Vatican police detain tourist who smashed bust of ancient Rome at museum

ROME — Police detained an American tourist at a Vatican museum after he disfigured two ancient Roman sculptures by throwing them on the floor, authorities said Thursday.

On Wednesday, the man was among the top works of art at the Chiaramonti Museum, part of the Vatican Museums and one of the most important collections of Roman portrait busts.

Italian newspapers reported that the man became angry that he was not allowed to “see the Pope.” A representative for the Vatican Museums told The Washington Post his motives were unclear.

Photos shared on social media, which museum representatives confirmed to The Washington Post, show damaged busts strewn across the marble floor. One of them lost part of its nose and an ear, the museum said.

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Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See’s press office, told The Washington Post that Vatican police handed over the man to Italian authorities on Wednesday.

A police spokesman said the 65-year-old had been in Rome for about three days and appeared to be “psychologically distressed”. He was convicted of aggravated property damage and released, the spokesman said.

Matteo Alessandrini, a spokesman for the Vatican Museums, said the man had a paid ticket and appeared to be alone, one of 20,000 visitors that day.

“He smashed two busts one by one on the ground,” Alessandrini said. The two fallen heads are from the ancient city of Rome, one is an old man and the other is a young man.

When the first hit the ground, “a loud bang echoed through the promenade,” he said. Two Vatican police stationed inside the museum arrived within minutes and took the man into custody.

Technicians are now working to reassemble the damaged sculptures, which were taken to the museum’s restoration lab quickly after the incident.

According to Alessandrini, the pieces can be repaired, but will require 300 hours of repair work. “The panic is bigger than the actual loss,” he said.

Rick Steves, who runs a European tour business, said that while all artefacts in a museum can be considered precious, damaged artefacts are relatively unimportant.

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For Steve, the downside of such an event could also be “lose access to beautiful art.”

To avoid other incidents, museums may choose to increase security, as was the case after the infamous art attack in 1972. That year, a Hungarian geologist attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Petersburg. St. Peter’s Basilica hammered a Carrara marble sculpture depicting the Virgin Mary holding Jesus after being crucified. The statue was later restored and placed behind bulletproof glass.

“The reality is that you can’t even see the Pieta from the angle Michelangelo wanted you to see,” Steve said. “He wants you to come closer.”

The Vatican museums, which gathered millions in the year before the pandemic, reopened last year after coronavirus restrictions closed or restricted opening hours.

Francis reported from London.Compton reports from Washington

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