Italy will celebrate the return of almost 70 masterpieces from the Roman, Greek, and Etruscan eras with an exhibition in Rome

Italian Antiquities Going Home

On Friday, On Friday, nearly 70 ancient masterpieces will go on display in Rome’s Quirinale Palace. The exhibition is more than a celebration of the wonders of Roman, Greek and Etruscan art: it’s the payoff for a long campaign the country’s cultural authorities have waged against museums it accuses of illegally acquiring its antiquities. For years, Italy has been pressing for the return of artifacts and artworks it says were illegally excavated and exported. Many were illegally dug up, smuggled out of the country and sold to art dealers in Switzerland and New York who sold them on to museums in the US and elsewhere — sometimes with the dirt still on them. “Now their odyssey is over,” Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli told reporters on Monday. “They are going home.”

Most of the pieces on display in Italy were recovered from the J. Paul Getty Museum in California after more than a year of bitter negotiations. Italy has put one of the Getty’s curators on trial after accusing her of knowingly acquiring dozens of looted artifacts.

Other items in the exhibit were returned by museums including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “This exhibition stands as a significant milestone in the complex international debate over cultural patrimony,” Getty director Michael Brand wrote in a letter included in the exhibit’s introduction.

The exhibition is part of a growing trend. As more and more countries seek to reclaim their cultural heritage from foreign museums, curators find themselves on the losing side of a pitched battle over collections that were acquired under shady circumstances.

The fight sometimes pits antiquities officials and archaeologists against museum curators like the Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Phillipe de Montebello, who has controversially argued that the aesthetic value of a piece of art should trump the artificial restrictions created by national boundaries — and that places like Italy and Egypt shouldn’t be so greedy. “We should recognize that a great deal of knowledge, cross-fertilization and exchange can come from objects moving across borders,” de Montebello told an audience in Berlin this autumn. “Source countries now enjoy an embarrassment of riches and have more material than they can display, let alone conserve.”

However, antiquities officials from Italy and Egypt to Central America are under pressure to reclaim objects from the collections of foreign museums. Archaeologists, meanwhile, worry that illegally excavated artifacts are stripped of important contextual information and lose much of their scientific value.

Curators and art dealers have drawn a line in the sand, insisting that anything acquired before 1970 — the year UNESCO issued the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the main treaty governing the trade in antiquities — is fair game for acquisition. While that’s fine for European museums that acquired many of their Greek, Roman and Egyptian art hundreds of years ago, newer museums like California’s Getty have gone on buying sprees in the last few decades.

Italy Sets an Example

That’s gotten them in trouble with international authorities. Italian officials seized hundreds of Polaroids proving that many of the Getty’s buys were stolen or illegally excavated. A large statue of a goddess — bought in 1988 for $18 million (€12.5 million) — still had dirt on it when it arrived in Los Angeles.

One of the most spectacular pieces in the Rome exhibition is a 4th -century sculpture of a deer being attacked by winged griffins. Even after 2,400 years flecks of red and blue paint can still be seen on it. Other artifacts include frescoes from Pompeii, an Etruscan perfume vase in the shape of a duck, and a 1,700-year-old statue of a Roman empress.

One of the most-anticipated returns still to come is the Euphronios krater, an 18-inch tall vessel for mixing water and wine. Beautifully painted on the side in black and orange is the scene of a slain hero being lifted off the ground by Sleep and Death. The painter — who signed the vessel — even included fine details like eyelashes. The Met says it will return the 2,500-year-old krater in January, at which point it will be added to the exhibit.

Italy has been trying to set a good example by returning its share of loot. In 2005, they shipped the 1,700-year-old Axum Obelisk, taken from Ethiopia on the orders of Benito Mussolini in 1937, back to Axum. And this spring, a judge ordered the National Roman Musuem in Rome to return a statue of Venus taken from Libya in 1913. The decision “sets a useful precedent to promote the return, in favor of Italy, of antiquities that were looted by other states,” the Culture Ministry announced at the time.

Italy tried to be accommodating with the American museums as well. As part of its deal, Italy has agreed to loan them treasures of equivalent significance on a long-term basis.

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