by Roderick Conway Morris

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Italy's Vanishing 'Museums'

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 30 October 1993
Museo del Castelvecchio, Verona
Madonna of the Quail by Pisanello, c.1420,stolen from
Museo dell Castelvecchio in November 2015, recovered
by the Carabinieri's Special Art Squad in Spring 2016



Italy's identity is inseparably bound up with the unique continuity and wealth of its material culture - a point not lost on the terrorists, who elsewhere might try to blow up airliners, oil installations or commercial districts, but here have chosen such targets as the Uffizi's art collection in Florence and the St. John Lateran Church in Rome, the ancient 'Mater et Caput' (Mother and Head) of all Catholic churches.

Bombing outrages inevitably grab the headlines and may yet succeed in obliterating some irreplaceable monument or work, but it is the threats posed by more mundane problems such as theft, the European single market and increasing vandalism that will have the greater long-term effect.

'We are continuing to lose the equivalent of an entire museum every year,' said Emilio Di Giambattista, procurator-general of Italy's Court of Accounts. Last year, nearly 30,000 art pieces, including paintings, sculptures, books, coins, clocks, textiles and musical instruments, were stolen in 1,664 heists. In Rome alone, there is a serious art theft, on average, every day.

In the late 1960s, the carabinieri, the national military-style police, set up a special branch to deal with the problem. Their team of over 150 experts, sophisticated computerized system and extensive domestic and international intelligence network presently leads to the recovery of up to a third of stolen works. But in the face of the rising tide of serious crime, and in the absence of a substantial injection of new resources (unlikely to become available in the present economic crisis), they will be hard put to maintain such a record, let alone do more to control the rampant pillage of archaeological sites, tomb-robbing being, perhaps, a profession older even than the usual one cited.

Thefts from private properties accounted last year for the bulk of the booty carried off by thieves. Many of the country's most important treasures are now in the relative safety of museums.

However, as Giandomenico Romanelli, director of Venice's Civic Museums, emphasized in his office last week: 'There is hardly a single museum in Italy that was actually built as a museum. Nearly all collections are housed in historic, monumental buildings, which greatly multiplies security problems.' Nonetheless, said Romanelli, government and regional contributions toward installing modern alarm systems has done much lately to deter intruders.

This tightening up against theft is no doubt partly responsible for the advent of dramatic armed robberies. In Modena recently, a machine-gun toting band made off with five canvases, including a Velázquez and a Renoir from a public gallery, and in Padua, a similarly armed gang burst into a service in St. Antony's church and seized a reliquary containing the saint's jawbone (the carabinieri later recovered it near Rome airport with the help of St. Antony's gypsy devotees).

Ironically, although famous works may seem tempting to malefactors, ultimately they are more likely to be recovered. 'In most cases in Venice,' said Romanelli, 'they're stolen by local criminals, who then find them too hot to handle and abandon them.'

The situation with minor works is very different, and their wholesale theft, often from churches, seriously threatens in the long term to denude parts of the country of its traditionally rich decorative and ornamental culture. Churches in places as far-flung as Catania, Naples, Lucca and the Venetian lagoon have been stripped bare by thieves, who have carried away canvases, crucifixes, altars, wood-paneling, and even ripped out entire marble floors and fittings down to the last holy-water font. The thefts often occur when the churches are closed while awaiting restoration.

Owhelmed by the task of caring for more than 95,000 churches, the Vatican has resolved to sell off at least 10 percent of them to help secure the future of the rest of its vast patronage. As Monsignor Pietro Antonio Garlato, who heads the Vatican's Heritage Commission, said at a conference in Perugia earlier this year: 'In Pesaro, a church has been converted into a boxing gym, and one in Venice is used for basketball and fashion shows. But the fact is that finding new uses is the only way to save churches no longer used for worship.'

The approach of open borders within the European Community was widely perceived in Italy as potentially catastrophic to the country's artistic integrity. In November last year, however, the heritage representatives of the 12 EC members got together in Brussels to thrash out a special accord to provide some protection against a general art market free-for-all.

Afterward, Italy's cultural heritage minister, Alberto Ronchey, although not obtaining perhaps everything he might have wished for, declared himself 'reasonably satisfied' with the outcome. He pointed especially to the right of countries protectively to list privately owned works (even if they have already left the country), and a 75-year period to recover works stolen from museums and churches (30 years in the case of private collections).

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023