The covering up of a marble statue of a muscular, half-naked Greek warrior for a conference on Islam in Italy has drawn accusations of overly-zealous cultural censorship.
The reclining statue of Epaminondas, a fourth century BC general who fought for the liberation of the Greek city-state of Thebes, was draped in a red satin sheet to spare the sensibilities of Muslim delegates.
Conservative politicians seized on the case, claiming it was an example of Italy going too far to accommodate the feelings of immigrant communities.
“Am I the only one who thinks this is madness?” said Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Right-wing League party, which has been involved in tortuous negotiations to form a new government after last month’s general election produced no clear winner and a hung parliament.
Laura Comi, an MEP from Forza Italia, the centre-Right party run by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, said: “We should be proud of our cultural heritage. Censoring is unacceptable.”
Ylenia Lucaselli, from the hard-Right Brothers of Italy party, said the covering up of the statue was “a collateral effect of failed multiculturalism”.
The statue is on display in a theatre in the town of Cairo Montenotte, in the northwestern region of Liguria.
A red sheet was draped over it at the weekend for a conference organised by the Islamic Confederation of Italy and the Islamic Federation of Liguria, even though in its original state, a cloth carved from marble covers the general’s genital area.
Organisers denied that religious sensibilities were behind the decision to obscure the figure’s nether regions.
“I covered the statue but only for ceremonial reasons and just for a few hours,” said Chams Eddine Lahcen, the head of the Islamic Federation of Liguria.
He said it “clashed with the setting” of the conference, which was focused on inter-religious dialogue and was designed to “bring everyone together”.
Rome was embroiled in a similar row two years ago when officials covered up Roman statues of nude goddesses so as not to offend the visiting president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani.
The decision to encase the statues of Venus and other female figures in wooden pallets prompted anger from some commentators and politicians.
“Italy bowing down to the Iranians like this is embarrassing,” said Daniele Capezzone, a centre-Right MP and a former spokesman for Forza Italia.
Luca Squeri, also from Forza Italia, said: “Respect for others cultures should not mean denying our own. This is not respect, it’s submission.”
The act of self-censorship took place at the Capitoline Museums, one of Rome’s richest repositories of classical art.
The offending statues lined a corridor along which the Iranian delegation passed.
The president’s aides were also reportedly anxious that he not be photographed too close to a giant bronze statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback.
The Iranians objected to what one Italian newspaper delicately described as “the attributes” or genitalia of the huge horse, which dates from the second century AD.