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Italy's Gesture of ‘Respectful’ Self-Censorship for Iran Ends Up Offending Italians

Prima e dopo. Foto via femaleworld.it

Before and after. Photo via femaleworld.it, shared under Creative Commons license.

As soon as a nuclear agreement was signed in Vienna between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries putting an end to the trade sanctions against the Islamic Republic, the visits of western industrialists and political representatives looking for contracts began in Tehran.

Then it was Iranian President Hassan Rouhani‘s turn to visit European countries, accompanied by six ministers and 120 entrepreneurs of various economic sectors. He concluded his first stop-over in Rome, signing contracts for a total value of more than 17 billions euros in a wide range of sectors.

This official visit in the Italian capital aimed to strengthen the relationship between Italy and Iran after the end of the sanctions. A gesture of “respect” towards Iran, however, seemed to undermine that very relationship, at least in the public's eyes: Many naked sculptures in the Capitoline Museums were covered up by large white panels so as “to not offend the sensitivity of the Iranian President”, as Italian news website Ansa explained.

A number of Italians found the decision to be disrespectful of their culture, something which they should be proud of, not hide away, even if the reasons behind the gesture didn't go unnoticed. News outlet Blitz Quotidiano elaborated:

La copertura sarebbe stata decisa come forma di rispetto alla cultura e sensibilità iraniana. Tanto che durante le cerimonie istituzionali non è stato servito nemmeno il vino. E’ infatti la prima in Europa all’indomani del rientro di Teheran nel consesso della comunità internazionale e da protagonista in molti dossier, grazie all’accordo sul nucleare che lo stesso Rouhani giudica “un miracolo politico”. Una visita sulla quale però non mancano le polemiche per l’accoglienza riservata al capo di uno Stato nei primi posti della lista nera dei diritti umani. “Anche nei settori su cui sono più marcate le nostre distanze, come sui diritti umani, abbiamo dimostrato di saper dialogare e discutere”, assicura il premier Matteo Renzi. Il direttore generale di Amnesty International Italia, Gianni Rufini, aveva invitato Renzi a sollevare le preoccupazioni in merito, in particolare sull’uso massiccio della pena capitale in Iran, citando le mille condanne a morte eseguite solo nel 2015.

The covering was decided on as a form of respect for Iranian culture and sensitivity. In fact, during the institutional ceremonies even wine was been served. This is the first visit in Europe after the end of the sanctions against Tehran, thanks to the nuclear agreement that Rohani himself considers “a political miracle”. But this visit generated debate over the welcome given to a government that leads the black lists regarding human rights. “We demonstrated that we could talk and discuss even topics where the distance between our stances is huge, like human rights,” said Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Gianni Ruffini, general manager of Amnesty International Italy, had invited Renzi to talk about these problems, especially about the massive number of death sentences in Iran, citing thousands of cases that took place only in 2015.

http://www.flyy.it/amore.jpg

“Amore e Psiche” with the colors of the Italian flag. Image via Giovanni Pascali on Facebook.

In a now-deleted post on Facebook, an Italian actor was indignant and published an image featuring the statue “Amore and Psyche”, which is housed in the museum, draped in the colors of the Italian flag:

Animi liberi! pubblichiamo tutti le statue bisfrattate: “Amore e Psiche” dipinti coi colori della bandiera italiana, “casualmente” gli stessi dell'iran. Contro questi psicotici, Vinca l'Amore

Free souls! Let's publish all the covered-up sculptures “Amore and Psyche” with the colors of the Italian flag, which by chance are the same as the Iranian ones. Against this psychos, may Love win!

Despite the debates surrounding the covered sculptures, the meetings were positive, including the signing of agreements relating to culture between the two nations:

Rouhani e Mattarella si sono trovati d'accordo sulla necessità di rafforzare velocemente la cooperazione culturale e quella universitaria tra i due Paesi. A conferma del grande interesse dell'Iran per l'Italia si ricorda che la fiera del libro di Teheran del 2017 sarà dedicata proprio all'Italia.

Rouhani and Mattarella agree on the necessity to strengthen cultural and academic cooperation. In order to confirm the interest that Iran has in Italy, one need only remember that the book fair that will take place in Tehran in 2017 will be dedicated to Italy.

But about human rights issue in Iran, some, like Italian writer Roberto Saviano, contested the narrative used by Italian politicians to introduce Rouhani. Saviano argued on Facebook that it is much too simplistic and ignores the question of democratic development in Iran:

La persona che vedete in questa foto, accanto al Primo Ministro Matteo Renzi, è Hassan Rouhani, Presidente della Repubblica Islamica Iraniana. Durante gli incontri di ieri con il Presidente della Repubblica Sergio Mattarella e con il Primo Ministro Matteo Renzi, non c’è stato alcun accenno alla mancanza di democrazia che vige in Iran e Rouhani è stato presentato come un presidente moderato e riformista, mentre ogni giorno in Iran vengono condannate a morte tre persone.

Renzi dopo l'incontro ha dichiarato: “Anche nei settori su cui sono più marcate le nostre distanze, come sui diritti umani, abbiamo dimostrato di saper dialogare e discutere”.

Eppure non si è discusso affatto delle esecuzioni capitali, delle impiccagioni, delle torture, di discriminazione della donna, delle persecuzioni di omosessuali e giornalisti. Non è accettabile che i vertici del nostro Paese parlino con superficialità di “distanza” sui diritti umani: bene il dialogo, anzi necessario, ma senza censure, senta timore di urtare suscettibilità di un capo di stato che utilizza come arma principale la paura.

The person in this photo near the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is Hassan Rouhani, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the meetings with President Sergio Mattarella and with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, there has not been any mention of the lack of democracy in Iran and Rouhani has been introduced like a moderate and reformer president, while every day in Iran three people are sentenced to death.

Renzi declared after the meeting: “We demonstrated that we could talk and discuss even topics where the distance between our stances is huge, like human rights.”

However, they did not talk about death sentences, hangings, torture, discrimination against women, the persecution of homosexuals and journalists. It is not acceptable that the people occupying the highest positions in our nation talk about “distance” with superficiality: dialogue is good, even necessary, but without censorship, without worrying about offending the sensibilities of a head of state who uses fear as a weapon.

Most social media users were, however, focused on the covered-up statues, and commented angrily on Twitter under the hashtag #statuecoperte (covered-up statues):

#Rohani in #Rome: naked sculptures covered in the Capitoline Museum. It is a shame to cover up our culture, where will end up?

Covered-up sculptures, international ridicule. But Renzi is “strong” with Europe? Please, this is foolish

They are demented…it is like if the Statue of Liberty being covered if the Iranians visited.

This wasn't the first instance of censorship of art over the fear of offending a high-profile figure. In June 2015, in Turin posters of an exhibition of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka's work were covered, too, because the event's location was deemed too close to the place where the Holy Shroud — a piece of cloth that some Christians believe to be the burial shroud of Jesus — is preserved and where Pope Francis was going to visit.

The news about the covered-up sculptures inspired funny memes and gifs, like the following from journalist Giulio Finotti and journalist and Global Voices editor Annalisa Merelli:

Museums, it's a psychosis [the image shows the two Riace bronzes hiding away at the museum]

The international press also picked up on the popular outrage against the choice to cover the statues. In the words of Vittorio Sgarbi, as reported by the UK newspaper The Telegraph:

Vittorio Sgarbi, an art critic and well-known TV personality, said only “ignorant goats” would have decided to hide the statues away.

“I don’t think President Rouhani would have been surprised to find there were nude statues in Rome,” he said.

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