ROME — For decades, Italy has worked to recover ancient Roman-era statues, Etruscan vases and other treasures that were looted from its soil and sold to museums around the world. Now, the country is coming to terms with the fact that it, too, has stolen items in its museum collections: the relics of a brutal colonial empire in North Africa that it hasn’t fully reckoned with.
For over a year, a team of museum directors, university researchers and scholars has been conducting a “census” of the collections in the 498 Italian state museums to get a handle on what exactly they contain. The aim is to provide government authorities with preliminary data of the weapons, artifacts, and ritual objects Italian museums may hold, to respond to requests for restitution that have only increased amid a general reckoning over the legacies of European colonial empires and the related racial justice movements.
The survey comes as museums and governments across Europe and the Americas have undergone a sea change in giving back cultural artifacts to countries and communities of origin. These museums reason they can no longer hold the objects in good conscience if they were acquired as a result of historical violence, colonial occupation, looting or war.
Even the Vatican has gotten onto the restitution bandwagon, recently returning to Greece the three fragments of the Parthenon Marbles that it had held for two centuries. “For starters, there’s the Seventh Commandment: If you steal something, you have to give it back,” Pope Francis explained.
The Italian audit, begun under the previous government, is continuing under Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party has its roots in the neo-fascist successor party of dictator Benito Mussoli. Mussolini’s Fascist regime is most closely associated with Italy’s North African colonies, which covered Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and Somalia as well as a protectorate in Albania. The empire began in the late 19th century, but Mussolini tried to expand it, only to be forced to relinquish it after World War II, with Italy’s final administration of Somalia ending in 1960.
“Even though we had a more ephemeral colonial history than Britain, Germany, France or Belgium, the problem obviously cannot be underestimated by us,” the Culture Ministry official in charge of museums, Massimo Osanna, told a recent conference on restitution. “We must rethink the collections, rethink the institutions and rethink the transparency of the narrative, as well as case-by-case restitutions.”
Osanna has tasked a group of museum directors and academics, headed by Christian Greco, director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, with the audit. The committee has enlisted a dozen graduate students who are helping curators go through their storerooms and archives to understand what’s there.
In an interview, Greco acknowledged the issue of restitution and Italy’s colonial past remains sensitive. He said he had expected resistance when his team sent out a questionnaire asking museums if they held objects that may have been acquired in ways that would be considered unethical today.
“I was expecting people to be afraid, but actually the contrary is happening, people are very excited that this is happening,” he said, adding that 30 museums with substantial collections had already responded. The aim is to produce a report to the Culture Ministry by mid-year, and to then organize an international symposium in the second half of the year to discuss the findings.
“Objects just don’t necessarily tell us about the past, they tell a lot about us,” Greco said. “When I look at objects of ancient Egypt, do they tell me something about ancient Egyptian civilizations, or do they tell me much more about Eurocentrism?”
It seems appropriate that Italy’s experiment in coming to terms with its colonial past, including the recent restitution conference, is based at the Museum of Civilizations, located in one of the huge travertine blocks of Fascist architecture in Mussolini’s utopian neighborhood of EUR, in southern Rome.
The museum itself is something of a marvel, rebranded in 2016 as a compendium of 2 million objects from a half-dozen old collections: the Colonial Museum, Museum of Oriental Art, Museum of Medieval Art, the Prehistoric and Ethnographic Museum and Museum of Traditional Popular Arts.
The most problematic among them is the 12,000-piece collection from the Colonial Museum, which Mussolini himself inaugurated in 1923. Initially made up of war loot sent home by Italian military officers in North Africa, the museum wasn’t aimed at teaching Italians about African cultures, but rather to show folks back home the greatness of Italy’s military conquests abroad, and how they were helping provide raw materials for Italian industry.
“It was propaganda, purely a propaganda museum that had the purpose of creating a colonial consciousness in the visitor,” said curator Rosa Anna Di Lella.
The museum storerooms overflow with imposing busts of mustachioed Italian military heroes; specimens of Libyan cotton, Eritrean sunflower seeds, Somalian beans; and plaster facial masks made on live subjects, relics of the anthropological studies of racial typologies that are today so controversial they aren’t exhibited.
It is here that Museum of Civilizations director Andrea Viliani is embarking on a radical rethink of the museum, its problematic collections and the narrative of Italy’s colonial-era past, starting with a preliminary exhibition opening in June.
Alongside a section on restitution, the exhibit will include two giant wall murals that Italian troops stole from the Ethiopian parliament. Also on display: a painting of the Battle of Adwa, the decisive 1896 battle in the First Italo-Ethiopian War that (temporarily) halted the Kingdom of Italy’s advance in North Africa.
Most Italian-made renditions of the battle depict the Italian “martyrs” who lost. The work going on display was painted by an Ethiopian artist and celebrates the Ethiopian victory in what came to epitomize pan-African independence at a time when European empires were carving up the continent.
Villiani said the time had come for ethnographic museums like his to tell histories in a different way, giving voice to peoples whose stories haven’t been told. Italy, he said, is a bit behind other European countries, but has a unique role to play, given it has been both perpetrator and victim of looting.
“We are at the beginning, a beginning that is still made up precisely … of testing the ground and finding the language,” he said. “It’s a journey that will need more chapters, and we can’t know how it will end.”
For Italy, the question of restitution is not entirely unfamiliar: It has spearheaded legal frameworks to bring home thousands of antiquities stolen in recent decades from its soil by unscrupulous “tombaroli,” or tomb robbers. It has won back so much loot that it recently inaugurated the Museum of Salvaged Art, where returned items spend time in Rome before being shipped back to the regions from where they were stolen.
And Italy over the years has given back plenty of Holocaust-era and other stolen loot — four returned objects were unveiled in Egypt just this week. It has also undertaken two high-profile restitutions from its colonial past: In 2005, Italy returned to Ethiopia the massive, 160-ton Axum Obelisk, which Mussolini ordered sent to Rome in 1937 after his troops overran Ethiopia. And in 2008, then-Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi handed over to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi the Venus of Cyrene, an ancient Roman statue taken in 1913 by Italian troops.
The statue reportedly disappeared in the chaos that engulfed Libya following the 2011 fall of Gadhafi, providing fodder to restitution critics who maintain that humanity is better served when its artifacts are safe in European museums, visible to millions, even if deprived of their cultural context.
Dan Hicks, the Oxford archaeologist who has spearheaded the restitution movement of the Benin Bronzes and other cultural artifacts, says that “retain and explain” argument is bunk and that Italy is right to be joining other European museums in handing back its loot.
Hicks, who spoke alongside Osanna at the restitution conference, has argued that anthropological museums today must now become the public spaces to debate problematic collections, while permitting also case-by-case restitutions. He says cultural audiences today no longer tolerate unethically sourced museum exhibits.
“We don’t want to walk around the museums constantly having to think, ’OK, this is interesting, but is there someone, somewhere asking for it back?” he said.