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Capitoline Venus loan to National Gallery of Art aids Rome’s Olympic push

Ageless, priceless beauty leaves Italian capital for the first time in nearly 200 years

- - Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rome's mayor, Gianni Alemanno, has a dream - the Summer Olympics in the Italian capital in 2020. To that end, he has opened an energetic campaign to raise Rome's global profile, using one of the city's most powerful assets: its past.

This week in Washington, Mr. Alemanno launched a two-year project to dispatch some of the greatest sculptures of Roman antiquity to cities in the United States. "The Dream of Rome: The Eternal Masterpieces in the United States, 2011-2013," opened Wednesday when the Capitoline Venus went on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.

All the works are from the collection in the Capitoline Museum, the city's treasury of ancient Roman sculpture, statuary and artifacts. At a time when museums and collectors are reluctant to lend prize possessions abroad because of soaring air freight and insurance costs and security concerns, the museum plans to ship about a dozen of its best known pieces to institutions in several U.S. cities.

For example, the 17th-century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini's dramatic Head of Medusa, with its marble coiffure of writhing snakes, will be shown in San Francisco; and the Spinario, the second- century B.C. bronze of a seated young boy extracting a thorn from his left foot, is destined for Philadelphia.

The sculpture campaign was necessary, Mr. Alemanno explained as he dug into an American breakfast of bacon and eggs in the Jockey Club of Washington's Fairfax Hotel, because Italy has had a lot of bad press lately. In large part this was "because of [Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi's problems," said Mr. Alemanno, who is pinning great hopes on "The Dream of Rome" being an image-changer.

Rumors of Mr. Berlusconi's sex drive have been public knowledge ever since he first launched himself into politics in Italy in 1994, but Italians have been willing to give him a lot of leeway as the only post-World War II prime minister to serve out his five-year term (2001-2006). He could well complete a second full term, and Italians have come to regard his ability to stay in office as a sign of their country's political maturity.

But the 74-year-old prime minister's proclivities now have him in legal hot water. In an ongoing (very slow) trial he is accused of paying an underage nightclub dancer for sex and later abusing his power in an attempt to cover it up. If found guilty, he could face a 15-year prison sentence, but with his track record for dodging legal bullets, it's a big if.

Mr. Alemanno, who belongs to Mr. Berlusconi's right-of-center People of Freedom Party, blames the Italian left for blowing up the allegations for partisan gain - "those in the left are choking with frustration at their constant failure to have any impact politically," he said. But he admits that the scandal has harmed Italy's global image.

So the Capitoline Venus has stirred for the first time from the niche where she has stood, admired but undisturbed, for nearly 200 years and crossed the Atlantic to help win for her city the coveted Olympic prize. Until Sept. 5, the 6-foot-tall marble statue of a nude, looking as though she has been surprised coming out of the shower and ever so casually covering her private parts, has a temporary American home in the center of the National Gallery rotunda.

The statue was excavated from the buried ruins of an ancient building in Rome in the 1670s and given to the Capitoline Museum by Pope Benedict XIV in 1752. The only other time the statue has moved from the museum was when the victorious Emperor Napoleon took it to Paris as spoils of war in 1797. (It was returned in 1816 after Napoleon was defeated and exiled.)

Mr. Alemanno's campaign using Capitoline masterpieces is targeting other countries besides the U.S. For example, the Spinario is currently on display at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. But he said American support of Rome's candidacy "is fundamental."

"The Dream of Rome" project comes to an end on Sept 9, 2013, when the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Buenos Aires, will vote to decide on the host city for 2020. It's also when Mr. Alemanno is up for re-election as mayor, as is Mr. Berlusconi for prime minister.

But that may change. Mr. Alemanno, 43, confirmed reports that he is one of the younger generation of politicians who could succeed Mr. Berlusconi if the latter decides (or is persuaded) not to run again. Still, Mr. Alemanno says the decision on Mr. Berlusconi's successor will be a complex one "involving many people."

As for Mr. Berlusconi himself, he would continue to be involved with the party he founded as its "father figure" - which, with his reputation, seems an improbable role.