Italy has covered up ancient nude statues ahead of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's official visit to Rome.

As the leader arrived to meet Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the Pope, plain white boards were pictured obscuring the sculptures in the city's Capitoline Museum.

A video published on Italian news websites showed the measures taken at the attraction.

The action was taken as a sign of respect for Mr Rouhani, whose country is a strongly conservative Islamic republic, according to Italian news agency Ansa.

The decision was also made not to serve alcohol at dinners with the visiting president, although this is a more standard diplomatic procedure for visiting officials from Islamic countries.

However, the move has been met with criticism.

A statement issued by Iranian women's rights campaign group My Stealthy Freedom called for female Italian politicians to speak out.

"So Italy! You respect Islamic values but the Islamic Republic of Iran does not respect our values [or] our freedom of choice," the statement said.

"They force any non-Muslim women to cover ourselves in Iran. If you are just visiting Iran uncovered you will be deported from the airport or if you are an Iranian woman then you won't have any education." 

Twitter user Darius Arya criticised the decision, saying: "Iran visit brings Italy back to Counter-Reformation."

It is not the first time statues have been covered up in Italy for fear of causing offence to visiting Muslim diplomats.

In October 2015, ‘Gazing Ball’, a statue by Jeff Koons in Florence, was obscured when the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, visited Mr Renzi.

Mr Rouhani’s trip to Europe is the first since international sanctions against Iran were lifted, after the country's government agreed to limit Iran’s nuclear programme last year.

The Italian government is expecting the Iranian contingent to sign deals worth up to 17 billion euros with Italian companies during the visit.  The southern European country has been suffering economically in recent years, particularly from high youth unemployment.

"This is just the beginning of a journey," Mr Renzi said, standing alongside Mr Rouhani.

"There are sectors where we must work closer together,"

Mr Renzi also addressed the issue of international terrorism,  while referencing militant group Isis - which opposes Iran and the West in equal measure.

"I am sure this visit will be a fundamental part of our ability to overcome together the challenge of fighting terrorism, atrocity and evil that we all have to confront together," he said.

Meanwhile, others on social media ridiculed the decision to hide statues with exposed genitals, with many people sharing an image seemingly doctored from pictures similar to the one above.

Reuters contributed to this report.  

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