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January 7, 2024

The Judgement of St. Paul or The Capture of Saint Peter? A tail of theft and perhaps too many coincidences

February 2013 

Castello di Buriasco
A large format oil painting is stolen from the Castello di Buriasco (Pinerolo).  The painting was owned by Margherita Buzio and had been on display inside the castello,  which for many years was a restaurant and events venue previously open to the public. 

The theft was discovered by Margherita Buzio after it was noticed that a lock on the castello's external gate had been tampered with, allowing unknown individuals to gain entry to the estate.  

Following the theft, Buzio registered a complaint with the Carabinieri Comando Stazione Vigone noting that she believes the thieves gained entry at night. The stolen painting depicts its protagonist, with his hands clasped and his face turned upwards as a sign of supplication, as he is forcibly brought, by two guardsmen, before a judge who is depicted pointing with his right arm raised. Other individuals, perhaps the apostle's followers, are painted into the background as witnesses to the unfolding events depicted. 

According to her report to law enforcement officers, the painting's owner recounted that at some point, an unknown person or persons had apparently entered the castle she owned and had cut the painting in question from its frame, removing it at an undetermined date.  In its place, the resourceful thief or thieves are said to have replaced the removed canvas with a large photocopy of the work, re-stapling the reproduction back into the original frame.

At a much later date, it will later be determined that the thief or thieves, who cut the artwork from its frame, accidentally left behind a small triangular fragment from the painting's original canvas.  This painted scrap will later be found, stuck between the replacement image and the painting's frame which was rehung at the crime site. 

According to the victim of the theft, a person by the name of Paolo Bocedi, identified from open source media on the internet as an entrepreneur in Lombardia who founded S.O.S. Italia Libera together with Tano Grasso in 1991 had twice visited the Castello di Buriasco in an attempt to purchase the painting, however Signora Buzio declined to sell. 

Date Unknown

Following the report of theft filed with the Carabinieri in Vigone, a theft notice regarding the painting stolen from the Castello di Buriasco is sent by Italy's National Central Bureau to the Interpol Works of Art Unit.   The identikit details of which are uploaded to Interpol's ID-Art App, making the image of the stolen artwork searchable by the general public. 

The INTERPOL stolen works of art database refers to the stolen painting as a 17th century painting of The Judgement of St. Paul by the School of Francesco Solimena, (L'Abate Ciccio).

Spring 2013

According to later journalistic investigations made public in December 2023 by investigative reporters Thomas Mackinson it is claimed that Vittorio Sgarbi, Italy's Undersecretary of Culture in the Meloni Cabinet, contacted Gianfranco Mingardi in the Spring of 2013 telling the Brescia-based restorer: 

"I'll send you a painting to fix".  

Sgarbi has worked extensively with Mingardi periodically in the conservation of artworks from the 1980s until quite recently.

8 May 2013

According to one of Mackinson's article regarding this evolving story, the restorer Gianfranco Mingardi recounted that three months after the theft of the painting from the Castello di Buriasco, on May 8, 2013 he received a painting requiring restoration which was the purported to be property of Vittorio Sgarbi.  Like the artwork stolen from the Castello di Buriasco and uploaded to the Interpol database, the painting requiring restoration depicted its protagonist, with his hands clasped and his face turned upwards as a sign of supplication, as he is forcibly brought by two guardsmen, before a judge, who is depicted pointing with his right arm raised.  

Mingardi told newspaper reporters that he had picked up this painting at the exit of the A4 motorway, in central Brescia in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, adding that he met a delivery truck, along with Paolo Bocedi, who arrived by  motorcycle.  It should be noted that this is the same individual who was was mentioned by Margherita Buzio as the person who had previously contacted her about the purchase of her painting before the artwork was stolen.

At the handover, the restorer Mingardi stated that the painting was delivered to him "without a frame, cut, and rolled up like a carpet".  Once laid out and spread open, the restorer says he observed several parts of the artwork which showed breaks and canvas losses.  

Having taken photos of the artwork at the time it was delivered, Mingardi was able to demonstrate to the journalists that at the time he received the canvas, the painting was rolled up like a scroll and appeared to be in poor condition.  His documentation also showed that at the time the painting was under his care, it did not yet depict a torch in the top left quadrant of the painting's imagery.  

This purported augmentation is thought to have been added at some later date.  

 Photo of rolled atwork
taken by restorer Gianfranco Mingardi 

Also of note in the restorer's photographic documentation is a prominent horizontal line that runs along the entire length of the painting at the point where the two canvases are cojoined at the ground layer,.  This is a common system or merger which allowed artists of the period to create larger format paintings.  Lastly, Mingardi's records identify a series of losses, including a hole in the canvas at the height of the dog's collar, as well as a crack along one tunic and other similar losses. 

