Toes broken off Canova sculpture by selfie-taking museum visitor

Several toes were snapped off a 200-year-old sculpture this week, after a tourist’s failed attempt to take a photo. Some critics have since questioned the level of security at Museo Canova in Possagno, Northern Italy. 

The damaged plaster cast model was created by Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) in 1804. It depicts Paolina Borghese Bonaparte (1780-1825), the Italian noblewoman and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), as the semi-nude ‘Venus Victrix’. The marble version is housed at the Galleria Borghese in Rome and is one of Canova’s most famous works.

On 31 July, three toes were broken off the right foot when a tourist sprawled over the priceless cast to take a memorable photo. Experts believe there could be further damage to the base of the sculpture as well.  

CCTV footage captured the visitor as he “sat on the sculpture of Paolina Bonaparte… then left the museum in a hurry without reporting the incident”. Security guards discovered the damage “a few minutes later and raised the alarm”.  

Vittorio Sgarbi, the President of the Antonio Canova foundation which oversees the museum, wrote on Facebook that the perpetrator of the “awful episode is not Italian… but an Austrian tourist. I have asked the police to identify the unknown vandal on the security systems so that [the person] is unable to return home.” 

Police subsequently identified the tourist by tracing the personal details he had given to the museum on entry, which is now part of their new coronavirus procedures. His identity has not been publicly released yet.  

After police contacted his wife, he swiftly confessed to being the infamous toe-breaker, stating that he regretted the “stupid move”. The Treviso court is currently debating whether or not to press charges against him.  

Sgarbi has argued that the man should not “remain unpunished and return to his homeland. The scarring of a Canova is unacceptable.”  

One Facebook user, however, criticised the museum for allowing a visitor to gain such close access to this important piece: “How can you sit on a sculpture? We need to put up more security… You can’t get this close.” 

Sadly this is not the first time selfie-takers have accidentally damaged valuable artworks in a museum. In October 2018, a group of women damaged two etchings by Francisco Goya (1746-1828) and Salvador Dali (1904-1989) whilst they tried to take a photo at a gallery in Yekaterinburg, Russia. 

Museo Canova requested in an official statement that “our heritage must be protected: adopting responsible behaviour within the Museum while respecting the works and goods preserved in it is not only a civic duty, but a sign of respect for what our history and culture testifies – and that must be proudly handed down to future generations.” 

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