Showing posts with label Sicily. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sicily. Show all posts

July 2, 2015

Sicily, Palermo, Cicero, and a missing Caravaggio ...

Cicero's bust in the Musei Capitolini
 ["Cicero - Musei Capitolini"
 by Glauco92 - Own work.
 Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
 via Wikimedia Commons].jpg
by Judge Arthur Tompkins

This year's visit to Ameliai, Umbria, for ARCA's Art Crime and Cultural Heritage course saw a visit, during a break in teaching duties, to Sicily. Apart from the obvious reasons to visit (I'd never been before, and it being a slightly mythical, Godfather-producing place, and all) two art crime-related reasons spurred my presence in the centuries old, culturally diverse, vibrant and slightly shambolic ancient metropolis. 

The first was that about 20 centuries ago, a Roman magistrate named Gaius Verres came to Palermo as governor. During an energetically corrupt, roughly two-year tenure, he managed to plunder and loot and steal his way through whole swathes of Sicilian culture and art and heritage.  

"Michelangelo Caravaggio, Nativity with
 San Francesco and San Lorenzo"

Fated ever to be the long suffering populace (in the coming centuries, they were to be ruled by - not necessary in this order, or at least always not in a lineally ordered sequence - the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Angevins and the Aragonese, the Bourbons, the Savoys, and finally, the Italians), Verres' larceny proved too much even for the stoical Sicilians. They hired a young and ambitious lawyer in Rome, one Marcus Tullius Cicero, to prosecute the erstwhile governor. And prosecute him Cicero did, vigorously and famously, in the Senate, by way of a series of speeches later known to history collectively as the Verrines. Such was the power of his prosecutorial oratory, after the first speech was delivered to a likely enthusiastic Roman crowd and Senate, Verres fled into exile. He never returned to Rome.

Cicero's Verrines have echoed down the centuries, as exemplars of oratory, of writing, of prosecutorial precedent and, coincidentally, of informative travel-writing. Conceptually, in part they embody and express a fundamental idea that underpins so much of our cultural heritage protection thinking now, the idea that art and culture and heritage belongs not just to the immediate possessor or the country in which accidental history consigns it, but to all humankind.

So I wanted to walk the same ground as had the notorious Gaius Verres, and which had occasioned Cicero's oratory.

Via Vittoria Emanuele, Palermo, Sicily [Arthur Tompkins].jpg
The second reason is that Palermo is the site of one of the great unsolved art crimes. In 1609 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was on the run from the authorities in Rome. He had been Naples and in Malta, but in late 1608 he had washed up in Sicily. According to one account, he spent a year here, "sleeping fitfully with a dagger by his side, and painting several late [although I guess he would probably have thought of them as early to mid career] masterpieces".

One of them was the large and dramatic Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco. For about 350 years the canvas hung undisturbed above the altar in the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, just off the main Via Vittorio Emanuele in downtown Palermo.

Then in October 1969 it was stolen.  It has never been seen since. Varying accounts have it still in hiding somewhere, burnt, rotted, eaten by rats, or indeed fed to swine (by swine, one might think ...).

I wanted to see where it should still be.

May 11, 2013

Two years after the Stolen Aphrodite is returned, the Getty Museum Exhibits Objects from Sicily with the cooperation of the Italian Government

About two years ago, The Getty Museum returned a Greek statue (formerly known as Aphrodite) to Sicily and appointed James Cuno as chief of the institution infamously associated with stolen antiquities. Today one of the world's richest cultural institutions is cooperating with Italian authorities. "Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome" is an exhibit in Malibu co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell'Identità Siciliana.

The Getty's website includes for the exhibit a list of objects and book edited by Claire L. Lyons, curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum and a specialist in the archaeology of Sicily, Greece, and pre-Roman Italy; Michael Bennett, the Cleveland Museum of Art's first curator of Greek and Roman Art; and Clemente Marconi, James R. McCredie professor in the History of Greek Art and Archaeology at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

Objects include The Mozia Charioteer, a statue discovered in 1976 on the island of Mozia, the first Phoenician colony in Sicily. The book includes an article by maria Luisa Famà on the discovery and ongoing discussion about the interpretation of this object.

