October 10, 2012

Italy’s claims that the Louvre should return the Mona Lisa

Posted at 1:23 pm in Similar cases

I am a bit confused by this story – not least because, it is not at all clear that the Mona Lisa was ever removed from Italy without permission. As with many such claims, comparisons to the Elgin Marbles fail to see the uniqueness of the Parthenon Sculptures case – in that they were part of a building, as well as part of a greater whole – and therefore specifically designed to be seen in the context of the Athenian Acropolis.

Further to this, the whole argument that these should be returned because they are like the Elgin Marbles fails to note that the Palermo Fragment of the Parthenon Frieze was loaned to Greece with great reluctance by the Italian Museum authorities & had to be returned in March 2010 once the loan term ran out.

At the same time, it appears, at least from the article, that Italy’s National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage has made a formal request to France – it seems odd that such a thing can have happened with relatively little prior news coverage, for such a well known artefact. At the same time though, if a formal request was made, issues are raised of how Italy can manage to raise one so easily, while the Greek Government has not made any sort of official formal request for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures since before the Athens Olympics.

I can see very little chance of France taking this request seriously – unless Italy comes up with a huge amount of more compelling evidence (none of which currently exists, to the best of my knowledge).


We want our masterpiece back – Italians petition France to return Mona Lisa to Florence
Michael Day, Milan
Saturday 08 September 2012

Italian campaigners have collected more than 150,000 signatures calling on the Louvre Museum in Paris to hand over Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to its “home city” of Florence.

The National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage says it has made a formal request to the French Culture Minister, Aurelie Filippetti, for the world’s most famous painting to be returned to the Uffizi Gallery, where was displayed briefly a century ago.

“I am convinced that, thanks to the minister’s Italian origins, she will not only respond positively to our request, she will understand its motives,” said the committee’s president, Silvano Vincenti, who is determined to turn the Mona Lisa into Italy’s equivalent of the Elgin Marbles.

Returning the painting would be of “high historical value, both symbolic and moral”, he added. The committee, along with the Province of Florence, hopes to press its claims in a meeting with the French minister. The Louvre has already snubbed the approach. Florence’s claims on the Renaissance masterpiece, known to Italians by its proper title, La Gioconda, might not be that straightforward. Leonardo is thought to have begun work on the enigmatic portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Tuscan silk merchant, in Florence in 1503.

But art historians believe he took it with him when he moved to France in 1516. The French royal family acquired it and, following a spell at Versailles, it ended up at the Louvre after the French Revolution. It was stolen in 1911 and was discovered two years later at the Florence home of the Italian patriot and former Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, who thought the Mona Lisa belonged in the city described as the birthplace of the Renaissance.

However, the painting was exhibited only briefly in the Uffizi and in Rome before it was returned to the Louvre.

The committee is also supporting researchers who believe they have found a skeleton belonging to Lisa del Giocondo, although lack of firm evidence that she was the sitter has led to endless speculation about the painting.

Arts Journal

Mona Lisa and Other Extreme Claims: When Do Cultural-Property Demands Go Too Far?

By making a wacky claim for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” to be “returned” to the Uffizi in Florence, Italy’s National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage and the Province of Florence may have done a favor for museum officials who argue for the retention in their institutions of many of the artistic treasures that repatriationists want returned to countries of origin. The “Gioconda” joke is the most extreme of a number of recent claims that attempt to reach beyond the limits of the generally accepted UNESCO Convention’s guidelines for the return of cultural-property.

Regarding the Mona boner, the Italian news agency ANSA reports:

A campaign launched by the National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage together with the Province of Florence has garnered 150,000 signatories petitioning for the return of the painting in 2013.

The return would be of “high historical value, both symbolic and moral,” Committee President Silvano Vincenti said. “The committee has officially submitted a request for a meeting with the new French minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti. I am convinced that, thanks to the minister’s Italian origins, she will not only respond positively to our request, she will understand its motives,” said Vincenti…

…or maybe not. Michael Day of London’s Daily Mail reports:

The Louvre museum itself has already snubbed the committee. And Florence’s claims on the Renaissance masterpiece, known by Italians as “La Gioconda,” might not be that straightforward. [Click the above link to see why not.]

The claim throws into comic relief other more serious recent attempts by source countries to extend their repatriation claims to objects that left their borders years, decades or even (in the latest case) centuries before the 1970 cutoff date agreed to by signatories of the UNESCO Convention.

One of these timeframe-stretchers is Turkey, which recently pressed claims against the Metropolitan Museum for objects that were demonstrably out of the country pre-1970:

Turkey has now reportedly teamed up [via] with Greece and Bulgaria, “to cooperate in bids to facilitate the return of stolen artifacts.”

Giving Turkey’s claims some traction is an agreement announced last week by the repatriation-friendly University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which will make an “indefinite-term loan” (but not a transfer of ownership) to Turkey of 24 “Troy Gold” jewelry pieces that Penn had purchased in 1966 from a now defunct Philadelphia gallery:

“The expectation is that the gold will eventually be displayed in a new museum that is planned for the archaeological site of Troy,” according to the Penn Museum’s announcement, which includes details about a recent study of the Troy Gold (including soil analysis) that led to the agreement. (You can see images of the 24 objects, here.)

I’ve asked the Met for both an update on the current status of its Turkish contretemps and an elucidation of its stance regarding claims for objects that clearly have well established pre-1970 ownership histories. If I learn more, you’ll learn more.

Two upcoming cultural-property conferences—one, Sept. 28-29 at the Penn Museum; the other, Oct. 29 at DePaul University—may help to clarify (or further complicate) the field’s thinking about whether and under what circumstances museums should consider repatriating objects that may fall outside UNESCO’s bright lines.

DePaul’s panel on “Historical Appropriations: When 1970 Is Not Enough” specifically focuses on this issue. Here’s its description:

Even as museums and market participants accept that they should not acquire antiquities that are not provenanced before 1970, countries of origin have increasingly sought to recover antiquities and other cultural artifacts that were taken in the nineteenth and earlier parts of the twentieth century. Case studies will be presented to explore the legal and moral aspects of these calls for repatriations.

I invite readers’ concise BlogBacks on this thorny question.

September 12, 2012

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