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The Italian Experience: the Safeguarding Activity of the Soprintendenze Exportation Offices and Some Remarks on the Restitution of Works of Art
Angelo Tartuferi
La Pietra Dialogues
April 24, 2010

The Offices for the Exportation of Objects of Art and Antiquities are among the most advanced tools in implementing the Act that regulates the safeguard of cultural heritage in Italy, a law which is rightly considered as the strictest of its kind worldwide. This is an obvious consequence of the remarkably high density of artistic heritage endowing our country as compared to the rest of the world.

The Exportation Offices responsible for antiquities are the following, from North to South: Turin, Milan, Genoa, Verona, Venice, Bologna, Cagliari, Pisa, Florence (the Office I have been heading for many years), Rome, Naples and Palermo.

These Offices are meant to exert an intensive control over objects of art destined for exportation and submitted to the Offices for authorization, since every object over fifty years´ old must be evaluated by a technical and scientific committee composed of three art historians. However this allegedly strict control in defending the Italian cultural heritage is actually rather ´elastic´, if we consider objective data.

In 2007, 5,300 applications were filed with the Exportation Offices to obtain a Certificate of Free Circulation which allows the exportation of cultural property items. Of these applications a mere 59 was denied, that is just over 1% of the total. In the previous years rejections were even fewer: only 21 in 2006 (a ridiculous percentage considering the total requests, 0.42 %) and 29 in 2005 (0.56 %).

Indeed the amount of objects of art officially dealt with by our Exportation Offices is quite limited versus actual market transactions. What must be borne in mind is that it is only in rare cases that these art objects are truly of significant artistic and historical value.

It is common knowledge that works of art exit our borders above all clandestinely. The Florence Office, which together with those of Rome and Milan boasts the highest level of activity, has issued 1,360 Certificates of Free Circulation, just 95 Certificates of Temporary Importation (from non EU countries) and 306 Certificates of Temporary Exit (from EU countries). The frequently heard complaint by friends who deal in antiques and art, naturally including Italians but above all the English - London is the world capital of art dealing - that the Italian authorities hinder the free movement of and international trade in works of art is quite frankly ludicrous and unacceptable.

Obviously, at international level the circulation of works of art is quite different. Needless to say, the suppression of borders within Europe has made an effective control of this movement virtually impossible. Hence the statistics supplied by UNESCO on illicit trafficking in works of art in Italy, worth about 110 million euro a year, are totally credible. Yet, the recent and current success reaped by the Cultural Heritage Safeguard Unit of the Carabinieri - one of the world´s most specialized law enforcement forces of which we are justly proud - is comforting in this endeavor. Thefts of art works reported in 2006 were halved versus 2001, dropping from 2,090 to 1,214.

It is not by chance that the largest archives of stolen art objects in the world are managed by the Carabinieri. Established in 1980, they comprise over 2,600,000 catalogued items. Of course in this case as well there is an enormous discrepancy between official data and reality, considering the large number of unreported or unknown cases, the so-called ´grey market´.

I do not want to reiterate a long-standing complaint, but Italy is the country from which 850,000 objects of art have been stolen in the last thirty years.

As is well known, of these stolen works the highest percentage is made up of archaelogical findings (35%), followed by antiques (20%), paintings (15%), religious objects (13%), coins (7%) and lastly sculptures and other items (5%). Unfortunately we must stress that the efforts made by the Carabinieri to counter illicit traffic of art works are not appropriately supported by international cooperation, for example by major auctioneers, above all as to the traceability of such objects on the international market.

Next Monday, on the 26th of April, at 5.30 pm, an exhibition that I was honored to curate will open at the Uffizi Gallery in the room dedicated to Filippo Lippi: it displays some recently restored masterpieces by this extraordinary artist, one of the founders of Italian Renaissance painting. It is a true pleasure for me to invite all those present to this event celebrating both the extraordinary restoration work and the invaluable and irreplaceable support of the private Associations, the "Amici degli Uffizi" with its American sister association "Friends of the Uffizi Gallery", set up in Palm Beach in 2006. Thanks to them we can achieve major results in the conservation of our Gallery´s heritage.

The highlight of the exhibition is the splendid Altarpiece of the Novitiate [2] painted by Filippo Lippi around 1445 for the homonymous chapel in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence, commissioned to Michelozzo by Cosimo the Elder de´ Medici in 1445. The restoration has nearly recovered the original aspect of the painting when it was placed on the chapel altar. The work is notable for its wide range of luminous colors, enhanced by the lovely lapislazuli blue cloak of the Madonna and mixed marble inlays in the floor and background niches, and by the steps leading to the throne and the architectural moldings in an astounding terra verde.

The altarpiece was enriched by a predella featuring a Nativity scene [3] in the centre and lives of the saints portrayed on the sides, executed by Francesco di Stefano, called Pesellino (1422 ca. -1457), then just turned twenty, a talented pupil of Filippo Lippi.

In 1813, Napoleon Bonaparte´s soldiers took possession of the predella and brought it to Paris at the Louvre Museum, where it was cut in two, keeping the two scenes on the left, Saint Francis´ Stigmata and the Miracle of Saints Cosma and Damian [4], and returning to Italy the remaining predella and two copies of the "purloined" originals that can still be seen in the Uffizi. I must admit my discomfort in reading in "Joconde", the famed database of the French museums´ cultural heritage, in the information sheet relative to Pesellino´s painting: "Property of the State; Paintings Department, Louvre Museum; military conquest ".

So, I am very glad to announce that for the first time in over 200 years the exhibition opening soon will display the entire predella of the Altarpiece of the Novitiate, thanks to the fruitful cooperation with our French colleagues who have lent the two missing scenes. Admiring this altarpiece, masterwork of Florentine Renaissance, for the first time in its entirety, is sure to be an extremely exciting experience.

