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Venus Goes Home: After Controversial California Hiatus, Ancient Statue Back In Sicily

The Venus of Morgantina, a priceless pre-Christ statue, crosses land and sea after Malibu's Getty Museum agrees to let her go after a long battle over business, laws and history.

(maveric2003)

ENNA - The Venus of Morgantina, a priceless statue dating back to the fifth century B.C., has made it home to a remote Sicilian village, capping a long dispute between Italy and California's Getty Museum, which ultimately agreed to return it.

"Welcome Home!" read banners hung along the streets of Aidone, a village of 5,000 people located on the hilltop where the ancient Morgantina settlement once flourished. "You are ours! You are ours!" shouted one enthusiastic onlooker.

The two-meter tall Venus of Morgantina was sculpted between 425 and 400 B.C. by a pupil of Greek sculptor Phidias. The artifact's return after more than 30 years marks the end of an international mystery that involved tomb raiders, sophisticated art traffickers and even the mob. The statue was looted in 1978 and acquired by the Getty Museum in 1988 after several mysterious transactions. Italy won it back as part of an ongoing campaign to regain antiquities looted from its archaeological sites. The negotiations over the statue were successfully completed by Francesco Rutelli, a former culture minister.

The Venus was disassembled in Malibu, California and placed into seven cases for its long journey by plane and ferry. An applauding crowd was on hand in Aidone for the homecoming celebration, which also involved a local brass band. The cases were in fact so big they wouldn't fit through the museum's small entrance door. Movers instead carried the Venus in through the backdoor.

The statue's bust, cut into pieces after its original looting, occupied three cases during the journey. The head, one arm, one foot and 90 fragments were placed in another case, while three more cases were used to transport an anti-seismic structure meant to preserve the sculpture in case of earthquakes.

Senior Getty conservator Jerry Podany and a fellow expert put the statue back together as if it were a jigsaw puzzle: first the base, then the middle portion, finally the upper part. Podany was pleased with the final result. "The size of this room is perfect," he said. "The statue seems to fit better here than at our museum." Talk about fair-play.

Regional authorities turned down an offer by the Getty to buy the Venus passage on a U.S. airline. Instead, officials arranged for the statue to travel on a Los Angeles-Rome flight operated free of charge by Italy's main airline Alitalia. The statue was then put on a ferry from Civitavecchia, a port near the Italian capital, to Palermo, Sicily. Finally, after a 180-kilometer road journey, it arrived in Aidone.

Sadly, the Venus' new home – a museum within a 17th-century convent – isn't quite ready to receive her adoring fans. A public unveiling of the statue has been postponed until May, as last-minute work is still being done to the facility.

Long disputes stalled preparations, with officials discussing what to do with the priceless artifact: Should it be placed in Aidone or in Palermo? Should it be kept in the museum or in a church? For all their talk, local authorities were slow to act, failing, for example, to repair the main road leading in and out of Aidone.

Local culture official Sebastiano Missineo has been an exception, setting aside 2 million euros for the road and 1.5 million euros to give the museum a new wing, where the Venus will eventually be placed. He also prepared a plan that includes online booking and incentives for tourist operators. His aim is to put the area, which includes Morgantina's archaeological site, on the tourist map. Missineo said that while revenue will come mostly from schools, he hopes to seize the opportunity offered by the sculpture's presence to draw more visitors overall.

Placing the Venus in one of Italy's most remote areas is indeed a gamble. Some call it pure folly. The road to the village is too narrow for two buses to pass simultaneously. There is no parking lot. The town doesn't even have an official website. But now that they finally have their beloved Venus back, residents in Aidone have no interest in seeing her transferred elsewhere.

"Venus is our child," the say. "Hands off!"

Read the original article in Italian.

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