Rome Convention: 20 Years after the UNIDROIT Convention

flyer-eI’m very much looking forward to participating in┬áthis Friday’s conference at the Capitoline Museum in Rome marking the 20th Anniversary of the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Property. If you haven’t registered yet, and happen to be in Rome, I’m afraid registration is closed. But I’ll be offering some thoughts on the conference when I get back home next week.



Stripping Trajan’s Forum

Trajan’s forum was built by the order of its namesake after the conquest (and the pillaging which ensued) of Dacia, which ruled parts of present day Romania and Moldova. The forum opened in 112 AD, and Trajan’s column was inaugurated a year later. Parts of the market and Trajan’s column remain.

However yesterday archaeologists in Rome said the Forum had been stripped of all the statue fragments and amphorae shards. An Italian reporter also carried away boxes of ancient artifacts without being challenged. Malcolm Moore has more in today’s Telegraph:

An archaeologist working at the site, who asked not to be named, said: “Everything has been taken from Trajan’s Forum. The close-circuit television cameras are pointless, and the gates are practically non-existent. Even a child could climb over them.

“The treasures of ancient Rome are very vulnerable, but there are lots of gaps in the security system of one of the most important archaeological areas in the world.” He added that he had often seen people in restricted areas, collecting keepsakes.

The newspaper blamed the 20 million tourists who pass through the city each year for the looting. “Who knows how many of these small fragments now adorn living rooms all over the world?” it said…

“This is an open-air museum,” said Eugenio La Rocca, the head of Rome’s cultural heritage authority.

“You have to bear in mind that we cannot cover every angle, especially since restoration work is going on. We cannot put bunkers of guards everywhere. If we did the whole of Rome would be a giant bunker.

“However, the area is closed off and the television monitoring system is connected to a cabin staffed by guards. It is also connected to the police.”

Recently the Italian authorities announced the recovery of 1.000 objects from Trajan’s Villa which had been stolen in 2002. Even policing known sites, in the middle of a city is difficult. The protest really points out the difficulty in this kind of heritage tourism. It brings tremendous economic benefits, but does have negative consequence, including disturbing sensitive areas, and also this kind of petty looting and taking. I’m not sure if the answer to this problem is more security, though that would certainly help. Perhaps what is needed is more public education about why this kind of taking is destructive, and damages these ancient monuments.

I wonder if perhaps these protests are too quick to blame foreign tourists. It seems possible Italians may want a piece of the forum as well.

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Italy, Culture and Politics

Barbie Nadeau has an interesting article online at Newsweek. It makes the same kind of point that a number of commentors, me included, have noticed. Namely, that Italian politicians are often adroit at using Italian heritage for political gain.

Last month Veltroni and Rutelli unveiled another gem on the Palatine Hill: the “Lupercale,” the ancient grotto where, legend has it, a she-wolf nursed Rome’s founder, Romulus, and his twin brother, Remus. The showing of the Lupercale delighted Italians with the suggestion that the legend might be true. But while the romantics were studying the mythology, the cynics were asking questions about just why the finds were being shown off at that time. The grotto, after all, was discovered last January, during the restoration of Augustus’s palace and the iconic collapsed wall. Back then Irene Iacopi, the archeologist in charge of the Palatine Hill, said she discovered the cavern, which is covered with frescoes, niches and seashells, after inserting a 52-foot probe into the ground. So why did it take almost a year for the authorities to make a public announcement about the find?

The answer, it would seem, lies in politics and power. Just days before the showcasing of the Lupercale, Silvio Berlusconi had disclosed his plans to form a new political party that would compete with Rutelli and Veltroni. The news about the grotto, however, effectively eclipsed Berlusconi’s news, leading the former prime minister to describe the timing as “suspect.”

It’s an interesting point I think. But when culture is such an important political issue in Italy, it seems only natural for politicians to manage the news in much the same way the President might shape the news with respect to the economy, the War in Iraq, or other matters.

I do have issues with one claim made in the article though. It is claimed that “Getty Museum curator Marion True went on trial in Rome for conspiracy and receiving stolen artworks for the Los Angeles institution. The trial, which began during Berlusconi’s term and is still ongoing, has directly led to the return of more than 100 artifacts from other American museums that purchased items of questionable provenance, including 40 from the Getty.” I think that may be overstating the importance of the True trial. Certainly it has had an impact, but more important is the concrete Polaroids and other evidence detailed in the Medici Conspiracy. That evidence came as a result of investigation of a theft of objects from Italy which were later traced to Switzerland. That investigation, of which the True prosecution has emerged, is the root cause I think.

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An Ancient City with Modern Problems

On Sunday the BBC had an interesting article with video of Rome’s struggle to maintain Roman monuments, excavate them, and preserve them; all while other more pressing contemporary budgetary matters take priority. Tourism does stem from historical sites as the piece points out. I wonder how much of Italy’s recent efforts to repatriate objects may stem from the fact that there have been budget cuts in other sectors? Not sure about that, I’m just speculating. If anyone may know of any data along those lines, I would be interested to hear it. Does Italy have a double standard? Is it arguing too vehemently against collectors abroad as a way to shift attention from the difficult problems of preservation and protection domestically? Even Francesco Rutelli was critical of the difficulties in development in Rome while he was mayor there.

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