Repatriated Objects from the Getty in Naples

Over the weekend I traveled with a group from Amelia down to Sorrento and the Bay of Naples. On Saturday we went into Naples and visited what may be the most important Italian archaeological museum in Italy, the Naples National Archaeological Museum. It was every bit as stunning as advertised. A grand old beautiful shambling wreck of a museum in a beautiful mess of an Italian city, with the Farnese Bull, and the Alexander Mosaic, and much more. It was a lovely visit to one of Italy’s very best museums. It was founded in the 1750s by Charles III of Spain, and houses a number of important works from nearby Pompei and Herculaneum, which had been rediscovered and excavated in the early part of the 18th century.

But on the way out, a sign indicating what exhibition rooms were open or closed stood out. We hadn’t noticed it on the way in. I’ve posted the picture here, and even though it is too blurry to read, the red text at the bottom says ‘Restituzione dal museo J.P. Getty’, but the gallery was closed. One of our group asked (in Italian), why the gallery was closed, and was told apparently it was due to a lack of funding.

He asked, ‘what objects were in the gallery from the Getty’, and the museum employee responded that there was not enough funding for an inventory, probably meaning they did not have enough money to prepare a brochure. So which objects were meant to be displayed, the museum visitor can only guess at. Now I have no way of knowing if this is a typical case. Perhaps we caught the museum on a day where they were understaffed—though it was a Saturday. We paid our 8 euros each, though, and did our small part. There were a number of closed off areas, as you can perhaps make out in my amateur photograph, so there are other areas closed to the public.

Italy is currently enduring its own austerity measures, and like other nations which are cutting back, culture and heritage are some of the first targets. So perhaps in more prosperous times these objects will be displayed more regularly. But even with a good reason for the closing, even with a good reason for restitution, what good is a return if the objects can not be displayed? It will reduce the demand perhaps, but keep these objects hidden away, at least for our small group.

The museum was, for me, stunning. Whether the objects from the Getty (whatever they were) would have compared to the Farnese Bull, the Hercules at rest pictured here, or any of the stunning micro-mosaics can only be guessed at. But it is a striking irony that all of the work and time and effort spent repatriating objects from the Getty was wasted on this visitor, who took a plane, train, taxi, and bumpy ferry, walked the rainy streets of Naples to the Museum, and was still unable to see the objects ‘in context’ in Naples. This certainly does not justify for me the illicit and illegal trade in these objects. It does though I think crystallize just how vexing the antiquities trade, museums, and repatriation issues can be.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com