SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Another cover-up is in the news. Italy's Premier Matteo Renzi and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani held a press conference inside Rome's Capitoline Museum this week to announce $18 billion in new business between their countries now that sanctions against Iran are ending. But some of the celebrated ancient statues the presidents had to pass on their way to their press conference were boxed up, a little like dim sum takeout, by large white panels. Inside those boxes were famous statues, including the Capitoline Venus of gorgeous stone gods and goddesses who do not bother with earthbound clothing. Someone - no one has claimed credit - ordered the nude figures to be covered so as not to risk offending the president of Iran, a country where woman cannot risk showing so much as their ankles. Iranian women must walk around cloaked almost as completely as those statues.
It is not clear who ordered the concealing of the statuary, but outrage over the cloaking has brought about a rare coalition in Italy. Gianluca Peciola of a left-wing party called it a shame and mortification for art and culture. Luca Squeri from the center-right Forza Italia said, this isn't respect. It's canceling out differences, and it's a kind of surrender. The columnist, Michele Serra, wrote in La Repubblica, the problem is that those that statues, yes, those icons of classicism and models of humanism, are the foundations of European and Mediterranean culture and civilization. To not offend the Iranian president, he wrote, we offended ourselves. Lots of people pointed out that Pope Francis didn't cover the Vatican's unclad angels and cherubs when he received President Rouhani. But I wonder if President Rouhani noticed all the statues whose arms and hands have fallen off over centuries.
Amnesty International points out that Iran, in this century, still chops off the legs, hands and fingers of people for offenses like petty theft and eating during Ramadan. Did the president of Iran see Venus' missing arms and wonder, what did she do? I'm sure he wouldn't have wanted to pose with a nude statue, but I wonder if President Rouhani might have appreciated a private moment just to walk around and gaze at those extraordinary figures. Any great art museum may have visitors from countries, or for that matter, U.S. counties, in which people profess to be offended by nudity and art, but they still might be curious to see it on vacation. Great art can give us a glimpse of the forbidden. That's why a lot of people come to Rome.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN IN ROME")
BILL EVANS AND TONY BENNETT: (Singing) When in Rome, I do as the Romans do.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.