In March, Italian senator Paolo Amato joined placard-waving citizens furious over the removal of an iconic painting from Florence's famed Uffizi Gallery. While protesting the loan of Leonardo da Vinci's "Annunciation" to an exhibition in Japan, the senator took an unusual step: He wrapped himself in chains, looped them around a post outside the museum entrance and snapped the padlock shut.
The stunt was the dramatic, even operatic conclusion to a noisy conflict raging for weeks among politicians and the public. In contrast to the United States, cultural policy is a conspicuous feature of Italian life.
If you want to understand how conspicuous, try this: Imagine Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) chaining himself to the gates of New York's Metropolitan Museum to protest the loan of Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" to a foreign museum.
Unimaginable? That's the point. The brawl over the Leonardo loan was overwrought, but in Italy it was politics as unusual.
I cite this recent cultural dust-up because it goes a long way toward explaining the otherwise bizarre behavior of Francesco Rutelli. He's the ambitious, telegenic former mayor of Rome who became head of the Italian Cultural Ministry last year.
Earlier this month, Rutelli issued an ultimatum to the Getty Trust. For years the Getty has been engaged in seesawing negotiations over disputed title to antiquities in its museum collection. Nine months ago, the Getty offered to return 26 works to Italy, citing clear evidence that the museum has no legal claim to keep them. Officials further pledged to continue fastidious examination of additional disputed works.
No deal, Rutelli said. And by the way, fork over the famous Getty Bronze by July 31 -- that's next week -- or Italy will suspend all cultural relations with the Los Angeles museum.
The threatened boycott is largely symbolic, since only modest interaction exists now. But it means no loans of art, new or old, from Italian public collections to any Getty exhibitions. It means no cooperation on research or conservation projects.
To avoid the snub, Rutelli wants 47 objects turned over immediately -- including the Classical Greek statue of a "Victorious Youth." The exquisite sculpture has been the Getty's crown jewel for 30 years.
Virtually no one expects the Getty Bronze to be handed over -- not next week, not ever. Why? Simple: Italy has no valid claim on it, legal or moral.
The legal case is virtually nonexistent. Fishermen found the barnacle-encrusted statue in international waters in 1964. End of story. Even Rutelli knows that. In a Jan. 17 Wall Street Journal opinion article, tightening the screws, the culture minister wrote, "This is not a legal question, but a question of ethics."
He didn't elaborate on the moral claim -- because, I suspect, nothing but raw emotionalism backs it up. The bronze is probably of 4th-2nd century BC origin. (Some say the sculptor Lysippos, favorite of Alexander the Great, created it, though the Getty doesn't maintain that.) Since America is as much a descendant of ideals forged in ancient Greece as modern Italy is, and since the Getty preserves, protects and displays the great sculpture in an exemplary manner, there isn't any ethical problem.
So what gives? Why is Rutelli saying, in effect, "My way or the highway"?
Look to recent Italian politics for the answer. Rome, even more than Washington, is a political swamp. (They've been at it longer.) There are more parties, factions and ad hoc coalitions than Starbucks has baristas. So bear with me for a moment as we untangle the knot.
In that same Journal article, Rutelli also wrote, "This is not a political battle with the Getty." He's right. Instead, it's a political battle raging inside Italy, for which roughing up the Getty is useful.
Rutelli, 53, is a deputy in the center-left government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, a close political ally for two decades. Prodi's coalition government has been shaky since he narrowly defeated Silvio Berlusconi in May 2006; just nine months later, a full-scale crisis erupted. Prodi quit in February, quickly shored up a new coalition and regained office in March.
What was the crisis about? Italian foreign policy -- specifically, support for the United States.
The flash point was Prodi's advocacy for the controversial expansion of an American Army base in Vicenza. Thirty thousand peaceful protesters poured into the streets in December, followed by 80,000 in February. Then a motion in the Italian Senate to support the government's pro-U.S. foreign policy failed, much to Prodi's surprise. His precarious coalition government temporarily collapsed. It's still riven with fissures, and the left remains its most unruly faction.
Rutelli's escalating anti-Getty posturing is old-fashioned political demagoguery, pitched to voters back home. The ultimatum symbolically proclaims that powerful American interests cannot push Italy around, making the government look tough. The emptiness of Italy's legal and ethical claims for the Getty Bronze are beside the point.
Rutelli, who is married to the successful RAI television journalist Barbara Palombelli, is media-savvy. He's a former client of the American strategic polling whiz Stanley Greenberg, who also advised Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. He understands the emotional power of symbols.
So we shouldn't be surprised that the minister's final warning earlier this month was delivered during a visit to a newly restored church in the Adriatic coastal town of Fano. That's where the fishermen who stumbled on the submerged bronze sculpture in 1964 hailed from, ensuring zealous local applause for Rutelli's headline-making demand.
Prior to the razor-thin election of the Prodi government, the Getty had been making headway in its negotiations with Italy. Since then, as implementation of Italy's pro-U.S. foreign policy objectives has become more nettlesome, the government's demands on the Getty have hardened. It's no coincidence. Italy's government has something to gain and little to lose.
That includes Rutelli. His ultimatum won't stop art smuggling or end the looting of archeological treasures by nocturnal tomb raiders.
But if the deputy prime minister does want to go after his country's top job in the future -- something he tried to achieve in 2001 -- it won't hurt to have an established public profile as an outspoken champion of Italy's cultural patrimony, however bogus the details. For Rutelli, chaining himself to the Getty Bronze is a winning political stunt.
What can the Getty do about Italian politics? Not much. But given intractable circumstances, perhaps it's time for some back-channel intervention from the U.S. ambassador to Italy, Ronald P. Spogli. Conveniently, the ambassador hails from Los Angeles.
I'd buy into this view (and still might) if I had seen coverage of anything Gettyesque in the Italian newspapers or on RAI or something ...