The Italian foreign minister, the Italian ambassador, several Italian-American members of Congress and leaders of scores of Italian-American organizations crowded into a hallway of the National Gallery of Art this week to celebrate a nation that – as they said – was discovered by an Italian and named after one.
Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata dedicated an exhibition featuring a 4-foot 10-inch marble statue sculpted by Michelangelo more than 480 years ago.
The statue of a naked man reaching over his right shoulder is known as "David-Apollo." The great Italian sculptor and painter never finished the statue, and art historians remain confused over whether Michelangelo intended to portray the biblical giant-killer David or the mythical god Apollo.
Whoever he is, "David-Apollo" is the symbol of a year-long celebration of Italian-American heritage that begins in January and will feature 180 exhibits in 40 American cities. The theme of the "Year of Italian Culture in the United States" is research, discovery and innovation.
"'David-Apollo' captures just this spirit," Mr. Terzi di Sant'Agata told the guests at the reception in the gallery's West Building. "It will be a fascinating voyage of discovery that begins today."
Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero read a message from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who said the year-long celebration will "sow the seeds of a new partnership."
National Gallery Director Earl A. Powell III said: "'David-Apollo' is an exceptionally welcome guest. ... It is an honor to welcome it back."
The statue, on loan from the Bargello Museum in Florence, was first displayed in Washington in 1949 in an exhibition that coincided with President Harry S. Truman's inaugural reception. It will be on display in the West Building through March 3.
Greco-Roman design dominates the cityscape from the Capitol to the White House to the Jefferson Memorial and to government buildings along Constitution Avenue.
Even "The Apotheosis of Washington," the inspirational fresco on the Capitol dome, was painted by an Italian, Constantino Brumidi, who portrayed President Washington as a god surrounded by mythical figures like the goddess Victoria and the goddess Liberty.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat and former House speaker, said, "Our nation is one discovered by an Italian and named by an Italian."
Actually, the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, never set foot on North American soil, although he did discover the Caribbean islands and Latin America on four voyages that began in 1492. However, he thought he had landed on islands off the eastern outskirts of Asia.
Another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, demonstrated Columbus' mistake when he proved the South American landmass was a continent, and a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemuller, is credited with first applying the name "America" to the New World in a map published in 1507.
The hallway in the National Gallery of Art was chockablock with guests trying to balance plates full of Italian hors d'oeuvres with glasses of champagne and a pink Italian liquor.
They chatted as most guests do at Washington receptions but stopped talking long enough to hear the Italian foreign minister praise the upcoming year of Italian culture and dedicate the exhibition of the David-Apollo statue.
By the time the politicians took to the podium, however, their attention had flagged and the murmur of conversation rose.
Reps. Nancy Pelosi of California and Bill PascrellJr. of New Jersey were obviously frustrated that so few people were listening to them. The two Democrats scolded the crowd at one point.
Mrs. Pelosi, the former House speaker, tried to tell the guests how John F. Kennedy once praised Italian-Americans.
"Do you know what he said? Do you want to know? Well, listen up," she said.
Mr. Pascrell wasted no time telling the crowd to hush. "We don't need this Greek chorus," he said.
He then apologized to Greek-Americans who might have taken offense.
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