Why didn’t President Rouhani of Iran and Prime Minister Renzi of Italy meet at Ikea? The idea was floated in a cartoon in which a bewildered Mr. Rouhani, with boxes in the background, asks, “Where did you bring me? Ikea?” That would have been a more fitting backdrop for the 17 billion euro deal the Iranian president struck with Italy while in Rome than the Capitoline Museums.
Time is pushing Boxgate, as the brouhaha was called, into history after a brief media stir. Photo of the boxes. But I still find it intriguing, although not for the reasons others have explored.
Elisabetta Povoledo reporting in the NY Times wrote: The statues, in a corridor leading to a grand hall in Rome’s renowned Capitoline Museums, were encased in tall white boxes ahead of a news conference that Mr. Rouhani held on Monday with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy. One of the statues was the “Capitoline Venus,” a Roman copy of a legendary fourth century B.C. work by Praxiteles; some of the other sculptures were of ancient Greek and Roman gods, dressed minimally, if at all. Povoledo goes on to quote the columnist Michele Serra who wrote in La Repubblica: “The problem is that those statues — yes, those icons of classicism and models of humanism — are the foundation of European and Mediterranean culture and civilization. To conceal them is to conceal ourselves.” To not offend the Iranian president, he wrote, “we offended ourselves.”
You likely know that Mr. Rouhani did not ask about Ikea but instead said diplomatically: “I know Italians are very hospitable people and try to do everything to put their guests at ease, and I thank them for this.” Maybe you also know that no one in either Italy or Iran claimed to have made the request that the statues to be covered.
Roger Cohen in an opinion piece for the Times a week after the event Boxgate wrote: “Italy’s decision to cover up the nudes at the Capitoline Museum in deference to the sensibilities of the visiting Glasgow-educated Iranian president has been widely interpreted as final proof of the capitulation of Western civilization to theocratic Islam.” But Cohen was more interested in a different issue namely that neither side would say who asked that the statues be boxed. “One thing,” he wrote, “can be safely said: Nobody will ever know.”
Mr. Cohen was a correspondent in Rome for some years in the 1980s. He describes an Italian phenomenon in which investigations — he was writing about terrorist cases — dragged on for years. “Facts grew murkier, not clearer. It would take decades to arrive at convictions that did not resolve doubts. Italy has never had much time for the notion that justice delayed is justice denied.” He decried Italy’s predilection for “elastic truth.” Of Iran he writes: Iran, too, distrusts clarity. It is a nation whose conventions include the charming ceremonial insincerity known as “taarof” and “tagieh,” which amounts to the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative.
What intrigues me, however, is whether this incident is a minor moment in the chaffing of cultures that breaks down one civilization’s art to yield up another. My frame of reference is what was called in my days as a student of art history the barbarian invasions. Wikipedia says that, depending on your viewpoint, you’d call the centuries I have in mind, namely the 4th to the 9th centuries AD, the Barbarian Invasion or the Migration Period. In those centuries, late Antiquity turned into the Early Middle Ages. The question of what caused the transformation seems to be as unsolved today as it was in my day; just dabble in Wikipedia.
The names of the Migration Period styles are synonymous with the names of the populations moving around Europe: Hiberno-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Merovingian, and Carolingian. The migrants of today’s world are in motion from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Eritrea, Sudan to name a few places. I easily forget, since I can jet most anywhere in the world, that the Hellenistic and Roman worlds were well connected too. Places in the Middle East — let’s cite Palmyria since its been in the news of late for the destruction of cultural artifacts — spent part of its long history as an outpost of the Roman Empire exposing Roman art forms to those of Byzantium transforming, over time, nudes into funerary figures. All that interaction lead to reinterpretation of visual ideas.
Kenneth Clark, (The Nude, pages 119-126) attributes the Aphrodite of desire to a divinity from Syria. He describes important differences between the Hellenistic Aphrodite of Praxiteles and the Roman Venus who went into the box. Interestingly, he sees — and I’d agree now that he has pointed this out — that the Roman copy is prudish in comparison with the Hellenistic original.
Boxing the nudes of antiquity is, to my mind, a better form of obscuring the past than the iconoclasm of blowing up, say, the Buddahs of Bamiyan, since the works can be unboxed once the danger/offense has passed.
But the way in which the art of one culture is influenced by migration and political, including religious, forces from other cultures is my interest in Boxgate. André Malraux wrote in The Voices of Silence: “Creative art is given direction by the future and illuminated for us by what future brings to it. Its life story is the life story of its forward-looking works.” I take this inelegant even ungrammatical (poorly translated?) statement to mean that each age reevaluates the art it inherits according to its own sensibilities.
Boxgate was the backdrop for meeting of politicians not artists. A western sculptor today would not be copying a Hellenistic or even a Roman statue. He’d be encasing a shark in a vitrine (Damien Hurst) or fabricating balloon dogs (Jeff Koons) despite his Hellenistic heritage. Maybe Boxgate was a conceptual cultural tidbit too small and too close for us to see as part of an evolution during which what lingers from our humanist heritage will become unacceptable to the world we’re evolving into. Perhaps the next time a theocrat is visiting Rome he will not notice the object of physical desire from Antiquity because she will be wearing a chador. Unless, of course, the meeting is held in an Ikea showroom.