Tourist Posing With 200-Year-Old Sculpture Breaks Her Toes

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The Austrian tourist who got a bit too close to Napoleon’s younger sister has apologized.

But there still may be consequences.

The tourist, on a trip to celebrate his 50th birthday, was visiting an art museum in northern Italy last week when he posed with the statue of a reclining Pauline Bonaparte. Her husband had commissioned the seminude sculpture by the Italian artist Antonio Canova in the early 19th century. It is known as Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix.

What happened next might be attributable to the reckless exuberance that big birthdays often bring. The tourist, as captured on security camera footage, sat down at her feet, with his neon sneakers still affixed to the floor, and mimicked Bonaparte’s luxurious sprawl in repose.

Someone snapped a photo.

By the time he got up, Ms. Bonaparte had lost some of her toes.

The local authorities tracked the man down using visitor logs at the Gypsotheca in Possagno. They are currently required in Italy to assist in contact tracing during the pandemic, CNN reported. By Tuesday, the man — whom the museum did not identify by name — wrote apologetically to the president of the foundation that oversees the museum.

He hadn’t realized, the man said, that the plaster toes had snapped off the statue, which is a plaster model for the marble sculpture.

“During the visit I sat on the statue, without realizing the damage that I evidently caused,” he said in his letter. The museum, which is dedicated to Canova’s work, posted part of the letter on Facebook.

What is more, he noted, he did not flee Italy but finished out his trip as planned.

“I am asking you for information on what steps are necessary on my part in this situation,” he wrote, “which is very unpleasant for me and for which, in the first place, I apologize in every way.”

Credit…Carabinieri Treviso, via Reuters

There is some discrepancy as to how many toes the Bonaparte plaster model lost. In a Facebook post, the museum said it was two toes. The Italian police told CNN that it was three.

The 200-year-old plaster model, whose marble counterpart resides in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, has a history of persevering through disaster. During World War I, a shell broke through the building’s roof and some plaster models were destroyed, the museum said. After the outbreak of World War II, the museum temporarily transported the models to the Temple of Possagno, a Catholic church designed by Canova in the town where he was born.

Canova was commissioned to create the statue around 1805, when the socialite Pauline Bonaparte was 25 years old. The artist portrayed her as the goddess of love, holding the golden apple she had won in a contest to determine the fairest of three immortals, according to the Borghese Gallery.

Vittorio Sgarbi, the foundation president, said in a statement: “I appreciate the civic sense of this citizen, and I take note of his words of embarrassment for what happened.”

On the day of the incident, Mr. Sgarbi had posted a plea to police on Facebook asking for assurance that the tourist would not go “unpunished.” An Italian court was weighing whether to press charges, CNN reported on Wednesday.

The museum said in a Facebook post that it was making a plan for the statue’s restoration.

In the art world, there is disagreement over whether taking selfies and posing for photos at museums should be considered acceptable behavior. Some museums ban it entirely, hoping that visitors will have a more in-the-moment experience with the art. But major institutions like the National Gallery in London have given in and lifted their bans on posing with art work in recent years.

No one has lifted the ban on sitting on it.

Joshua Barone contributed reporting.

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