URBINO, Italy (AP) – Three priceless paintings by the Renaissance masters Raphael and Piero della Francesca were stolen early today from the Ducal Palace in Urbino. Police said it was the “greatest art theft in modern Italy.”
The police said the thieves climbed a scaffold erected on the palace wall for restoration work, broke a window and escaped with Raphael’s La Muta (The Mute Girl) and Piero della Francesca’s Madonna of Senigallia and The Flagellation of Christ. The canvases were taken from their frames, which were left behind. Officials said the value of the paintings could not be estimated since it had been years since a work by either painter has come on the market. Although Raphael is the more popular of the two, the paintings by Piero della Francesca were considered among the best examples of that 15th Century master’s work still in existence. Officials said the three paintings would be difficult if not impossible to sell since they are so well known. There were two theories: that the thieves had been commissioned by a collector who would keep the paintings for his secret enjoyment, or that they would try to collect ransom for their return.
The Ducal Palace is now a museum.
Bruno Molaioli, Italy’s former director-general of fine arts, said the stolen Raphael “is a masterpiece of the master’s Florentine period when the young Raphael was still under the influence of Leonardo da Vinci.”
He said the two paintings by Piero della Francesca “represent two pillars in the painter’s brilliant career.”
Raphael was born in Urbino in 1483. Piero della Francesca was born in San Sepolcro, in the Umbrian region of central Italy, around 1420.
Italian art officials said recently that thefts of art from Italian museums, churches and private collections were averaging four or five a day. Last year the national police said a total of 2,420 art works were stolen in the first four months of 1973, and most of them are still missing.The "Ducal Palace" (English) is identified as "Palazzo Ducale" (Italian) in Urbino in the region of Marche. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the hometown of Raphael.
Piero della Francesca's Senigallia Madonna was on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts through January 6, 2014. Here's a link to more information about the painting and the exhibit, including an 18-minute video on The Carabinieri Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage which recovered the paintings one year after the theft when the thieves could not sell the well-known artworks.