May 18, 2012

REVISITING BOOKS: An Earthquake Shatters Expectations in The Caravaggio Conspiracy

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA blog editor

Peter Watson writes in The Caravaggio Conspiracy that in 1980 when he was trying to negotiate the purchase of Caravaggio's Palermo Nativity that going to southern Italy with a 'briefcase full of cash' was considered dangerous. Watson wrote:
This was the time in Italy when kidnapping was increasing alarmingly.  In fact the risk of kidnap was so great that even going to Naples simply as a businessman was not without danger.  The proportion of foreign visitors to the city had slumped from 50 percent of hotel business to less than 10 percent.  Furthermore, a report had shown that murders by the Mafia at that time accounted for 29 percent of all killings, as opposed to 13 percent a decade before.
Watson was offered the painting in London by a member of the gang art detective Rodolfo Siviero had suspected of stealing the Palermo Nativity.  Watson received a phone call from Italy that he could have the Caravaggio painting for 150 million Italian lire or $150,000 American dollars.  The journalist booked three nights at the Excelsior in Naples to conduct the transaction.

In nearby Laviano, Watson was presented with two photographs of the painting:
It looked terrible.  It was very dark, darker than I had imagined it could look.  Bits appeared to have flaked off near the heads of the onlookers on the right of the painting and there was a patch, of damp or oil or whatever, in the right foreground covering the ankle and hand of St. Lawrence.  Worst of all there was a ragged crack, about a third of the way up, bisecting the Virgin's hands and penetrating St. Lawrence's shoulder.  That seemed consonant with the canvas having been rolled for some time, possibly immediately after it had been stolen.
Watson is told that the painting is in Sicily but that it can be brought to Naples in a few days.  Then a deadly and destructive earthquake leveled Laviano. Watson was unable to contact with his negotiators and any hope of purchasing the stolen painting vanished.

May 16, 2012

REVISITING BOOKS: Watson's "The Caravaggio Conspiracy" and the motive for stealing the Palermo Nativity

Agrigento Ephebe
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA blog editor

Part two of three

In the 1984 book, The Caravaggio Conspiracy, published by British journalist Peter Watson, Rodolfo Siviero is described as a the leading detective of stolen art in Italy.

Before Caravaggio's Nativity was stolen in 1969, Siviero had been working to recover art misplaced since World War II.  Siviero was 'an undercover agent in German-occupied Italy', Watson reported, and was 'head of the Italian Secret Service attached to the Allied Command.'  Part of his job was to oversee the protection of works of art, Watson explained.  When Siviero became the first Italian ambassador to Germany after the war, he used wartime records to look for paintings looted by the Nazis from the Uffizi, Watson wrote, and listed works Siviero helped to recover: Bronzino's Deposition of Christ, Antonio Pollaiuolo's Labors of Hercules; Domenico Feti's Parable of the Vine; a self-portrait by Lorenzo di Credi, a Nativity by a pupil of Correggio; Botticelli's Primavera and Paolo Uccello's The Battle of San Remo.

When Siviero returned to Italy, he was put in charge of the Delegation for the Recovery of Missing Works of Art (Watson).  He recovered works of art not related to war looting.  Watson wrote that Siviero recovered a fifth century B.C. bronze statue known of a boy known as the Ephebus from the Mafia in a sting operation.  Siviero posed as the "nephew" of a Florentine art gallery that would purchase objects without asking questions about ownership.  The bronze was recovered, Watson wrote, and six men arrested shortly before Caravaggio's Nativity was stolen.  "It was the Mafia's way of exacting revenge.  And this time, it was whispered, Siviero would not see the stolen work of art again.  Ever." (Watson)

This article concludes on May 18.

May 10, 2012

More confirmation of old news? Pietro Grasso, head of the anti-Mafia crime unit, confirms in May that Caravaggio's Nativity of Palermo eaten by pigs

Caravaggio's Nativity from Palermo
In 2009, Judith Harris wrote for the ARCA blog a post titled "Breaking News on the Stolen Caravaggio Nativity" that a member of the mafia told law officials that the painting was likely destroyed in the 1980s.  But just last week, Journalist Noel Grima for The Malta Independent online reported May 6th that Pietro Grasso, the head of the anti-Mafia crime unit, confirmed again that legal authorities believe that the Caravaggio of Palermo has been eaten by pigs.

Possibly no one wants to believe that the painting has been so carelessly destroyed; the FBI and Interpol still list the painting as stolen and missing.

