In yesterday’s Washington Post, Ariel David has an interesting article on Italy’s decision to repatriate this Roman statue of the goddess Venus. The statue is a copy of a Greek statue which has never been found. It was discovered in 1913 by Italian troops near the ruins of the ancient city of Cyrene on the Libyan coast. It was probably created in the 2nd Century AD. It’s currently housed at the National Roman Museum in Rome.
Libya requested the return of the statue in 1989, however a legal dispute involving a group which considered the statue part of Italy’s heritage has prevented the return for the last 4 years. Last week an Italian Court rejected a plea from the Italia Nostra conservation group, as international agreements “obliged” Italy to return the Greek statue.
Edmondo Zappacosta, counsel for the Libyan government said “This is a granite-like sentence, with solid arguments… On the basis of historical and juridical considerations, it was virtually a foregone conclusion that the Italia Nostra appeal would be rejected.” The statue can now be returned to Tripoli. A date has yet to be set for the return.
The ruling is an interesting one. Many of the news reports indicate that it allows Italy to claim that other nations should return antiquities illicitly taken from Italy. I think a better reading of the decision is that it limits the ability of individuals to challenge the return of cultural heritage. This was a decision about whether the Italia Nostra could block the return. If angry citizens groups were allowed to challenge repatriation decisions, it would be very difficult to effectively repatriate objects, especially if the objects at issue are part of a popular collective heritage, like Greek or Roman civilization.