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Who needs that old stuff anyway?

August 06, 2007|Dan Turner

Near the mausoleum under the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels lie the remains of St. Vibiana, an obscure, millenniums-old Italian girl who came to Los Angeles and became a star. Fortunately, her provenance is old and well-established, or the Italian government might be trying to steal her too.

Italy has prevailed in its long struggle with the J. Paul Getty Museum, finalizing a deal last week that will send 40 antiquities, including some of the finest pieces in the Getty collection, back to the land of Titian and tiramisu, where they will doubtless occupy a spare corner of some museum already packed like a Costco warehouse with treasures from the ancient world. Legally, the return of the artworks is the right thing to do, as this page has already pointed out: International treaties left Getty executives with little choice. Whether it's fair is another matter.

Italy is in a huff because these pieces of its "cultural patrimony" were looted -- dug up, sold to middlemen and then sold to the Getty without permission. Seldom mentioned is that most of the objects had themselves been looted centuries earlier by the ancient Romans, who stole them from the even more ancient Greeks. Treaties only cover objects taken from their countries of origin after 1939, so the Greeks are out of luck.

The loss will take some of the shine off the Getty, and the local art scene. Older cities like New York have museums crammed to the rafters with Old World masterpieces because they acquired the bulk of their collections long before the art world started worrying about things like cultural patrimony. Now it has become so difficult or expensive to acquire masterworks that young cities like L.A. have little chance of ever catching up.

Maybe that's as it should be, though. L.A. has always been more about the new than the old. Even our patron saint is an immigrant who has been reinvented from scratch (just like many Angelenos). Vibiana was found 150 years ago in ancient catacombs near the Appian Way. Marking her 3rd century tomb was a marble tablet inscribed "to the soul of the innocent and pure Vibiana," above a laurel wreath, a symbol of martyrdom among ancient Christians. Yet beyond the fact that she was a virgin and a martyr, her life is a blank screen, allowing the faithful to invent any story line they like. I see a righteous Scarlett Johansson in a toga refusing to accede to the twisted Bacchanalian whims of a doddering Emperor Septimius Severus, as played by Christopher Walken. But your casting and script may differ.

Like a spoiled kid, Italy wants all the old marbles for itself. It can have them. We're better at making new ones anyway.

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Dan Turner

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