10 December 2018

Gianfranco Mingardi tells news journalist Thomas Mackinson that he returned Vittorio Sgarbi's painting to the art critic on 10 December 2018, a full five and a half years after it was received. 

“I realised that that canvas was hot, so I asked him [Vittorio Sgarbi] for a certificate of ownership...He said he would send it to me but he didn't, and when I protested he said not to worry, he could say that it was in Villa Maidalchina..." 

April 2019 

Vittorio Sgarbi's painting depicting its protagonist, with his hands clasped and his face turned upwards as a sign of supplication is now said to be at the studio of Valentina Piovan, an established restorer from Padua. 

Why the artwork was taken to a second restorer is unclear.  What should be noted is that by this time period, Sgarbi's painting now contains an added element, a lighted torch which serves to illuminate the top left quadrant of the painting's imagery. 

October 2020

Samuele and Cristian De Pietri, the owners of GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co., collect Vittorio Sqarbi's painting from the studio of restorer Valentina Piovan at the beginning of October 2020 

13 October 2020

Samuele and Cristian De Pietri, the owners of GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co create a digitised, contactless scan of Vittorio Sqarbi's painting using a high quality, large format scanner capable of scanning large format works of art and then cloning them. 

22 November 2020

Vittorio Sgarbi visits the laboratory of GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co in person, who, according to the owners "was interested in understanding the potential of our machinery, how far it could go. From there we then do many other jobs, for various museums and around Italy." 

Photos and videos are taken where Sgarbi can be seen discussing the original painting left in G-Lab's care, alongside the cloned work created by the business associates.  Both images appear to closely resemble the stolen painting from the Castello di Buriasco. 

These images and video are later shared with the journalists working for Il Fatto Quotidiano and the Rai television program "Report" who release them to the public in 2024.  In the film, Sgarbi can be seen wandering between the original version of the Capture of Saint Peter and its digital clone, examining each of them closely, with a flashlight in his hand moving over key areas of the artwork.

On 12 January 2021 

Vittorio Sgarbi pays a €6100 invoice issued by GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co. which labeled their service as a "consultancy."  According to the business owners, the original version of Vittorio Sgarbi's painting and its digital clone were subsequently transferred to the care of the Cavallini-Sgarbi Foundation (Ro Ferrarese, Ferrara). However, their original 3D scan file, which digitally captured the scan of the 17th century painting at 1600 DPI resolution (meaning that for every inch of mouse movement, the cursor moves 1600 pixels), and weighing 52 gigabytes, remained with the digitisation company's owners, Samuele and Cristian De Pietri.

8 December 2021 through 2 October 2022

The art exhibition I Pittori della Luce. Da Caravaggio a Paolini, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi and produced by Contemplazioni takes place at the Padiglione Panini - Ex Cavallerizza in the historic center of Lucca.  At this exhibition, Sqarbi exhibits the painting he had commissioned to be cloned earlier at GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co. 

According to the accompanying exhibition catalogue, written by Sgarbi and Professor Ciampolini, the 235 x 204 cm, oil on canvas painting is now titled The Capture of Saint Peter (Italian: Cattura di San Pietro) and is written up as a previously "unpublished" artwork, believed to have been completed by the artist Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti (c. 1571 – 22 July 1639), sometime between 1637 and 1639.  Manetti being an Italian painter of late-Mannerism or proto-Baroque, active mainly in Siena.  

Sgarbi's catalogue as well as accompanying exhibition documentation lists the artwork as being the property of the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation.  Regarding its provenance, the exhibition's catalogue states that the painting was found at the Villa Maidalchina, which in the 1600s was owned by Olimpia Pamphilij, sister-in-law of Pope Innocent.  The previously abandoned villa is located near La Quiete, in the La Pila district, near Viterbo.  Built between 1615 and 1625 this once abandoned villa is now the property of the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation. 

Sgarbi's catalogue goes on to state that his painting "is remembered, generically among others paintings, in the inventory of 11 October 16-49, drawn up by the notary Cosimo Pennacchi, of the assets of Andrea Maidalchini, Olimpia's brother. The works of art, including the famous Bust of Innocent X by Alessandro Algardi, then passed to Giulio Bussi and the Gentili counts."  

According to research conduced by journalists, there is no affirming documentation which concretises these attestations.  In fact quite the contrary, Angelo Allegrini, the Director of the State archives of Viterbo, failed to identify any record of any works of art by the artist Manetti in the bound 1649 records of Pennacchi.  And while there is a record of a painting depicting Saint Peter recorded, that work of art describes the presence of a handmaid, who is not depicted in the work of art in Sgarbi's hands.  

