ROME – Three climate activists who glued their hands to a famed statue in the Vatican Museums last summer were formally sentenced by a Vatican court Monday, ordering a suspended jail sentence as well as fines and compensation for damage to the sculpture.
The incident occurred last August, when activists Guido Viero, 61, and Ester Goffi, 26, entered the Vatican Museums and glued their hands to the base of the famed “Laocoön and Sons” statue, considered to be among the most important ancient works in the Vatican collection and which is believed to date to the 1st century.
A third activist, Laura Zorzini, filmed the episode.
The activists, who belonged to the Ultima Generazione, or “Last Generation” environmental group, also hung a banner reading, “Last Generation: No gas and no carbon.”
Legend holds that Laocoön warned his fellow Trojans against accepting a wooden horse given by the Greeks during the Trojan War. The Last Generation group said the climate crisis, like Laocoön’s words of caution, is a modern warning that is not being heeded.
Viero, Goffi, and Zorzini were all charged with disobeying police orders and aggravated damage, as restorers had to remove the adhesive used and refurbish the stone.
In a June 12 decree, Italian jurist Giuseppe Pignatone, head of the Vatican tribunal, sentenced both Viero and Goffi to a nine-month suspended prison sentence and 1500 euro fine ($1612) for aggravated damages, as well as an additional 120 euro fine ($129) for disobeying “an order legally given by the competent authority.”
They were also ordered to pay trial costs and a fine of 1,000 euros ($1075) for the state-appointed legal representation they received. During the trial, both had been offered a defense lawyer who is an expert in canon law by the Vatican, as they claimed they could not afford their own attorney.
In addition, they were ordered to pay 28,148 euros ($30,261) in damages done to the Laocoön statue.
Zorzini was also ordered to pay the 120 euro fine for disregarding “an order legally given by the competent authority.”
During the trial, the activists argued that they never intended to cause damage to the statue, with Goffi, who holds a degree in art restoration, saying she had brought glue remover in her purse which she had been told would not cause permanent damage to the marble statue.
However, the head of the Vatican Museums’ marble restoration lab, Guy Devreux, who had been summoned when the incident occurred, said he decided not to use Goffi’s remover as he did not believe it safe for the marble, so acetone, the harsh chemical used in nail polish remover, was used instead.
Devreux during the trial said the damage to the statue ended up being less than he initially thought, and that it was restored within a week, but that the damage was permanent.
The activists also said they were surprised they were apprehended and charged, given Pope Francis’s environmental advocacy, especially in his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si.
At the sentencing hearing, the Vatican prosecutor initially asked for a more severe sentence for the activists, asking for two years and five days in prison for Viero, two years for Goffii, and one month for Zorzini. A fine of 3,000 euros had been requested for Viero and Goffi.
The Vatican’s decision to hand out a suspended sentence is in keeping with its trend for previous trials, sentencing the architects of the so-called “Vatileaks II” scandal, in which confidential Vatican financial documents were leaked to the press, to lengthy suspended sentences.
The sentencing of Viero, Goffi and Zarzini comes amid an uptick in public demonstrations by climate activists and the Ultima Generazione group, which has become increasingly controversial for its methods.
Ultima Generazione is part of a network of climate civil-disobedience groups that operate in several countries, including Just Stop Oil in the United Kingdom, Stop Old Growth in Canada, Derniere Renovation in France, and Declare Emergency in the United States.
In addition to the Vatican trial, three members of Ultima Generazione are also currently on trial in Rome for spraying easy-to-wash paint on the façade of the Italian Senate in Rome in January.
Recently, members of the group staged another act of civil disobedience during spring flooding in Italy’s northern Emilia-Romagna region, when two protestors covered themselves in mud outside of the Senate in Rome.
For years, the group has staged similar acts of protest and civil disobedience, making them objects of contempt by critics who argue that their methods are not only inappropriate, but counterproductive.
Last month, around 10 members of the group poured black liquid made from diluted vegetable charcoal into the famed Trevi Fountain in Rome. They stood inside the fountain holding a banter that read, “We won’t pay for fossil fuels,” and had to be dragged out by police.
The banner referenced a national campaign to stop public investment in, and subsidies of, fossil fuels, which have been blamed for the greenhouse gas emissions causing the climate crisis.
Other protests from Ultima Generazione have included throwing paint on the famed La Scala opera house and the prominent Vittorio Emanuele II statue in Milan, sticking themselves to the famed work Botticelli’s Spring, a renaissance classic, at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, and blocking the Mt. Blanc Tunnel between France and Italy.
The group has also thrown flour over an Andy Warhol car in Milan, chucked soup at a Van Gogh at a museum in Rome, and stripped half naked to halt traffic at a prominent intersection in Rome. They have also poured diluted vegetable charcoal into the Four Rivers Fountain in Rome’s famed Piazza Navona.
In light of these incidents, the Italian government recently passed legislation cracking down on so-called “eco-vandals,” carrying fines of up to 60,000 euros ($64,763) for acts such as those that have been carried out so far.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen