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Look but don’t touch! American tourist snaps Italian statue’s finger off

Aug. 6, 2013 at 6:31 PM ET

Video: A Missouri man traveling in Italy accidentally broke the finger off of an early 15th century sculpture when he attempted to compare hand sizes with the Virgin Mary.

Violating the first rule of visiting a museum — look but don’t touch the art — an American tourist in Italy has generated shock and outrage by snapping the finger off a 600-year-old statue at a museum in Florence.

According to the Italian newspaper, Corriere Fiorentino, the snap heard around the art world took place when an unnamed 55-year-old Missouri man visiting the city’s Museo dell'Opera del Duomo held his hand up against the outstretched palm of a statue of the Virgin Mary by the 15th-century sculptor Giovanni d'Ambrogio.

Whether he was comparing hand spans or giving the statue a high five is unclear but the end result was that the pinky finger of the statue’s right hand was broken off.

Despite apologizing for his action, the tourist could be liable for a large fine, according to The (UK) Independent.

Image: Damaged statue
MAURIZIO DEGL' INNOCENTI / EPA
The damage of a statue of the Virgin by Florentine sculptor Giovanni d'Ambrogio, is under investigation by researchers after it was accidentally struck by a US tourist. The tourist reportedly apologized for damaging a finger of the statue but may still face charges.

Even a financial penalty, however, is unlikely to assuage local Florentines, experienced art lovers and other travelers who would argue that anyone with the means to travel should also possess the understanding that art in museums is meant to be seen and not touched.

“In a globalized world like ours, the fundamental rules for visiting a museum have been forgotten, that is, ‘Do not touch the works’,” museum director Timothy Verdun told reporters.

That basic premise notwithstanding, that globalization only reinforces the need for continuing education, says Sevil Sonmez, a tourism professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“If this was a first-time traveler, he’s probably not very experienced, maybe a little naïve,” said Sonmez. “If there’s no one around to give pointers on what to do and what to avoid, these things are likely to happen.”

In fact, in the case of the Virgin’s dismembered digit, it’s happened before. As reported by Firenze Today, the pinky was actually a plaster replacement for the long-missing marble original.

Nor is this first priceless piece of art damaged by accident. In 2006, a visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, tripped and sent three Quing Dynasty vases crashing to the ground. Four years later, a woman visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York fell into a Picasso painting called “The Actor” and left it with a six-inch gash.

The artworks above, it’s worth noting, were eventually repaired and put back on display, which suggests there may be hope that future visitors to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo will be able to view the Virgin with all 10 of her fingers.

In the meantime, the incident in Florence should serve as a timely reminder of the “look but don’t touch” rule. That also means no high fives, no “pull my finger” photo ops and definitely no fist bumps.

As for the still-anonymous yet now-infamous finger-snapper, Sonmez, for one, takes the long view.

“It’s part of the process of traveling and gaining experience,” she said. “The best way to learn is to make mistakes — and he certainly won’t do that again.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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