Official working for Matteo Renzi blamed for host of alleged gaffes after cover-up that overshadowed historic Iranian visit
The official in charge of ceremonies in the office of the Italian prime minister is suffering criticism and ridicule after she was blamed for the controversial decision to cover up nude statues during the visit of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani.
The decision to cover the statues in the Capitoline Museum in Rome – which on Monday night hosted a joint press appearance by Rouhani and the Italian PM, Matteo Renzi – has nearly overshadowed the historic first visit by an Iranian leader to Europe since sanctions against Iran were lifted.
The Italian media is now closely examining the record of Ilva Sapora, the 64-year-old allegedly to blame for the PR debacle, whose career is said to have been compromised by the decision.
The culture minister, Dario Franceschini, eager to distance himself from the figuraccia, or poor showing, has said that neither he nor the prime minister had personally been consulted on the decision, which he called “incomprehensible”.
But other officials have said Renzi’s office was responsible for the affair, and the spotlight has therefore landed on Sapora. She is now being blamed for a host of other apparent gaffes in recent months that have allegedly made Renzi’s blood boil.
Among a list of ceremonial shortcomings and mistakes, an article in newspaper La Stampa claimed that Sapora does not speak fluent English, despite having to deal with many international delegations. The newspaper also suggested that she was involved in the accidental exclusion of a top Kuwaiti general at a dinner for a Kuwaiti minister last year following the signing of a major defence deal. The omission had put the deal at risk, La Stampa said.
Sapora, who could not be reached by the Guardian but told La Stampa she would not comment, has also been criticised over an incident in which Italian diplomats were alleged by the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano to have accepted gifts of expensive Rolex watches despite an Italian laws that bars them from accepting such lavish presents.
While government figures such as Franceschini have sought to distance themselves from the controversy surrounding the covered statues, Renzi has nevertheless been roundly criticised by his rightwing opponents, who have characterised the move as a desperate act of capitulation. The far right party Fratelli d’Italia tweeted a manufactured image of St Peter’s Basilica clad in cardboard and suggested that Renzi planned to cover it up to avoid offending the emir of Qatar in an upcoming visit.
One of the reasons Italy’s decision to cover the statues was so heavily scrutinised is because of the sharp contrast with France’s reluctance to abide by the same diplomatic rules. France reportedly scoffed at an Iranian request that wine not be served at a state dinner with Rouhani, which was then cancelled. In the event, the whole of Rouhani’s planned trip to Paris in November was delayed following the terrorist attacks on the city.
The controversy had overshadowed the fact that Iran signed nearly €20bn in deals with Italy, said Gianni Riotta, an Italian journalist and former editor of Il Sole 24 Ore.
“I am positive that the lady was the culprit, though her intentions were nice. It’s because they handled it in such a goofy way,” he said.
“This says far more about the strong strain of provincialism that is still in Italy than the accusation that we bend our knee to Islam,” he said. “The French are also provincial, but they do everything their own way. They think their food is the best in the world, their soccer is the best in the world. Nobody blames the French for being French.”
Finally, he added, the frustrating aspect of the controversy was that it could have so easily been avoided by taking the Iranian president to any number of Roman locations where he would not have had to share the stage with a naked Venus.
Social media users in Iran also ridiculed the decision, with one user mocking up a version of the Mona Lisa with her hair covered, joking that that was how the Louvre in Paris was preparing for Rouhani’s visit.
Another user suggested an alternative way to preserve the statues’ modesty.