The catalogue further describes the paintings light source as follows: 

"a precise light source, coming from the top left, emphasising the dramatic tone of the agitated scene, enhancing the material values of the clothes and skin and creating suggestive light and backlight effects. A torch, remembered by Honthor Stano, illuminates a room to the left of Herod, creating a symmetry with the scenographic background of the road on the right. There is an evident Caravaggesque origin, which the painter combines with a pursued theatrical taste, in the general layout, as in the individual characters, unnaturally elongated to emphasize their 'dancing pace' way of acting."

Late 2021/Early 2022

By late 2021 Vittorio Sqarbi's painting depicting the Capture of Saint Peter has drawn the attention of investigative journalists Thomas Mackinson and Manuele Bonaccorsi working for Il Fatto Quotidiano and the Rai television program "Report" based upon its similarities to the painting stolen from the Castello di Buriasco (Pinerolo), owned by Margherita Buzio and publicly searchable via the Interpol Id-Art app for stolen artwork. 

Driven by demand from patrons and commissions it was not unusual for artists of the 16th and 17th century to have created multiple versions of a particular theme or to emulate aspects of one another's artist's style.  While each of those are highly plausible, it would have been quite impossible for artists of that period to have matched brush stroke for brush stroke, precisely the proportions as you see below, in this ARCA's overlay of both the stolen painting and the one exhibited at the early exhibition I Pittori della Luce. Da Caravaggio a Paolini, in Lucca.

Aside from the lighted torch element, which illuminates the architectural backdrop on the upper left side, the painting owned by the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation is objectively identically proportioned character by character to the painting stolen from the Buriasco Castle.  

One could argue, as Vittorio Sgarbi later does, that the stolen painting was a much later replica of his painting,  however that still would not explain the absence/occurrence of the lit torch, and again, how the artisan who replicated the work would have precisely matched the brush strokes in such an extracting way. 

By December 2023

By December 2023 GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co., owned by Samuele and Cristian De Pietri, have invoiced undersecretary for cultural heritage Vittorio Sgarbi for a reported 20 thousand euros for the high end cloning and printing of "material reproductions" of paintings.  

These include not only the Capture of Saint Peter, but five other cloned artworks. The latest invoice, paid by Vittorio Sgarbi is dated December 2023. 

After 08 Dicembre 2023 

Stopped outside the Lucca exhibition, Antonio Canova e il Neoclassicismo  journalists investigating the similarities between the stolen painting a the Sgarbi foundation artwork attempt to speak with Undersecretary Vitttorio Sgarbi abouthis foundation's painting and the similarities to the artwork stolen in 2013.  Caught on tape, reporters ask the politician to explain the torch depicted in the Manetti artwork, and the fact that experts state that this is a more recent addition not previously found in the painting when it was worked on by the restorer Gianfranco Mingardi. 

At first Sgarbi hurriedly brushes off the reporters questions, hurling various insults before seating himself in a waiting car with driver.  Very shortly after however, he steps out of the vehicle and reengages with the journalists and camera man somewhat aggressively.  

Speaking in a frustrated or angry tone, he provides further statements regarding the artwork in question while still continuing to hurl colourful vulgarities at the journalists.  He also tells the reporters dismissively that he has sold the painting in question.  At the conclusion of their exchange, Sgarbi takes his leave wishing the journalists a premature death, then denouncing them to the police for stalking.

NB: It should be noted that the PDF for the Lucca exhibition two years earlier already stated that the artwork, at the time of the exhibition, was owned by the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation. 

15 December 2023

In the first of multiple news articles journalists with Il Fatto Quotidiano begin reporting on their questions regarding the seventeenth-century painting in the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation collection which they suspect matches the one stolen in 2013 from the Castello di Buriasco.

17 December 2023

The seventeenth-century Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation painting, titled the Capture of Saint Peter is highlighted in the investigative TV program "Report" in Italy, appearing in the first of multiple episodes on the 17th of December ".  In this first reporting, TV journalist Manuele Bonaccorsi walks his viewers through the story of the theft of the artwork from the Castello di Buriasco (Pinerolo) owned by Margherita Buzio as well as its similarities to the artwork titled The Capture of Saint Peter by the artist Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti owned by Vittorio Sgarbi's foundation.  

The episode covers the paintings passage from restorer to restorer and the digital scanning firm where it was cloned.  It also discusses the curatorial text listed for the artwork when it was presented at the Lucca exhibition which stated the presence of the work in Villa Maidalchina and that the painting would be certified by a notarial deed from 1649. 

The episode goes on to show that a cross check of the State archives of Viterbo, which contains an inventory of Andrea Maidalchini's assets, drawn up in 1649, and which details various paintings from the collection, makes no mention of any work of art by Manetti.  While this inventory does mention, a painting of Saint Peter, the description does not match the paintings under consideration. 

