ROME — Police detained an American tourist at a Vatican museum after he disfigured two ancient Roman sculptures by hurling them to the floor, authorities said Thursday.
The man toppled the artwork on Wednesday at the Chiaramonti Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums and home to one of the most important collections of Roman portrait busts. Metal Corten Steel Sculpture
Italian newspapers reported that the man grew angry because he was not allowed “to see the Pope.” A representative for the Vatican Museums told The Washington Post that his motive was unclear.
Photos shared on social media, and confirmed by the museum representative to The Post, showed the damaged busts strewn on the marble floor. One had lost part of its nose and an ear, the museum said.
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The Vatican police had handed the man over to Italian authorities on Wednesday, Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, told The Post.
A police spokesman said the 65-year-old had been in Rome for about three days and appeared to be “psychologically distressed.” He was given an aggravated property damage charge and released, the spokesman said.
The man had a paid ticket and appeared to be there alone, one of 20,000 visitors that day, Vatican Museums spokesman Matteo Alessandrini said.
“He smashed the two busts to the ground, one after the other,” Alessandrini said. Both of the toppled heads were from the ancient city of Rome, with one depicting an elderly man, and the other, a young man.
When the first hit the ground, “the loud bang echoed through the long gallery,” he said. Two Vatican police officers stationed within the museum arrived within minutes and took the man into custody.
Technicians are now working to reassemble the damaged sculptures, which had been swiftly taken to the museum’s restoration lab after the incident.
The pieces were fixable but would require 300 hours of restoration work, according to Alessandrini. “The scare was bigger than the actual damage,” he said.
Rick Steves, who runs a Europe travel business, said that although all artifacts in the museum could be considered precious, the damaged pieces were relatively insignificant.
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For Steves, the downside of such incidents may also be “the loss of access to beautiful art in general.”
To avoid other incidents, the museum could choose to put more security up, as was the case after a notorious artwork assault in 1972. That year, a Hungarian geologist attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica with a hammer, damaging the Carrara marble sculpture depicting the Virgin Mary holding Jesus after the crucifixion. The statue was later repaired and put behind bulletproof glass.
“The reality is you can’t even see the Pietà from the angle Michelangelo wanted you to see it,” Steves said. “He wanted you to be up close.”
The Vatican museums, where millions of people a year flocked before the pandemic, reopened last year after coronavirus restrictions closed them or curbed opening hours.
Abstract Statue Francis reported from London. Compton reported from D.C.