Barbara McMahon: Italy Debates Replacing Public Masterpieces With Replicas

Roundup: Talking About History

Are Italy's artistic and architectural treasures too precious to remain outside in streets and piazzas, at the mercy of vandals? It may sound extreme to suggest that cities such as Florence and Rome could be stripped bare in the future, their historic statues and monuments moved indoors and copies put in their place, but calls are growing for a debate on whether many of the most vulnerable works of art should be removed from public locations for their own safety.

Concern is mounting after a recent spate of attacks on some of Italy's finest monuments. A man snapped off the hand of the giant, 16th-century statue of Neptune by baroque sculptor Bartolomeo Ammanati in Florence's Piazza della Signoria while trying to climb it to have his photograph taken.

In Rome a stone bee was lopped off a fountain sculpted by Pietro Bernini in 1644. Also in the capital, a crucial piece of the Navicella fountain produced by Andrea Sansovino in 1518 was broken into bits. City officials are also waging a battle over the dozens of marble busts of famous Italians that stand in the Pincio park and are constantly mutilated by graffiti or losing their noses.

The issue is causing considerable soul-searching in Italy, with culture chiefs pointing out that everything possible is being done to protect a country that is essentially a vast open-air museum. Some outdoor treasures are under surveillance by security cameras or private guards but total security is impossible.

Leading art historian Mina Gregori believes more works of art in Italy should be removed from unprotected positions and put away safely in museums and art galleries. As an example, she cites the bronze sculpture of the Greek hero Perseus holding aloft the Gorgon's head, which has been restored and put back in the same location in Florence in which it has stood since 1554. 'It is simply absurd that one of the greatest masterpieces in the world should remain exposed to bad weather, pollution and vandals,' she says. 'It should be taken away and put in the Bargello and replaced by a copy.'

Gregori, a professor at the University of Florence, says there are many 'sublime works of art in locations that are now unsuitable. Our streets are full of young people, many of whom do not respect culture and history,' she says. 'I'm not saying that everything should be put behind glass screens but we need to examine things on a case-by-case basis and take care of the vulnerable works. The most important thing, above all, is to protect our artistic heritage.'

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