7 January 2023

By comparing an image obtained by a visitor to the Lucca exhibition of the seventeenth-century Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation painting, the investigative TV program "Report" demonstrates that the purported Manetti painting exhibited in Lucca in 2022 appears to be one of the digital clones created by GraphicLAB s.n.c. di De Pietri Cristian & Co. in 2020, after the original artwork was scanned on behalf of undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi.

High resolution screenshon of G-Lab scan of Sgrabi's artwork

The news program and the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano publish high resolution images of the scanned artwork, which, by increasing the magnification shows their respective audiences Sgarbi's painting's craquelure, the fine pattern of dense cracking that develops over many decades or centuries, exhibiting irregular patterns. 

Conservators and appraisers of fine art will recognise that the pattern of craquelure on the surface of paintings are one of many factors which can be used to determine the age, the authenticity, and the restoration works conducted of a painting.  In this case, the fine irregular pattern of dense cracking from the drying oil paint can be seen across Sgarbi's entire painting, but is absent from several of the areas where the artwork has been retouched or overpainted during its restoration.  These changes can be visualised in both the area where the torch appears, indicating it may have been added, as well as in areas where losses were documented earlier while the painting was with the Brescia restorer. 

Loss and Restoration Comparison to Sgarbi painting

Comparing the very high resolution image preserved at GLab's studio, alongside the corresponding images of the artwork without the torch previously obtained from the Brecia restorer Gianfranco Mingardi, along with the other details uncovered or contradicted throughout this journalistic investigation, it seems to be quite possible that the Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation painting of the Capture of Saint Peter could very well be the same stolen painting, with subsequent enhancements, which had from Castello di Buriasco.

Key to this investigation may be a tiny triangular shred of canvas that the reporters found at the castello in Buriasco, stuck between the plastic replacement photo and the frame left at the "crime site".   Turned over to the Caravinieri TPC in Rome on December 20th, this small, seemingly inconsequential scrap, appears to have once been attached to the bottom right portion of the painting, around the area where the three tipped halberd is depicted placed on the ground.  If this proves to be true,  the reporters' journalistic  hypothesis that Sgarbi's painting is the one stolen in 2013 may proven to be true. 

Sgarbi, in his defense, has claimed that multiple copies of this theme were created by Manetti and that Mingardi, who also did work for his mother and had previously completed a job badly and perhaps, as a result, was harbouring revenge against the family.  He has given no explanation as to why, if their relationship was so acrimonious, that he still elected to entrust this rare 17th century artwork by Manetti to the restorer who held the artwork for more than five years given the claim that his restoration work was deemed so problematic in the past that the art critic had refused payment. 

Regardless, even if we play devil's advocate and assume, through some incredibly rare and almost unbelievable stroke of good luck, that the art critic Sgarbi truly was smiled upon by the luck of the Irish and found this valuable 17th century painting in his foundation's previously abandoned villa near Viterbo, one still has to ponder following questions, including: 

Why would an important art critic, and undersecretary to Italy's Ministry of Culture not provide any concretised evidence that substantiates his claim that the artwork was found at Villa Maidalchina.  As an art historian well-versed in the need for provenance, one has to ask why there are no witnesses named as being present at the time of the discovery, or are we to assume Sgarbi was working on his mother's villa renovations personally?

Why is it that Sgarbi considers the St. Peter mentioned in the inventory of 11 October 16-49, drawn up by the notary Cosimo Pennacchi, of the assets of Andrea Maidalchini to be the painting he now possesses, when that inventory description  describes an artwork which depicts the presence of a handmaid when there are no female figures in the Manetti owned by Sgarbi.  

Why has Sgarbi repeatedly stated that the artist Manetti made multiple copies of this work, yet failed, in his detailed telling of the artwork for the Lucca exhibition, failed to document any of these additional copies be they by Manetti himself or a 19th century copiest as he now claims the stolen artwork to be.  All this notwithstanding that fact that Sgarbi himself admitted to having firsthand knowledge of the one hanging at the Castello di Buriasco and having seen it when he lunched at the restaurant and commented on the painting. 

Update: First week of January 2024

The Italian New services now state that Undersecretary of Culture Vittorio Sgarbi is being investigated by Italian authorities as a suspect in the crime of Self-Laundering of Cultural Assets referred to in Article 1(1)(b) of Law No. 22 of the Criminal Code (C.C. art. 518-septies) .  This investigation seems to fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Prosecutor's Office of Macerata and was confirmed via public prosecutor Giovanni Fabrizio Narbone.  

This is unrelated to another investigation, originally opened in 2023 by Alberto Lari, the Imperia prosecutor's office in relation to an earlier investigation into the illegal expropriation of another artwork, the Concerto con Bevitore by Valentin de Boulogne to Monaco.