In Pursuit of the Perfect Photo, Tourist Accidentally Breaks Sculpture’s Toes

Authorities have identified the inadvertent vandal as an Austrian man who was in northern Italy on a birthday celebration trip

The reclining plaster mold of a woman, with broken toes
A tourist visiting the Museo Antonio Canova sat on the base of this sculpture and inadvertently broke off several of its toes. Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova via Facebook

Last week, a tourist visiting the Museo Antonio Canova in northern Italy staged a photoshoot with unexpected consequences. Posing next to a 216-year-old plaster sculpture of a reclining woman, he sat down near the statue’s feet and leaned in, inadvertently snapping off several of its toes, according to a statement.

Italian officials say that the tourist left the museum in a hurry without notifying the guards. But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum has started requiring international visitors to sign in as a safety measure. That evidence, coupled with several incriminating minutes of security footage, led police to identify the vandal as a 50-year-old Austrian man who had stopped by the museum with a tour group as part of a birthday celebration trip.

Police contacted the man’s wife, who burst into tears and admitted the mistake, reports CNN. A court in Treviso is currently deciding whether to press charges. Under newly proposed legislation, the tourist could face a maximum sentence of up to eight years in prison and a fine of €100,000 ($117,000 USD), notes Sarah Cascone for artnet News.

“Our heritage must be protected,” says the museum in the statement. “[A]dopting 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.”

In addition to the loss of appendages—CNN, Reuters and Italian news agency Adnkronos say the tourist broke off three toes, while the statement says two—authorities tell CNN that “there could be further damage to the base of the sculpture that the museum experts still have to ascertain.”

As Gareth Harris reports for the Art Newspaper, the incident has prompted some members of the public to wonder how the museum allowed the man to come so close to the statue in the first place. “How can you sit on a sculpture?” wrote a Facebook commentator quoted in the article. “We need to put up more security. … You can’t get this close.”

Celebrated Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822) created the plaster cast model in 1804. The work depicts Pauline Borghese Bonaparte—sister to Napoleon—as Venus, the Roman goddess of love, according to artnet News. A marble version of the sculpture resides in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

In Pursuit of the Perfect Photo, Tourist Accidentally Breaks Sculpture's Toes
The broken statue was a plaster mold of this marble sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte, pictured here in Rome on May 19, 2020, with all appendages intact. Photo by Tiziana Fabi / AFP via Getty Images

According to Italian newspaper la Repubblica, the statue has undergone similar travails before: In 1917, a bombing severed its head and damaged its hands and feet. The work was only restored in 2004.

The museum’s director, Moira Mascotto, tells the Austrian Press Agency that the museum plans to restore the work.

“Luckily, we found the broken parts of the gypsum,” she says. “That helps us with the restoration.”

In recent years, numerous gallery and museumgoers have unintentionally damaged precious artworks—often in pursuit of the perfect photo. In February 2017, for instance, a visitor tripped and smashed a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. 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.

The Austrian tourist, for his part, sent Italian authorities an emailed apology after reading about the accident in local newspapers.

“During the visit to the Museum of Possagno, I sat on the statue, without however realizing the damage that I evidently caused,” he wrote, per a translation by Adnkronos. “I apologize in every way.”