ROME (AFP/REUTERS) - Italy's desire to court visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani extended to covering up classical nude sculptures in the museum where he met Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, it emerged on Tuesday (Jan 26).
The two men made speeches in Rome's Capitoline Museum after a Monday signing ceremony which saw Italian companies tie up €17 billion (S$26 billion) worth of deals with the Islamic Republic.
A huge statue of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius on a horse featured prominently in many of the photographs of the event.
But nude statues, including a Venus dating from the second century BC, had all been covered up in temporary wooden cartons, removing the risk of them creeping into any of the shots - or catching Mr Rouhani's eye.
The moved angered Italian opposition leaders and commentators, who said Mr Renzi had gone too far to please his guest.
Politicians on the left and right said not only had Mr Renzi made almost no reference to Iran’s human rights record during a joint news conference, but had also “surrendered” Italy’s cultural identity by hiding the nude statues of women.
“Respect for other cultures cannot and must not mean negating our own,” said Mr Luca Squeri, a lawmaker in former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party.
“This isn’t respect, it’s cancelling out differences and it’s a kind of surrender.”
Northern League deputy Barbara Saltamartini said covering the statues with white panels was an “act of submission”, while the party’s leader Matteo Salvini wrote on his Facebook page that it was “crazy”.
Mr Gianluca Peciola, of the Left, Ecology and Freedom party, called on Mr Renzi to explain “a disgraceful decision which is a mortification of art and culture as universal values”.
The 41-year-old Renzi met with similar criticism last year when he covered up nude pictures in the renaissance town hall of Florence, the city where he used to be mayor, on the occasion of a visit by the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates.
The museum cover-up was not the only step Italy took to ensure the Iranian visit went smoothly.
As Mr Rouhani refuses to attend official meals at which any alcohol is available, wine was strictly off the menu at both lunch with President Sergio Mattarella and dinner with Mr Renzi.
According to media reports, France has baulked at making a similar placatory gesture, leaving diplomats preparing for Mr Rouhani's visit to Paris from Wednesday with a major protocol headache.