Vatican: The Trial of Militant Environmentalists

May 30, 2023

On May 24, 2023, the second hearing of the lawsuit brought by the Vatican State against two environmental activists who, in August 2022, glued themselves to the famous Laocoön statue took place. The defendants defended themselves against intentionally damaging the sculpture, but the representatives of the “Popes’ Museum” affirmed for their part that they feared “permanent” damage.

On August 18, 2022, Italian activists from the Ultima Generazione association glued themselves to the Laocoön statue, with the aim of demonstrating the authorities' inaction on climate change. This statue is dated to the first or second century AD; it was rediscovered in the 16th century.

A very brief first preliminary hearing took place on March 9. The defendants are accused of damage to a “public monument of inestimable historical-artistic value” using a “tenacious and corrosive” adhesive. Guido Viero and Ester Goffi, who had glued themselves to the statue, were present, but Laura Zorzini, who had taken photos of the scene, was absent from this hearing.

Guido Viero, 62, explained that he wanted to take action for his daughter and granddaughter, and “for future generations.” He wanted to protest against the Italian government's lack of investment in sustainable energy. On the base of the sculpture in question, the activists had attached a sign asking for “no gas or coal.”

Judge Giuseppe Pignatone pointed out that the Vatican Museums were located in the territory of Vatican City, not in Italy. Guido Viero responded by arguing about the “more media” scope. He explained that he chose the Laocoön to refer to the myth of the one “who sought to warn his fellow citizens of the misfortunes to come.” The sculpture indeed represents the Trojan priest who tried to unmask the ruse of the Trojan Horse told in the Iliad.

He also claimed that they had “absolutely ruled out” doing any possible damage. “Our actions are never going to harm people or things,” he said. The defendants had thus “informed” themselves about the material used: an adhesive “which is easily removed with acetone.”

The other defendant, Ester Goffi, a graduate in contemporary art, claimed not to have been aware of any damage that the statue could have suffered. An expert had assured him that this product did not leave marks on the skin or damage the marble. She did not suffer any damage during the detachment operations.

Several witnesses, including a security officer, a gendarme, and the person in charge of the restoration of the Museums, Guy Devreux, contacted to repair the Laocoon, were heard. The latter told the court that the marble restoration work had taken less time than the initial estimate had provided – which was just over 15,000 euros.

In total, it took the experts a week, in particular because the Museums had requested “rapid work,” he explained. As things stand, Guy Devreux mentioned damage that could be “permanent,” because the intervention carried out only served to “hide” the damage done to the marble.

The restorer also mentioned that the base, to which the activists glued themselves, is an “integral part” of the work of art. The upper part of the base “supports the whole sculpture,” he explained, specifying that this base was dated between 1815 and 1957. The case was taken under advisement and the sentence will be pronounced at the time of the hearing set for June 12.