, and cites the example of a photograph of a Tiepolo painting being censored when the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was due to be speaking in front of it:

This is not just to say that Italians are an oddly prudish people. It’s that we are also oh-so ambivalent and easily scared. It was a Pope who commissioned the ‘Last Judgment’, or the ‘Truth Revealed by Time’ sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the tomb of Alexander VII, of which Innocentius XI apparently said: ‘Truth is generally disliked. I’m afraid people are going to like this one altogether too much.’ We undress, and then we hastily dress up again. Silvio Berlusconi kept a ready supply of young women available for sex parties in a tenement building on the outskirts of Milan, but his office sprung into action as soon as they heard he was about to be photographed in front of a naked breast modelled by a woman who died three centuries ago.

It’s a complicated mix of power, fear and shame. Perhaps the office of the protocol really wanted to spare Hassan Rouhani a moment of discomfort, but discomfort for what? What power could that modest, two thousand year old Venus exercise that the nudes at the National Museum in Tehran could not? No: that fear of the naked body is really our fear, which we project onto powerful men as if it was them who couldn’t bear the sight. Even Berlusconi, the most secular of leaders, had to be protected from the indignity. Something had to be done.

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