Antiquities and Politics


On Wednesday, Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times gave an interesting perspective on the Italy/Getty dispute. He expressed some of the same ideas I’ve had for months. Namely, that Italy does not have a strong claim the the “Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” and Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, who Lee Rosenbaum has labelled the “Great Repatriator”, is using Italian cultural pride to earn political capital.

To start, Knight could not foresee the recent dispute over a da Vinci loan taking place in the US:

Imagine Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) chaining himself to the gates of New York’s Metropolitan Museum to protest the loan of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” to a foreign museum.Unimaginable? That’s the point. The brawl over the Leonardo loan was overwrought, but in Italy it was politics as unusual.

As I said back in March, “Cultural policy is a much more prominent part of Italian politics than in many other countries.” Knight makes an interesting connection from this kind of outrage to recent Italian/American relations:

The flash point was Prodi’s advocacy for the controversial expansion of an American Army base in Vicenza. Thirty thousand peaceful protesters poured into the streets in December, followed by 80,000 in February. Then a motion in the Italian Senate to support the government’s pro-U.S. foreign policy failed, much to Prodi’s surprise. His precarious coalition government temporarily collapsed. It’s still riven with fissures, and the left remains its most unruly faction.

Rutelli’s escalating anti-Getty posturing is old-fashioned political demagoguery, pitched to voters back home. The ultimatum symbolically proclaims that powerful American interests cannot push Italy around, making the government look tough. The emptiness of Italy’s legal and ethical claims for the Getty Bronze are beside the point.

I think that is exactly right. The engine driving Italy’s very effective public repatriation campaign is Italian respect for their own culture. I’ve spoken with some Italians about this very issue, and their immediate response is “of course the bronze should go back”. But in this case such pride may be doing more harm than good. I’ve included a very unscientific poll at the left just to see what readers may think about this dispute. I expect to hear more from both sides in the coming week, as Rutelli’s deadline expires.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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