Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Italy and France. For the duration of his time in Rome, nude statues were covered up. Italian media reported that statues were covered to show respect and consideration to Iranian culture.
It is not clear if the shrouds were a request of Rouhani or an act of diplomacy from the Italian government. Either way, the choice was greatly criticized by Italians, prompting the hashtag #statuenude, in which people tweeted pictures of the nude statues without any cover. Some Italian politicians went as far as to call Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spineless. Rouhani addressed the criticism by saying he appreciated the hospitality, and he thanked the Italians for their efforts to “put their guests at ease.”
If the Italian government was responsible for the cover-ups, it should be recognized that this was a hospitable and kind gesture. However, it should also be noted that this act sets a dangerous precedent. Forza Italia lawmaker Renato Brunetta was among the critics of this act. He accused Renzi of selling out Italian values. This may be a little harsh considering it is still unknown whether Renzi called for the covering or not. Regardless, Brunetta made a valid point that diplomacy can be achieved without resigning identity. He pointed to the pope as an example, saying, “He didn’t cover the crucifixes when he greeted Rouhani.”
For many cultures, honoring guests is a high priority. This is commendable, but there is a line between being hospitable and bowing to another culture. In the case of Rome, these statues are at the pinnacle of the city’s cultural identity. This is the American equivalent of covering up the Statue of Liberty.
The statue incident only occurred because Rouhani is a high-level diplomat. As such, however, Rouhani should be accustomed to traveling to foreign places and seeing things that don’t align with his own culture and belief system. Furthermore, part of being a good diplomat is having an understanding and knowledge of other cultures. This is impossible to gain if the culture is covered up. If the act was requested by Rouhani, he did himself a disservice; if by the Italian government, it did Rouhani a disservice.
When it comes to honoring cultures, it should be the visitor that makes allowances. This is not to say that honor should be disregarded by the host. During Rouhani’s visit, wine was also left off the official menu. This is yet another censored part of Italian culture. Ironically, the phrase “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” loosely applies to how the situation should have been handled. The statues should have been displayed as usual and wine served, but that does not mean Rouhani should have been subjected to gawking at the statues and drinking wine.
The rule is simple: as a host, be proud of your cultural identity. As a visitor, be sensitive to that identity and recognize that you are the guest. Things will be different, but that is the beauty of it.