“The Dying Gaul”, an ancient Roman marble copy of a lost
Hellenistic sculpture. via World Archaeology

Last week Iranian President Hassan Rouhani landed in Italy, in a first ever visit by a President of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the European Union. He was received by the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, by Premier Matteo Renzi, and he visited Vatican City where he met the Pope. 

The general public would likely have been only mildly interested in this high-level diplomatic, financial and political event if it were not for a rather bizarre and frankly amusing detail that made national and international headlines.

One of the official moments of the visit took place at the Capitol, which is also a museum of ancient art. Of course, Roman art means sculptures, and many of the subjects of the sculptures seem to have gone about without anything on. Thus, by order of somebody (the ultimate responsibility has not been ascertained), the most scandalous of these magnificent artworks were carefully hidden from Rouhani’s eyes by means of large wooden boxes.

It was impossible for Italians not to compare this homage to the religious feelings of an Islamic leader with the deference – of a very different nature – paid to the late Muhammar Ghaddafi during another official visit to Italy in 2010. In order to please the former Libyan President he was allowed to camp with his followers (and his women) in tents in the centre of Rome, while a group of beautiful Italian girls was gathered, on his request, to receive a lesson from the Islamic catechism.

Are the two events comparable? Arguably they are two extreme forms of submission to foreign leaders with whom Italy hopes (or hoped) to establish fruitful economic relationships. And yet there may be a subtle but fundamental difference between the two. Ghaddafi had to be indulged, even if to court his favour a few girls must go through an incongruous charade. Rouhani, on the other hand, must not be scandalised.

It’s art, but is it decent?

Though minor, and in truth hilarious, the Rouhani incident raises the more interesting questions. For example: are all norms of decency merely cultural or are there some which are universally shared?

Do moral criteria apply to art or just to actual behaviour? If art is exempt from ethical (or prudish, depending on the viewpoint) rules, how do we establish what is art and what is mere provocation?

Are human beings free to insult other human beings, either in art or not, and to offend their sensibilities? But then: what if something is perceived as outrageous by one person and not by another?

For most Europeans, showing the nudes at the Capitol Museum to Western children is a laudable act which improves their culture, knowledge and aesthetic taste; while few would say the same of pornographic images. What is the difference between the two, from an outsider’s viewpoint?

Western culture and the body

Though many are reluctant to admit it, Western culture is deeply indebted to the Judeo-Christian concept of the sacredness of the human body. In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve, whose personhood is embodied in their flesh, are so holy as to be images of God. It is only after the Fall that this inherent holiness and beauty is overshadowed by lust.

The Biblical episode ought not, in my opinion, to be understood in too simplistic a fashion: before the Fall, Adam and Eve were naïve and did not know that it is shameful to be naked; after eating the tree’s fruit, they realise it and get dressed. This would be contradictory, as if the Fall had revealed to them a truth that God had hidden from them.

Instead, for Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge means to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, independently of a relationship with God. Thus, to see their bodies as something to be ashamed of is not the revelation of a truth, but rather the arbitrary and twisted perception of people who could no longer see the truth clearly.

This is what many theologians and artists throughout the Christian era have understood. As the Apostle Paul wrote to Titus, “Omnia munda mundis” — everything is pure to those who are pure. These words of Paul are famously quoted by the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni in his novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed).

When art is true to itself, when it is true art, it may give us a glimpse of that glorious innocence in which we were created: the joyful pride of having beautiful bodies, with which and through which we are called to love. We recognise our friends by their features, our family by their hugs, their steps, even by their sneezing; we can give life through our bodies, and thus partake in God’s creative activity.

Our bodies are neither burdens to our soul, nor necessary evils which we should ignore or hide as much as possible – something that Rouhani’s culture seems not to understand.

Purity has little to do with prudery; those who really love our bodily reality are also those who are most inclined to respect it. The human body is glorified by those who revere it as a shrine, while it is degraded by those who objectify it, as in pornography.

By enjoying art, we can see our bodies in a light which may be different from that of our daily life and experience; art is like a mirror which reveals our primeval beauty to ourselves. Each one of us, even if we are old, ugly, fat or disproportioned, is a creature in whom God rejoices: in our Creator’s eyes, each one of our bodies is as beautiful as the perfect nudes of Classical sculpture.

This is one of the highest missions of art; and, in my opinion, one reason why it is really good for children to go to museums and enjoy such masterworks. As for President Rouhani, he has missed something.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Her website is http://www.chiarabertoglio.com/. 

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com