One Man's Campaign Against the Arch of Titus — and How It Changed Italy's Jews

Lonely Objection to Mural Prompted Soul Searching

When in Rome: A bas-relief on the Arch of Titus depicts the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.
yonidebest, wikimedia commons
When in Rome: A bas-relief on the Arch of Titus depicts the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.

By Morton Satin

Published December 01, 2013, issue of December 06, 2013.
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But why was a replica of this monument in our building?

In 1996, in anticipation of its 50-year anniversary, FAO had accepted the Italian government’s generous offer of several well-known national works of art, including sculptures and reproductions. The replica on FAO’s wall was commissioned during Mussolini’s time, and it is the only full-size reproduction of the bas-relief from the Arch of Titus ever made. Most contemporary Romans consider the sculpture a brutta figura, an “ugly face,” because it glorifies the ruthless subjugation of a people — the main reason that this replica had been hidden from public view for decades in the maze of formal Roman government buildings. When it was offered to FAO, the staff responsible for building works naively agreed to accept this monument without realizing its full significance.

When I saw these men struggling to place this object in our building, I was shocked and deeply dismayed. FAO is an international diplomatic organization dedicated to improving the lives and protecting the rights and dignity of millions of disadvantaged people throughout the developing world. The Arch of Titus was a testament to massacre, pillage and destruction — the bas-relief was a celebration of sacrilege and enslavement — of my people! How could this thing grace our premises? Perhaps it would have gone over well in Mussolini’s Colonial offices, but not in a United Nations building! It was not an asset reflecting the ideals of our organization, it was a shameless liability.

Before making my way up to my office, I decided to do whatever was necessary to get rid of this abomination. I wrote to the director-general of FAO, the most senior official in the organization, in the hope that this could all be resolved without the need for any further action. I stressed the contradiction between the ideals of our organization and the replica crafted in the midst of Italy’s Fascist era, representing the worst of mankind’s deeds.

By the time I was finishing the final draft, most of the FAO staff had arrived for work. Yoram, an Israeli colleague and close friend who worked in my service, dropped by my office to say hello and peered over my shoulder. “Chief, what are you writing so seriously?” he asked. I told Yoram the story, and ended by describing the age-old Jewish ban on walking under the Arch of Titus.

“Chief, I didn’t know you were not supposed to walk under the Arch of Titus!” he said. “This is a real shame, bringing something like that into this building. I’m going to contact the Israeli Embassy right away!”

At precisely 10 a.m. I had my letter stamped and recorded by our registry. I hand-carried it down to the office of the director-general.

In the early afternoon, Yoram rushed back into my office and said: “Chief, the Israeli Embassy just called back. You know what? They didn’t know you were not supposed to walk under the arch! Can you believe that? What kind of government do we have? Anyway, they just fired off a fax to Jerusalem for advice, but since it’s Friday, we won’t hear anything until Sunday.”

At 4 p.m. I received a call from the office of the director of administration: “Don’t worry, Monsieur Satin, we will definitely do something about this wall. We don’t know exactly what, but we’ll do something. Don’t worry! Relax and enjoy your weekend; we’ll definitely do something. And Monsieur, accept my highest considerations and regards!” With that and a few other papers finished, I gladly made my way home in the madcap traffic for a restful weekend in the Eternal City.

Monday morning, bright and early, Yoram rushed into my office. “Chief,” he said, “the Israeli Embassy got the fax back from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem last night.”


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