As Iran's president travels this week to Rome and Paris in a historic visit to mend economic ties with the countries, an unexpected scandal is playing out. It has to do with a decision by Italian officials to cover up nude Roman statues and withhold wine from official receptions to avoid offending Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The move has angered the Italian public and some Italian officials who took to Twitter with the hashtag “#StatueNude” to express their indignation over what they consider an unctuous courtesy that compromises Italian culture for the sake of $18 billion worth of business contracts.
"The covering up of the statues in the Capitoline Museums during Rouhani's visit is a sign of excessive zeal," Luca Squeri, a politician with center-right Forza Italia party, said Tuesday, according to reports from Italian news agency ANSA.
"Respect for other cultures cannot and must not equal the negation of ours. This is not respect, it is the cancellation of differences or, worse still, submission,” he said.
Another politician, Gianluca Peciola, from the far-left SEL party, launched a petition drive to force the Italian premier to explain a choice it considers “a shame and mortification for art and culture understood as universal concepts,” reported the Associated Press.
The trouble began before a Monday press conference with Italian Premier Matteo Renzi and Mr. Rouhani at Rome’s Capitoline Museums, where wooden panels had been erected around nude Roman statues.
Rouhani has said that he did not ask for the accommodation, but said that he did appreciate it.
"I know that Italians are a very hospitable people, a people who try to do the most to put their guests at ease and I thank you for this," he told a press conference in the Italian capital, according to the International Business Times.
This was not the first time Italy has pandered to the cultural and religious preferences of valuable foreign visitors. In October, a nude statue by the American artist Jeff Koons was covered in Florence during a visit by Mr. Renzi and Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
“Great art is great art and it shouldn’t be hidden from a world leader just because he comes from a country whose religious ideologues have objections to nudity,” wrote New York Times columnist Carol Giacomo Wednesday.
The Iranian leader is on his first trip to Europe, and the first one made by an Iranian president in 16 years, reports IBT. It comes six months after an international nuclear agreement lifted economic sanctions against the Islamic republic.
Rouhani continues on to France on Wednesday, where a similar scandal already played out in the French capital in anticipation of his November visit that ultimately was canceled because of the Paris attacks.
A traditional meal at the Elysée presidential palace was canceled acrimoniously after a dispute over the menu. The French hosts refused to accommodate the Iranian leader’s request for a halal meal – which means no alcohol and certified meat – citing French tradition.
The French offered the Iranian delegation a breakfast meeting instead, but the Iranians reportedly refused, calling it “too cheap.”