italy iran matteo renzi Hassan Rouhani.jpg
Photograph: EPA/GIUSEPPE LAMI

The Italian government said Wednesday it did not sanction controversial moves to cover up nude ancient Roman statues to protect the sensitivities of visiting Iranian President Hassan Rowhani.

The statues were in the Capitoline Museums, which hosted a press conference late Monday between Rowhani and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The ANSA news agency also reported that no wine had been served at the leaders' dinner.

"Neither the prime minister nor myself were informed," Culture Minister Dario Franceschini told reporters after touring the Colosseum with Rowhani, adding that obscuring the statues with wooden panels was an "incomprehensible" act.

His words triggered a piqued reaction from Rome's Archaeological Superintendency, the agency responsible for the city's monuments. "It was not our decision, the event was organized by Palazzo Chigi," it said, passing the buck back to Renzi's office.

Several opposition politicians and newspapers criticized what they saw as shameful groveling to the leader of the resource-rich Muslim nation. Rowhani came to Rome to preside over the signature of economic partnership deals worth several billion euros.

Renato Brunetta, a member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia opposition party, called it an act of "submission, a renunciation of our art and culture" and said Italy should do business with Iran "without abdicating itself."

Meanwhile, Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest newspaper, made the issue its front-page headline, going as far as calling it a "worldwide affair" because foreign media had picked up on the story the previous day.

German historian Heinrich August Winkler commented on the "absurd" case.

"Western democracies have to decide [...] what is acceptable tactical diplomatic consideration and where one's own behaviour becomes insincere. The veiling of statues belongs in the second category," he told the German Funke newspaper group.

In a Rome press conference, Rowhani downplayed the controversy as a "media issue" and denied making any requests for the statues to be hidden from view. But he added: "Italians are a very hospitable people who try to do everything to put their guests at ease."

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