Venetian Red in Rome: The “Restitution Room”

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.


Label in the “Restitution Room” at the Villa Giulia.

At the end of a long hallway in a wing of the Villa Giulia (Museo Nazionale Etrusco), sandwiched in between the Etruscan armament and jewelry displays, is a room brimming with Etruscan-era pieces repatriated from American museums. The large Euphronious’ s Krater from the Met is there, as are dozens of pieces from the Getty and objects from institutions like The Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Princeton University’s Art Museum.

Euphronios’s Krater, Etruscan, 6th century BC
(Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Rome)

Except for the subtle note on the art work labels, there is nothing that advertises this space as a “Restitution Room.”  And yet, it’s pretty obvious that it was planned specifically to send a message (or two). Otherwise, it seems to me, MNE curators would have integrated each piece within its respective type in other sections of the museum.  Suffice it to say, there is no organizing principle that binds these pieces together, save for their shared identity as recovered pieces.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I visited the “Restitution Room” only  days after a new case had been filed in the Italian courts, this time against antiquities curator J. Michael Padgett of the Princeton University Art Museum. Readers will remember the recent trial in Rome of Getty director Marian True, who was charged with consorting with shady dealers to buy looted antiquities. Though five years old, the case has not yet been resolved. Nevertheless, Ms. True’s career has been completely tanked.

Curator Marian True (©New York Times)

I still can’t decide exactly what Italian officials are trying to convey through the organization of this room.  Is it a manifestation of Italian pride—a symbol that the government has been victorious over powerful American museums? Does it visually signify ultra-diligence on the part of the Italian government in protecting its people’s venerable culture? Or is it simply a well-aimed shot over the bow of the antiquities market, warning all of the folly of trading in illegally procured objects.

Whatever the true message of the “Restitution Room,” it certainly co-opted my thoughts long after I had left the Villa Giulia.

Wider Connections

“Museums into the Fray: The Marian True Trial”
Vernon Silver—The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece
Sharon Waxman—Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

4 Responses to “Venetian Red in Rome: The “Restitution Room””

  1. Absolutely love the Etruscan museum, though the last time I was there, they had not put together the restitution room. I have heard lots of sordid rumors about our larger institutions doing business with crooks, though one usually never knows the truth about individuals. My favorites are the portico ceiling murals that make you feel you are in the country under grape vines on a pergola and the lovely nymphaeum. Also love the Etruscan couples snuggled against each other on their grave monument, grinning. It’s like the archaic Greek smile, only a lot more joyful (but that could just be me–Etruscan woman were real equals in their culture from what I read). I do sympathize with any country that has experienced looting, because a great deal of Pompeii went missing before there was any real control over that site. It’s a conflicting feeling because I am glad that I can study quality Egyptian art in New York without flying to Egypt, but it was that sort of selling off that takes the best of a country’s work away. Some of the greatest Venetian art is in Austria. Some of the greatest Northern Renaissance paintings are in the Prado in Spain. At some point, it’s just not going to come back.

  2. I also have mixed feelings about the claims of “it belongs to US. Give it BACK NOW. ” Some of the claims are valid and some are not – more motivated by nationalism and politics than by anything else. I also wonder if the Italians, and other countries demanding the return of antiquities that they clam were stolen, are guarding current sites? If what I read about Pompeii or sites in Egypt, they are not. Plus museums are an easy target because they put the works on display, all cleaned up, repaired and ready for their closeup. What happens when all this illegal activity is driven even further underground? We certainly won’t benefit from that.

    But, as I said – I am often of two minds.

    But I’d rather see them protect what they already have than go after what they don’t. Plus, men like Zahi Hawass don’t made a very good case for legitimate claims – he wants everything that’s gone out of Egypt for the last 200 years and he’s mendacious and pugnacious.

    A huge horde of Lydian silver was returned to Turkey a while ago and some of the most priceless pieces have been stolen again. Italy brokered a deal with one of the museums (Boston? The Met?) that that they would loan items of value to the museum, of equal value to what was returned. What Italy “loaned” was apparently a bunch of banged up, mediocre Roman tableware. Another museum (Case Western???) had it’s Roman antiquity collection stripped of all the most important pieces and the case for that was pretty weak – but the museum didn’t want the bad publicity so they gave in.

    Like Tess said, at some point, it’s not going to come back and the world’s museums are going to turn a deaf ear to these demands, even when they are justified.

  3. I read about this monkey business and I do not feel sorry for her end of the career where she was entrusted with priceless works of art and she failed miserably. I wanted to go to Pompeii on my last trip to Italy but I could not work it in on the schedule I was on at that time…but this only gives me permission to travel back . Once again fascinating post dear lady…I feel as if I am in class once more when I read your astute post. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

  4. I agree with Nancy that safekeeping is more important than anything, to keep great work out of the hands of wealthy collectors who will stop at nothing to get what they want. These things belong to the world where they will educate people, and give them some sense of a world long gone. Hawass is certainly pugnacious about the removal of Egyptian art, but Egypt has benefited greatly from people learning to love it’s history in museums with great collections. There were many objects lost due to no real care in private hands. Items made of clay and wood turn to dust. It is the main reason why England will never return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, though their own conservators were very harsh in the last big cleaning. Their spokesman actually said that Lord Elgin found the marbles in the crumbling ruins of the Parthenon and he was determined to save them. It is probably true that they would have been broken up and some lost if they hadn’t all been taken together out of harms way.

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