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How Italy learned to save its heritage

A new exhibition hosted in the Colosseum, traces how Italy learned the importance of protecting its heritage & the methods used to stop its destruction, beginning in the Renaissance & continuing to the present day [1].

ANSA (Italy) [2]

2008-10-03 15:36
Colosseum spotlights saved art
Exhibit shows how Italy learned to save its heritage

(ANSA) – Rome, October 3 – A new show at the Colosseum highlights Italy’s strong tradition in preserving its art heritage.

The exhibition, entitled Ruins and Rebirth of Art In Italy, shows how efforts to foil tomb raiders stretch from the Renaissance to the present day, culminating in the formation of Italy’s world-famous art cops, a Carabinieri unit which has worked in Iraq and other countries targeted by traffickers.

Some 60 works from Italy and abroad, most dating back to classical times, are arranged on the second tier of the Colosseum.

All these works were originally saved from raiders and traders by art protection movements and laws.

Among them are a 100BC Roman statue called The Haranguer or Orator from Florence’s Archeological Museum; the famous Birth of Bacchus from Budapest; the Gustiniani Hestia statue of an austere noblewoman from Rome’s Torlonia collection; and the ‘Dea Roma’ (Rome Goddess) from Ostia.

Other significant works are the ‘Marciante’ Artemis, recovered in 2001 after a five-year fight against traffickers who commissioned no fewer than five copies in a bid to sidetrack art cops; an Apollo found at the villa of famous Ancient Roman jurist Domitius Ulpianus at Santa Marinella near Rome; and a statue of the tragic Greek mythological mother Niobe from an ancient Roman villa, reunited for the first time with its head, recently identified in Poland.

The first section of the show, At the Origins Of Protection, shows how Italy gradually developed a sense of the importance of keeping its heritage intact, from the Renaissance onwards.

It highlights that the famous Doric friezes called ‘metope’ on an ancient Greek temple at Selinunte, Sicily, were saved from the British Museum’s attentions by a law passed in pre-unification Italy.

The second section of the exhibition, The Unification and National Education, moves to the late 19th-century drive by the Italian state to buy up archaeological dig sites and recently discovered artefacts, as well as taking museums out of private hands. One of the examples is how the Italian government purchased a famed collection of statues of philosophers which had stood since the 17th century in the gardens of the Boncompagni Ludovisi palace – today home to the American embassy.

The show’s third section, 20th Century Progress, highlights how Italy started promulgating art conservation and anti-trafficking laws, the most important coming in 1909, which established the principle that antiquities were primarily state property.

As well as the Hestia, this section spotlights a stunning statue of the Greek goddess of wisdom and war Athena, found near Rome and on show for the first time after a long restoration. The symbol of the show, a terracotta statue of an ancient Mother Goddess dug up in the dead of night at an Abruzzo dig in 2003 to foil hovering thieves, is also part of this section.

The fourth section, entitled Fascist Propaganda and the War, exhibits a range of classical works used by the Fascist regime for propaganda purposes, including a bust of Apollo which Mussolini bought for a visit by Hitler.

The fifth section, The Evolution of Heritage Principles, chronicles the postwar years, showing how war-damaged works were repaired and Italy’s devotion to its art came to the fore in the efforts to save Florence from the ravages of a huge flood in 1966 and in later post-earthquake work at Assisi and other sites.

The final section, Counter-Trend, Heritage Protection Today, shows how Italy has upped its efforts to nab tomb raider and traffickers and forged accords for the return of priceless antiquities, most notably from a range of US museums.

”The exhibition shows how Italy gradually learned to save and reclaim its heritage,” said one of the organisers, Etruscology professor Adriano La Regina, Rome’s former Archaeology Superintendent. The show’s organisers have been keen to stress how these unprecedented returns, the subject of a recent hit show, have been possible by agreements which raise collaboration with foreign institutes and envisage loans of equivalent value. The show, which runs until February 15, 2009, marks the 100th anniversary of the landmark law on the protection of Italy’s huge trove of antiquities – the largest of any country.

The 1909 law is still enshrined in the National Heritage Code and its principles were included in Italy’s 1948 constitution.

New York Times [3]

Italy Defends Treasures (and Laws) With a Show
Published: October 7, 2008

ROME — An exhibition celebrating a century-old piece of legislation may not seem an obvious crowd pleaser. But for the curators, it’s a way of arguing that Italy’s art treasures would be vastly diminished were it not for its strict — some assert, draconian — cultural-heritage laws.