Grima repeats a formerly published article in eosarte.eu "Arezzo, il Procuratore antimafia Pietro Grasso: il Caravaggio di Palermo mangiato dai porci" dated April 22 reports that Grasso confirmed during a press conference earlier rumors that the Nativity paintings with Saints Lorenzo and Francis of Assisi has likely been tossed around by criminals and ended up in a pig sty and eaten by rats and pigs over the years.
"Ci verrobbe tempo perché è una lunga storia ... ma riteniamo che il quadro sia finito nelle mani di ignoranti che l'hanno hascosto in una porcilaia, dove magari porci poi se lo sono mangiato."
Grima translates:
The anti-Mafia's head's reply was a chilling one: "We need more time because the situation is rather complicated, but we believe the painting ended up in the hands of ignorant people who hit it in a pigsty where the pigs ate it."
The Malta connected dates back to the 17th century when the artist was imprisoned there.  Caravaggio himself lead a tumultuous lifestyle documented in Italian police records.

Grima claims that a painting similar to The "Nativity" by Caravaggio would be worth $200 million while the FBI website estimates the value at $20 million.

In October 1969, two thieves entered the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palmero, Italy, according to the FBI, and removed Caravaggio's Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco from its frame.

Interpol still reports the painting as missing on its stolen art database and places the date of the theft as October 18, 1969.  Interpol lists nine other works by Caravaggio (or from the school of or in the manner of) as stolen: Portrait of an Old Woman, Montepulciano, Italy, December 22, 1970; Doubting Tomas from Frascati, Italy, March 15, 1974; Beggars and Invalids (copper painting) from San Sebastian, Spain, April 1978; Man with a Pendant Earring, The Draughts Players, and Venice Feeding the Cupids, from La Storta, Italy, December 1, 1979; Saint Gerolamo, from Dozza, Italy, June 4, 1985; Two Men Playing Dice, from Lessona, Italy, July 27, 1986; and Los Jugadores from Santa Fe de Bogata, Colombia, October 24, 1999.

May 29, 2011

ARCA Blog Interviews Jason Felch, co-author of "Chasing Aphrodite"

Getty Goddess now home/
Chasing Aphrodite
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

