Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s minister for Cultural Heritage, is apparently not pleased with the way negotiations have been going with the Getty museum regarding the return of a number of Italian antiquities, the LA Times reported last week. Giuseppe Proietti, a senior cultural official has said in a recent interview that “The negotiations haven’t made a single step forward…We will not accept partial solutions. I will suggest the Italian government take cultural sanctions against the Getty, suspending all cultural cooperation.” Apparently, such an embargo would have a limited effect, because Italy does not generally loan many objects anyway. A number of papers around the world have picked up this embargo story, including the Australian, and The Times. Its yet more evidence of Italy’s aggressive new strategy to repatriate its antiquities, and prevent their illicit excavation.
Much of the tension here involves a debate between what John Henry Merryman has called cultural nationalists and cultural internationalists. Cultural nationalists generally believe that an object belongs in its context. So in this case, they would argue the Italian antiquities are best enjoyed and appreciated in Italy. On the other hand, Cultural Internationalists generally believe in an open and honorable antiquities market, which allows objects to be bought and sold. In that way, the market moves them to the location where they can best be preserved and studied. Both positions seem reasonable to me, however they are mutually exclusive, and lead to a great deal of contention, mainly between dealers and archaeologists.
The image here is of the new $275 million restoration of the Getty Villa in Malibu, which houses Etruscan, Greek, and Roman antiquities (including many of the objects Italy wants returned). It was patterned after the first-century Roman Villa dei Papiri, which was covered after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and recently redesigned by Jorge Silvetti. I don’t think anyone can argue that this new renovated Villa is not a fantastic venue to exhibit these works. However, does Italy have a stronger claim to them, especially when some of the most valuable antiquities seem very likely to have been looted? The archaeological context surrounding these objects may have told us a great deal. However that contextual information is now lost forever.
Dr. Lorenzo Zucca highlights an interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Review of Books, which helps shed some light on the dispute. The Getty, established in 1953 by J. Paul Getty is one the wealthiest art institution on the planet, boasting assets of $9 billion. In the 1980’s, the Getty pursued a very aggressive antiquities acquisition policy. This has led to the indictment and trial of Marion True, a respected curator of Greek and Roman Art. Italy certainly aims to make an example out of true, and the dealer who is also on trial, Robert Hecht. The California attorney general has also recently concluded an investigation.
It is hard to predict the possible outcome of the negotiations between Italy and the Getty. Italian authorities are certainly elevating the rhetoric in an attempt to shame the Getty into repatriating many of its works. We can debate whether these objects belong in Italy or in Malibu until we are blue in the face. The fact remains, though, that wherever these pieces are, people will come to visit them.