• World

Why Many Italians Are Upset About a Strange, New Tourism Ad

4 minute read

A controversial marketing campaign by Italy’s tourism ministry is grabbing attention for what seems like all the wrong reasons.

The €9 million ($9.94 million) marketing campaign Open to Meraviglia (“Open to Wonder”) was unveiled by tourism minister Daniela Santanchè and Italy’s national tourism board ENIT last week. It is fronted by a digital rendition of the Roman goddess Venus as depicted in Sandro Botticelli’s 15th century renaissance masterpiece Birth of Venus, wearing a mini-skirt, holding a smart-phone, and eating pizza.

The digital rendition of Venus also comes with an Emily in Paris-style Instagram account with 34,000 followers and counting. The page features photos of Venus posing in front of various Italian landmarks, such as the Colosseum and Pantheon.

A campaign ad—which aims to boost international tourism in Italy—features idyllic stock footage that isn’t even in Italy. One scene shows people drinking Slovenian wine on a patio in the village of Gorjansko, in neighboring Slovenia’s Komen municipality.

The campaign makes its international debut at the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) tourism show in Dubai from May 1 to 4. Here’s everything to know about the campaign.

How are Italians reacting

The campaign has been ridiculed by Italians on social media who say it cements tired stereotypes of the country. Art historian Tomaso Montanari called it “grotesque” and said it was an “obscene” waste of money, while the culture ministry’s undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi told La Repubblica, “I don’t want to contradict my colleagues too much. But ‘Open to Wonder?’ What is that? What language is that?”

Art historian Livia Garomersini was also quoted in a statement reported by ArtNet, saying, “where is the art, where is the promotion in this hackneyed jumble of clichés?” She said the campaign “trivializes our heritage in the most vulgar way.”

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which houses Botticelli’s Birth of Venus painting, has not commented on the campaign. But Florence’s mayor Dario Nardella said that this is emblematic of a wider cultural problem. “We’re fighting against commercial exploitation that ridicules our artistic jewels, like the aprons showing the statue of David’s private parts or grotesque reproductions of works of art in stupid poses,” he said.

What has Italy’s tourism ministry said about the reaction?

Tourism minister Santanchè has said that the project sells “our nation in an unseen way that has never been done before.” She also told a local radio station that she had seen and enjoyed the memes that the campaign is generating online.

“I consciously chose Botticelli’s Venus, an icon known throughout the world and a symbol of our Italian spirit,” she said.

Santanchè also speculated about why people have criticized the use of pizza in the computer generated images. “I don’t understand the criticism, pizza is famous all over the world, it is part of the Mediterranean diet and of our cuisine, which is appreciated, imitated, and copied all over the world,” she said. “Perhaps it is criticized by the slightly snobby and radical chic people who eat caviar and salmon.”

Why tourism in Italy can be controversial

The campaign has brought to light the sometimes complicated and fraught issue of tourism, with many citing the reality that Italian tourist spots like Venice are often overcrowded and subject to misuse.

In June, two American tourists caused $25,000 worth of damage to the Spanish Steps in Rome by throwing scooters down them. Other incidents recorded in 2022—of which there are many—saw an American smash two sculptures in the Vatican Museum when he was told he would not see the pope.

To combat overcrowding, Venice has announced a booking system for visitors (which charges for entry) that took effect in January. Meanwhile, in influencer hotspot Portofino, tourists can be charged for hovering in beauty spots for too long while taking photos.

All of this has left many to wonder what good a digital Venus and her Instagram can do for the nation.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com