ARCA Blog: How did you feel, being so close to this story, seeing "Aphrodite" being returned to her homeland? Did you understand more about the statute by visiting the area she came from?
Jason: We were thrilled to be able to attend the inauguration of the Getty goddess in her new home in Aidone, Sicily. For both Ralph and me, the trip -- which coincided with the release of Chasing Aphrodite -- really brought a feeling of closure to our own "chase," which began more than six years ago. Seeing the goddess -- can't really call her Aphrodite anymore -- in Sicily brought up some bittersweet feelings. The archaeological museum there sees about 17,000 visitors a year, far fewer than the 400,000 than visit the Getty Villa. Sicilian officials are hoping the goddess' return will change that, but certainly fewer people will see her now, and LA has lost an important masterpiece. That said, it was VERY powerful to see the statue in her new context, a stone's throw from Morgantina, the Greek ruins from where she was looted in the late 1970s. Surrounded by eerily similar figures depicting the fertility goddesses Persephone and Demeter, the statue takes on a startling new meaning.
ARCA Blog: What do you think we can expect from the Getty's new chief, James Cuno, author of "Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage?" What do you think the Getty is saying here with the appointment of Cuno?
Jason: The Getty made a very curious choice with Jim Cuno. On the one hand, he's an obvious candidate and a widely respected figure in the museum world. But on the issue he is most passionate and outspoken about, he is on the opposite end of the reformed Getty, which really has been leading reform efforts on the antiquities issue. In recent years, particularly after Phillip de Montebello stepped down at the Met, Cuno has been the leading voice for a position that has fewer and fewer supporters. Why would the progressive Getty chose such a regressive leader? From speaking with Cuno and several board members involved in the decision, it sounds like he was selected for everything except his views on antiquities collecting. Neil Rudenstein, who as President of Harvard was Cuno's boss for a time, said he personally disagrees with Cuno on that issue but thinks he'll nevertheless make a good chief executive of the Trust. Cuno himself has said he'll honor (and keep) the Getty's acquisition policy, which bars acquisitions of antiquities unless they have clear provenance dating to 1970. So we'll have to wait and see. Will the Italians curb the generosity of their loans? Will the Getty find ways to wiggle around its strict policy? Or by hiring Cuno, has the Getty cleverly "co-opted" one of the biggest opponents to to reform in this area? Time will tell. Meantime, I'd watch closely to see who Cuno chooses as the Getty's new museum director...and who that person chooses as the museum's antiquities curator.
ARCA Blog: Since I remember her even at the old Getty Villa in Malibu, I was a bit sorry to see "Aphrodite" leave Southern California. Did you become attached to her while you were researching your book?
Jason: Frankly, I never found the goddess to be the most beautiful of the objects at the Getty. In my view, she is far more important than she is beautiful, and that importance was largely squandered during her 22 years at the Getty -- she was almost entirely ignored by the scholarly community, thanks in large part to her scandalous past. Now that she's back in Sicily, I hope to see a new wave of scholarship that tries to restore her context and meaning. I feel more wistful about some of the other masterpieces the Getty returned -- the amazing griffons that adorn the cover of our book, the golden funerary wreath that may have rested on the head of a relative of Alexander the Great. Those are objects I'll miss seeing regularly. 
Reception in Aidone, Italy 
ARCA Blog: When you were in Italy, did you wonder if anyone in the crowd had made money from selling "Aphrodite" to the Getty? How well were you able to explain this transaction in your book?
Jason: Yes, there is plenty of irony here. In effect, the goddess has been returned to those who looted her, broke her into pieces and smuggled her out of the country for profit. Aidone is a very small town, and I was told that several of the locals who attended the ceremonies used to be clandestini -- the Sicilian term for looters. In reporting the book, we were able to recreate some of the illicit journey the goddess took from Morgantina to the Getty -- where it was found; how it was broken and smuggled out of the country to Chiasso, Switzerland; how it was shopped around (for a far lower price!) before the Getty bought it for $18 million in 1988. But much of that account is based on whispers and confidential law enforcement sources. There are conflicting aspects of the account, and the full story remains to be told. I'm hoping more details will emerge now that the statue is back home and the statute of limitations has expired on any criminal charges. In particular, it would be very important to know the precise find spot, which could then be formally excavated. But secrets have a way of staying secret in Sicily. We may never know the full truth.
Jason Felch will be signing the non-fiction book he co-authored with Ralph Frammolino, "Chasing Aphrodite, The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum", at 7 p.m. on May 31 at Book Soup in Los Angeles.

You may read more about the trip home for the Getty goddess here on the website of Chasing Aphrodite.

May 18, 2011

Journalist Jason Felch, co-author of "Chasing Aphrodite", reports for the Los Angeles Times from Sicily about the Unveiling of the Venus of Morgantina at its New Smaller Museum in Sicily ... and information about the Venus Italy Returned to Libya Years Ago

Aphrodite (Venus of Morgantina)/AP
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

LA Times reporter Jason Felch, co-author of Chasing Aphrodite, write's in today's newspaper ("Getty officials on hand for Aphrodite statue's unveiling in Sicily") about the opening reception for the 5th century BC Venus from Morgantina to a room with a capacity of 150 people at the Aidone Archaeological Museum in Sicily.

Francesco Rutelli
In addition to two officials from the J. Paul Getty Museum, the ceremony was attended by Francesco Rutelli, Italy's former culture minister and former mayor of Rome (who spoke eloquently at ARCA's art crime conference in 2009); Italy's new culture minister, Giancarlo Galan; and possibly some of the very people who sold some of the various objects that the Getty had to return. Felch writes:
Among the citizens who turned out were several former "clandestini," the Sicilian term for looters, local officials said. For decades, looting has been a source of income for residents in one of the most impoverished corners of Italy's poorest region.
Aphrodite will join a collection of "Morgantina" silver previously returned to the museum.

The Getty Museum has paid more than $18 million for Aphrodite more than 20 years ago and agreed to return the statue in exchange for "long-loans" or Italian objects, Sharon Waxman wrote in her 2008 book, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World.

You may find other examples of objects returned to countries of origin at the UNESCO website ("Recent examples of successful operations of cultural property restitutions in the world"), including the return in 2007 of a Venus statue from Italy to Libya (also see "Italy to Return Ancient Statue to Libya"). Of course this leads to another question about the safety of archaeology in Libya during the civil unrest and subsequent violent conflict but this morning I did not find any status report earlier than March ("Libya's 'extraordinary' archaeology under threat").  For now you may view the website of the National Museum in Tripoli here.