The Art of Diplomacy

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Until Labor Day, an altarpiece from the Italian region of Abruzzo will be on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Its burnished surface will stand out in one of the main circular foyers on the second floor, not due to its narrative structure or vivid colors, but because it is a diplomatic missive from the Italian government to the American one.

The altarpiece itself is not spectacular. Certainly, it is visually pleasing—it is called the Beffi Triptych after the village for which it was painted, and narrates the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ in an expressive and vibrant style. One panel depicts Christ’s nativity, another the death of the Virgin. Yet, this piece of art communicates numerous messages. It represents how— in a political world of words and numbers—a gesture can speak more loudly.

The ceremonial altarpiece-cum-thank-you-note expresses a formal and polite appreciation for the assistance that the United States government provided in the aftermath of the devastating April 6, 2009 earthquake. The disaster affected more than 25 percent of historically important buildings in Abruzzo, and so the churches and museums that hosted cherished artworks faced the tough reality of restoring the region’s cultural treasures. Therefore, the altarpiece constitutes not only a declaration of gratitude to one of the governments that was first to provide support, but also a declaration to the Italian government itself, solidifying the immense importance it places on rebuilding the region’s former artistic wealth.

In some ways, the symbolism present in such a gesture can be manipulated. This summer has shown a wealth of seemingly diplomatic symbols that have invited much criticism. Silvio Berlusconi—the Italian prime minister—seems to have gambled with the choice of L’Aquila for the July G8 summit in order to draw attention away from recent accusations that his social life resembles that of a sordid playboy’s. Since people use symbols to convey something beyond the obvious, Berlusconi’s political symbolism at the G8 summit might be cynically viewed as having a particularly hollow and manipulative motive.

Back in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama learned the enduring value of a well-intentioned gesture with another kind of summit. He felt that he needed to retreat from the inflammatory words that he uttered in judgment of the Cambridge police department after Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested there, sparking a national debate about race in America. Though the discourse about the arrest, its aftermath, and the realities of race problems in the country spread far and wide, Obama thought that a simple gesture might soothe the ire of the affair—an invitation to relax over a beer.

Evidently, different types of summits and early fifteenth century triptychs speak louder than sheer words. The symbolism that surrounds these actions is a testament to the extent that diplomacy relies on signs and signals. As those rebuilding the Abruzzo region have realized, the art of actions remains more powerful than just what meets the eye.

Emmeline D. Francis ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Cabot House.