That’s why every statue, vase and archaeological shard on display in “Ruins and the Rebirth of Art in Italy,” a show that opened last week at the Colosseum in Rome, has a story to tell.

Artworks can be plundered by tomb robbers or invading armies, or demolished as cities expand. Natural catastrophes like a volcanic eruption can wipe out entire cities, as Mount Vesuvius’s did to Pompeii in A.D. 79.

Italy’s response has been a series of laws first codified in 1909 in a statute declaring that “all manner of things movable or immovable” that are at least 50 years old and “of historical, archaeological, paleo-anthropological interest” fall under the government’s protection.

The fruits of that statute are evident in displays like a first-century statue, the so-called Marching Artemis, which was dug up illegally around 1994 and then sold to Swiss art traffickers. The traffickers tried in turn to sell it to Japanese and American collectors when the looted pieces were identified by Italy’s elite art-theft squad.

To throw the police off their scent, the traffickers had tried to market an almost perfect mirror image they had commissioned from a funerary-monument maker in Rome. The police did not fall for the ruse, and that copy is also on view.

There are earthquake-shattered pieces of Renaissance Virgins and a blocklike marble head from the seventh or eighth century B.C., one of 5,172 fragments of stone body parts unearthed in Sardinia in 1974. Experts believe the older figures, reconstructed, could be six or seven feet high.

“Where do we put them, in which museum?” asked Elena Cagiano, an archaeologist who is one of the show’s curators. “That’s the sort of debate that these patrimony laws inspire.”

Also on view is a gigantic second-century marble statue of Dionysus that was once in the National Roman Museum in Rome, and that was given to Hitler by Mussolini in January 1944. It came back to Italy in 1991 after German scholars lobbied for its return. (Italy is still hoping to retrieve the head of the statue, which is thought to have been illegally excavated in 1928 along the Appian Way near Castel Gandolfo, transported to England and donated in 1966 to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.)

The exhibition is part of a broader scholarly program to study and celebrate the 1909 cultural-heritage legislation, which laid the groundwork for protective laws adopted in subsequent decades. “That early law consolidated principles that are still active today,” said Adriano La Regina, one of Rome’s leading archaeologists and the chief curator of the exhibition.

In addition to its right to regulate the sale, export or restoration of any property that is more than 50 years old and has artistic value, the state has the authority to acquire any such object that is being privately sold, as long as it pays an equal price. Successive laws have also enshrined the notion that any artifact dug out of the ground belongs to the state and not the owner of the land (although the landowner and the finder are usually entitled to rewards).

Mr. La Regina likes to point out that when it comes to restitution, Italy abides by its own rules.

Last August the Italian government returned a headless and armless statue, the so-called Venus of Cyrene, to Libya as part of a $5 billion compensation accord for damage inflicted by Italy during its colonial period there. (Italy invaded Libya in 1911 and retained power there until its troops were driven out by Allied forces during World War II.)

The statue was unearthed by Italian archaeologists in 1913 at the ancient city of Cyrene and transferred to Rome.

Giving it back “was our duty,” Mr. La Regina said.

“Thank goodness we have these laws,” said Mr. La Regina, who like many Italian cultural officials frets that more recent cultural-heritage laws may dilute the original law’s tenets.

Critics say that a 2004 law has made it harder to argue for the artistic and historical interest of monuments and has diminished the role played by the Culture Ministry’s expert officials, known as superintendents.

Yet many art and antiques dealers counter that Italy’s cultural protectionism goes too far.

Domenico Piva, president of the Italian federation of art dealers, said it was “preposterous” that a release form must be obtained from the Culture Ministry each time a 50-year-old art object is exported, “even if it’s an industrial object by an architect.”

He said the laws had “led to the creation of an entirely internal and provincial art market” and restricted the profile of modern Italian artists abroad. “We complain that the Impressionists have a great international market, and our own artists are ignored, but it’s because our artists only circulate in Italy,” he said.

But Cosimo Ceccuti, the president of a national committee for the celebration of the conservation laws, said that such arguments miss the point.

“The first thing to bear in mind is that art is the patrimony of humanity,” he said. The Italian government’s first priority, he added, is to ensure that it continues to exist.

“We must make sure that this patrimony will pass down to future generations,” Mr. Ceccuti said.