Italy. The country of Raphael and Botticelli, Giotto and Veronese, da Vinci, Michelangelo, even the Galleria Borghese. Home to some of the Renaissance’s most important artists, not to mention a magnificent ancient civilisation, Europe’s ‘bel paese’ boasts a treasure trove of artistic masterpieces that many nations could only dream of possessing.
Owing to recent theft reports, however, the truth seems somewhat different.
Less than a fortnight ago, European police arrested 23 people on charges of trafficking tens of thousands of archaeological artefacts. The objects, which reportedly date back to the third and fourth centuries B.C., were looted from Calabria before being smuggled out of Italy and auctioned off across Europe.
This isn’t the first time Italian artefacts have been looted and sold off abroad. According to the Carabinieri’s most recent stolen artworks bulletin, 8,405 items have gone missing from Italy in the past year alone.
Nor is the phenomenon a recent one. It dates back as far as 1969, when a specialised police squad – the Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage – was created by the Italian government to track down stolen paintings and statues. Though this first-of-its-kind art corps has allegedly recovered over three million objects since its foundation, its mission is still far from complete: more than one million Italian artworks remain missing or stolen.
The scale of their task is quite monumental. In 2014, these so-called Monuments Men were tasked with tracking the theft of Sicilian treasures worth over 40 million euros. The ensuing investigation culminated in a series of Europe-wide arrests, in addition to the recovery of over 20,000 objects and the dismantling of a criminal organisation that had been set up solely to smuggle Sicilian archaeological goods.
Italy has fallen victim to art crime more often than any other country. Many of its missing artworks are now deemed untraceable, having been stolen long before the art squad was even established. Something of a miracle is required for their recovery, especially when owners don’t even recognise the importance of their artefacts. This was the case in October 2017, when a couple living in New York discovered they had been using a 2,000-year-old mosaic that once decorated Emperor Caligula’s ship as a coffee table in their apartment.
The thought that lingers? Italy’s artistic heritage is fading into obscurity. And in this newly globalised age where materialism is rife, many seem blinkered to the severity of the situation.
Some believe museum directors are too often blinded by the short-term financial benefits of selling Italian art abroad. Only eight of Leonardo da Vinci’s 24 major extant works remain in Italy, while the largest collections of Titian’s works and Raphael’s drawings are housed abroad: the former in Madrid, the latter in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.
To make matters worse, an Italian court recently ruled that da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man could be shown at an exhibition in Paris. The decision was a controversial one, not least vis-à-vis the possible implications for Italy’s cultural heritage. Specialists also contended it was too fragile to travel and risked being damaged by the lighting in the Louvre display. Upon hearing the ruling, heritage conservation group Italia Nostra released a statement saying, “today is not a good day for protection in Italy.”
When the Louvre announced plans to hold a da Vinci exhibition, Italian politicians instantly ramped up nationalist rhetoric. “Leonardo is Italian, he only died in France,” announced Lucia Borgonzoni, an undersecretary at Italy’s Ministry of Culture.
At least the whereabouts of the Vitruvian Man are being closely monitored. Plenty of prestigious Italian works have disappeared without a trace, including da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which was recently sold via an intermediary to the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Many believe the painting to have vanished, with speculation abounding that it is on display in his superyacht, which he bought for 500 million Euros in 2015.
The whereabouts of both Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence and Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man also remain a mystery. While the former was stolen from an oratory in Palermo in 1969, the latter was snatched by the Nazis in Poland during World War II.
Natural disasters and climate change have brought another dimension to Italy’s cultural crisis. Geographical instability has long ravaged the peninsula, leaving nothing but damage and destruction in its wake. Hardly anything is spared, not least Italy’s cultural capital. When disaster strikes, basilicas are flooded, monuments are torn to the ground and paintings disintegrate beyond all recognition.
Take for example the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 2016, as well as half the façade of the 15th-century church of Sant’Agostino in Amatrice. Quake-induced cracks have even appeared on the Colosseum in recent years.
Just under a month ago, the city of Venice – an artistic treasure in itself – was submerged by three major floods. Images of the inundated St. Mark’s Basilica sent shockwaves around the world, illustrating the damage caused to its tiling and mosaics. The floods are the worst to have hit Venice in more than half a century, and according to scientists, they are set to continue.
Damages incurred will take years to repair, and what is most frustrating is that they could have been avoided. In the 1980s, city authorities launched a project to build hydraulic barriers and improve sea defences, though delays and budget overruns impeded its progress. Had it been fully functioning by 13th November, the disaster described by Prime Minister Conte as “a blow to the art of Italy” would have been narrowly avoided. It seems there may be a grain of truth in Paul Lechat’s observation that “the Italian has no use for the long-term” after all.
Yet for the plethora of criticisms that have been levelled against Italians, it would be wholly unjust to view Italy’s cultural crisis as a product of their propensity for chaos and disorder.
Art crimes and natural disasters are gnawing away at Italy’s cultural identity, and the tragedy at stake here must not be undermined. To quote leading art historian Tomaso Montanari, “in Italy the stones, the buildings, the churches and the artworks are the backbone of the country. The loss of our roots means we have lost the future.”