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Tourist Trying for the Perfect Photo Breaks Famous Statue of Napoleon’s Sister

The statue cast of Pauline Bonaparte and a portrait of her.
The statue cast of Pauline Bonaparte and a portrait of her.

It’s never a good day when a tourist breaks a famous statue. But that is exactly what happened. A tourist has been tracked down by authorities after damaging a precious sculpture whilst on holiday in Northern Italy. A picture paints a thousand words… or in this case, breaks some toes!

The Austrian man was celebrating his 50th birthday, and decided to take a snap on a plaster Venus at the Museo Antonio Canova in the “comune” of Possagno. The sculpture was somewhat older, at a reported 216 years old. And snap is certainly the appropriate word! Positioning himself at the base, a crunch may have alerted him that his artistic endeavors had wreaked havoc on the historic piece.

CNN spoke to police, who told them “the man was with a group of eight Austrian tourists and broke away to take a selfie of himself ‘sprawled over the statue.’” It’s unclear whether 2 or 3 digits fell victim to this 21st century phenomenon. Further investigation is taking place, to see if any harm has been inflicted on the base.

tourist breaks statue
Tourist breaks statue. A man sat on the base of this sculpture cast of Pauline Bonaparte and broke off several of its toes. (Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova via Facebook)

The tourist left without mentioning the accident, but in an extraordinary development was nabbed due to Covid regulations. These days all international visitors have to sign a book – his identity was established via a signature from his wife, plus what Smithsonian Magazine describes as “several incriminating minutes of security footage”.

While the offender’s other half reportedly broke down when questioned by police, the tourist himself has apologized in an e-mail. In it he claims not to have known about the accident. “I apologize in every way” he wrote to authorities.

tourist breaks statue
Close up of the damage.

It may only be a plaster toe or two, but the consequences could be severe. With tension mounting over how to protect cultural artifacts, new laws are under discussion. In addition to an eye watering fine of $117,000, the man might spend a maximum of 8 years behind bars should the court be unforgiving.

A statement issued by the museum on Facebook reads, “Our heritage must be protected”, adding that “responsible behavior 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.”

Pauline Bonaparte Canovo
The finished work of Pauline Bonaparte by Antonio Canovo, in the Villa Borghese in Rome. Photo by Sonse CC by 2.0

As far as repair work goes dislodged gypsum has been recovered at the scene, making a potential restoration easier. Antonio Canova cast the plaster Venus – which depicts not only the goddess of love but also Napoleon’s sister Pauline Borghese Bonaparte – in the early 19th century. It has a marble counterpart at Rome’s Galleria Borghese, though presumably this example would hold up if sat on.

The sculpture suffered an assault of a much larger kind in 1917. Smithsonian Magazine mentions that “a bombing severed its head and damaged its hands and feet.” Apparently the piece “was only restored in 2004.” It took just under a century for Venus to receive a makeover, before the careless tourist inadvertently did his worst.

The Magazine also refers to its own catalogue of exhibit-based woe. February 2017 saw a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin buy the farm when an attendee lost their footing at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. They go on to say how that same year “an art lover posing for a snapshot at the 14th Factory in Los Angeles lost her balance and fell over, sending a row of pedestals toppling like dominos.”

All very comedic, but these pratfalls lead to unfortunate results. The current obsession with chronicling life online is fun for most but a headache for history lovers. CNN reports, “In October 2018, a woman damaged two artworks, by Francisco Goya and Salvador Dali, after knocking them over while trying to take a selfie at a gallery in Yekaterinburg, Russia.”

Related Article: 7 Precious Artworks Ruined by Human Intervention

This surreal incident when a tourist breaks a statue might well have intrigued Dali. What’s truly weird however is the rare case where the pandemic helped rather than hindered. There’s a lot of love out there for this Venus…

Steve is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.