Talk About Bad Timing

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From The Art Newspaper comes this story. At the very time that Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli has been fighting to reclaim Italian antiquities from American museums, an Italian conservation group called Italia Nostra is in court attempting to block the repatriation to Libya of a second century Roman statue of Venus that’s currently on display at the Palazzo Massimo museum in Rome. The statue was removed by Italian troops in Libya in 1912, at a time when Libya was a colony of Italy. (The latest edition of ArtNews, which contained an item on the story, puts the year at 1915. In any case, Libya was a colony from 1911 to 1942.)

The Art Newspaper fails to make clear something ArtNews points out. Italia Nostra is a private organization. But the Italian government has agreed to return the statue. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi issued a decree to that effect in 2002, thirteen years after Libya first requested return of the statue. It was that decree that eventually sent Italia Nostra to court to block the repatriation. A judge ruled in April that the statue must go back. And Culture Minister Rutelli issued a statement soon after that called the court’s decision “a useful precedent” for his own efforts to retrieve Italian treasures that “other states have looted from us.”

Italia Nostra is now appealing the lower court verdict, which means the case is being kicked up to Italy’s highest administrative tribunal. According to ArtNews, the conservative daily Il Tempo has suggested that in exchange for giving back the statue the Italian government should seek some “counterpart action” from the Libyans. As an example some archeologists have suggested that Italy should ask for the return of the Arco dei Fileni, “a Fascist-era triumphal arch built in the desert, which Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi dismantled in 1973.”

You would think that might be the kind of thing the Italians would just as soon forget about.