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Cultural Exchange with Italy (or not): “Boxer at Rest” in Metropolitan Museum vs. Sicily’s Newly Combative Stance (with video) UPDATED

"Boxer at Rest," Greek, Hellenistic period, late 4th–2nd century B.C. Bronze with copper inlays, Museo Nazionale Romano---Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome Lent by the Republic of Italy Image courtesy Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma – Museo Nazionale Romano---Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

“Boxer at Rest,” Greek, Hellenistic period, late 4th–2nd century B.C., bronze with copper inlays, Museo Nazionale Romano—Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Lent by the Republic of Italy
Image courtesy of Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma

It’s beginning to look like Italy’s left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing.

At the same time that American institutions are celebrating the Year of Italian Culture in the U.S.—including stellar loans from Italy to the Metropolitan Museum of a Velázquez portrait (to July 14) and the astonishing, over-lifesize Boxer at Rest (to July 15), it appears that American museums’ recent repatriation agreements may be starting to unravel. The win-win provisions in those accords, which included reciprocal loans of major works and cooperative, collegial relationships in such areas as conservation, archaeological excavations and scholarship, are now starting to look like they may be false promises.

I’ve never believed that the objects loaned by Italy to the Met as repatriation compensation were, in fact, objects of “equivalent beauty and importance” to the Euphronios krater and the Hellenistic silver that were relinquished under the museum’s 40-year agreement with the Italian Ministry of Culture and Sicily’s Commission for Cultural Heritage (a seven-page 2006 document, briefly summarized here). I’ve often wondered (and recently asked) how this agreement, reluctantly forged with Italy by former Met director Philippe de Montebello and sweetened with Italian promises of future loans and cooperation on archaeological excavations, was holding up.

I have several times queried the Met’s press office about this, but haven’t yet heard back. So when I ran into Carlos Picón, curator in charge of the museum’s Department of Greek and Roman Art, at the “Boxer” press preview, I asked him about the follow-through on the 2006 agreement. “I’m not commenting on that,” Picón brusquely replied, and quickly walked away.

Carlos Picón, right, points out a feature of "Boxer at Rest" to Claudio Bisogniero, Italy's ambassador to the U.S. Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Carlos Picón, right, points out the features of “Boxer at Rest” to Claudio Bisogniero, Italy’s ambassador to the U.S.
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I asked Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero (above) whether the nearly nude “Boxer’s” brief exposure at the Met owes anything to the repatriation accord (which calls for four-year loans), he replied that loans related to the “Year of Italian Culture” were not connected to the antiquities agreements.

Increasing my misgivings about the long-term viability of repatriation agreements with Italy was Hugh Eakin‘s recent NY Times article, regarding the Getty and Cleveland Museums’ Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome (to Aug. 19 at the Getty Villa; Sept.29-Jan. 5 in Cleveland).

The Getty’s press release describes this show as connected both to Italy’s “Year of Culture” and to the Getty’s 2010 cultural agreement with Sicily, which, in turn, was an outgrowth of its 2007 repatriation agreement with Italy. Steven Litt reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the exhibition’s upcoming appearance at the Cleveland Museum was intended to reflect “a new spirit of cultural cooperation following the museum’s agreement in 2009 to return 13 antiquities to Italy.”

But now, as Eakin tells it, the spirit has become noticeably less cooperative:

Sicilian officials now say that two star attractions [in the “Art and Invention” show]—a dramatic six-foot-tall statue of a charioteer and an immaculate gold libation bowl, or phiale [which had been famously seized by U.S. Customs agents from the residence of collector Michael Steinhardt, although Eakin doesn’t name him]—should not travel to [the] Cleveland [Museum] because their absence is depriving Sicily of tourist dollars.

And in a letter sent to the Getty and Cleveland museums this week, Sicily’s highest cultural official, Mariarita Sgarlata, noted that the region—which enjoys broad autonomy from Rome to shape its cultural policy—never signed a contract authorizing the exhibition in the first place [which the Getty has admitted is true].

The most alarming passage in Eakin’s piece was this:

In other comments to the Italian press in recent weeks, Ms. Sgarlata and Mr. [Sergio] Gelardi [director of Sicily’s cultural heritage administration] have said Sicily is considering charging foreign museums substantial fees for loans and is placing travel restrictions on masterpieces like the charioteer [emphasis added]. “I believe that these imbalanced exchanges” with American museums “have run their course,” Ms. Sgarlata said in her e-mail.

Will post-repatriation initiatives like the Sicilian show—based on mutually beneficial art exchanges and cooperation on both conservation and scholarship—now be rejected as “imbalanced” unless accompanied by “substantial fees”?

If so, the “Year of Italian Culture” may be followed by the “Year of Italian Ultimatums.”

I have queries in with the Getty and Cleveland Museums regarding the status of “Sicily: Art and Invention.” I’ll update here, if and when I receive new information.

UPDATE: Julie Jaskol, the Getty’s assistant director for media relations, told me that the question of whether the charioteer and phiale will travel to Cleveland is still a matter of “ongoing discussions with Sicily.”

Jaskol added:

Sicily is largely autonomous in cultural matters, and there is no indication of any change of attitude in Italy. The Getty and other museums continue to receive important loans from Italy (“Capitoline Lion Attacking a Horse” was extended for an extra three months at the Getty Villa; important works came for the Getty’s recent Florence exhibition; and there was a recent announcement of the Capitoline loan of the “Faun” to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City). Loans for conservation collaborations, such as the bronze “Tiberius” from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, continue as before, as well as requests for loans from Italian museums to the Getty and vice-versa.

For now, though, let’s forget cultural politics and marvel at that jaw-dropping, battered boxer who is knocking out the art critics in his path. Below is my close-up of his raw, ravaged bronze face, incised with wounds:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Seán Hemingway, the Met’s curator of Greek and Roman Art, described his physionomy this way:

His face exhibits bruises and cuts. His lips are sunken as though his teeth have been pushed in or knocked out. His broken nose and cauliflower ears are common conditions of boxers, probably the result of previous fights, but the way he is breathing through his mouth and the bloody cuts to his ears and face make clear the damage inflicted by his most recent opponent.

The muscles of his arms and legs are tense as though, despite the exhaustion of competition, he is ready to spring up and face the next combatant.

The effect of this brawny, battered sight is almost unbearably sad, in sharp contrast to the idealized beauty in the Greek and Roman galleries, where he is an incongruous interloper.

When I saw him last month, this ancient warrior was still tensely regarding someone over his shoulder. But the modern-day invader of his space was no pugilist:

Photography of "Boxer at Rest" (not allowed to general visitors) at the Met's press preview Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Journalist filming “Boxer at Rest” at the Met’s press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Now come join me at the Met to hear curator Hemingway extol the artistry underlying the “Boxer’s” gory wounds and explain the “many different reasons for the statue’s safeguarding [over many centuries], beyond its outstanding artistic qualities”:

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