Nowadays the genuine and effective collaboration between major museums has become both a duty and a pleasure. I know that this may seem obvious, but it is the only way in which we can definitively overcome the frustration caused by some historical "pillaging". You may have appreciated the evident irony with which I have used this dramatic word: how can we forgive our French "neighbors" for the theft of the imposing Maestà by Cimabue [5 - 6] or the renowned altarpiece by Giotto [7] portraying the Stigmata of Saint Francis and three stories of his life, also taken by Napoleon´s army from the church of San Francesco in Pisa and moved to Paris? In my opinion we must forgive, we can forgive, and we should also be able to smile about this.

History is neither beautiful nor ugly. Above all it is utterly unthinkable even hypothetically to turn back time and conceive of retrieving works of art from the four corners of the earth. Among the first to include works of art as booties of war were precisely the Emperors of ancient Rome, forerunners of Napoleonic and Nazi troops.

Personally speaking, to be absolutely and painfully consistent with what previously expressed, I find no difficulty in considering even the issue of World War II lootings definitively closed.

On the other hand, if we take other cases into account, such as the sale of the paintings of Boscoreale, one of the most celebrated Roman villas near Naples, in 1900, we must admit that this is "only" the result of the want of awareness typical of Italians in not protecting their artistic heritage. The pictorial decoration of the cubiculum (bedroom) in the villa of Publio Fannio Sinistore - now reconstructed at the Metropolitan Museum of New York [8] - is one of the masterpieces of the second Pompeian style of painting, dating around 40 B.C., buried under the debris of the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 A.D.. The paintings were detached and scattered among various private and public collections (in New York, Brussels, Naples, Paris, Amsterdam and Mariemont).

Obviously this want of awareness was reinforced, especially at that time, by the concrete possibility of the high profit deriving from that trade, which was particularly important in vast areas of Southern Italy up until very recently and was the primary reason for the thriving clandestine archaeological digs.

Nowadays the unavoidable reference criteria in adopting a shared approach to deal with such a controversial issue are the international agreements stipulated in recent decades. First of all the UNESCO Convention, adopted in Paris on the 4th November 1970, on measures to combat illicit traffic, and the UNIDROIT Convention adopted in Rome on the 24th June 1995, on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects, which also includes the right of individuals to claim stolen works of art, and takes into account the good faith of the holder of such works who may be duly compensated. We must point out that both Conventions are an integral part of the Italian ´Code for the protection of the Cultural Heritage and Landscape´ (Legislative Decree January 22nd, 2004, n. 42, articles 87 - 87bis).

Other more recent and controversial cases of illicit exportation, however, cannot be dealt with lightly. I fully agree with the statement made in mid July 2007 by the then Minister for the Cultural Heritage, Francesco Rutelli, concerning the bronze sculpture The Fano Athlete [9] retrieved in 1964 in the Adriatic Sea: «From the moment the bronze was taken on board the Italian fishing boat and unloaded in an Italian port, it automatically fell within the scope of the Italian legislation that condemns the illegal exportation of works of art. For the Paul Getty Museum, returning "Lisippo" to Italy and Fano is not only a moral duty but also a duty acknowledged by international law. Fighting against the theft and exportation of works of art is a matter of civilization, which warrants our full engagement».

In his essay "On the Conservation of Monuments and Objects of Art" published in the ´Rivista dei Comuni italiani´ in 1863, Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle, one of the founding fathers of modern art history and of the connoisseurship method, passionately denounced with the ardor of the man of the Italian Risorgimento he was, the first leaders governing the young Republic who, due to scant awareness and laissez-faire attitudes, had allowed the looting of our artistic heritage for decades. Those involved in exporting works of art used to say: "In Italy there are even too many works of art, and now that the world has become one family, etc. etc. ».

It would be tempting to use Cavalcaselle´s very words to rebut the peculiar theories recently put forward, according to which one should not be overly concerned about the illicit origin of works of art circulating on the international market, flaunting total disrespect for the said international conventions. Following this theory, such behavior even has noble and edifying consequences because it could save from the clandestine market masterpieces which would inevitably end up in the major all-encompassing museums, always ready to collect and purchase, at any cost and in any circumstance, the most valuable art objects of the great civilizations of the world. Needless to say, these museums are always the same and this would lead to their creating a very exclusive club. Instead, one of the most extraordinary and exciting features of the Italian provinces is the myriad of small museums where we can admire a summa of the local cultural heritage sometimes ranging from Antiquity to the late Baroque period.

Stating that antiquities belong to all of humankind is an ideal that can obviously be shared, however applying this principle in the legal, political and economic context is like saying that antiquities belong to all and none. Actually, it is like claiming that even the past and its heritage belong first of all to those who can afford it, to those who have more economic and/or military power, or simply to those who "get there first".

Quite frankly, this position is untenable. It is my humble opinion that it aims to create a dominant position for those who deal in antique art in the international market, pretending that it is all done for pure liberalism, against constraints, to counter the specific interests of individual States from which the works of art originate. Interests which are unjustly labeled as restrictive and inspired by obtuse nationalism.

Even if we cannot deny the inevitability of globalization, we must acknowledge that enhancing the cultural heritage of every country is a healthy and appropriate way of cultivating and transmitting its identity as a people and as a nation in such a globalized world. One of the most important, if not the most important, features of the populations that have inhabited our peninsula from the dawn of history is their artistic production and the highly complex relationship they established and developed with it.

As in any controversy, defining the position of each party as clearly as possible is key to better understanding the issue at stake. And in this specific controversy the issue is, and has always been, the opposition between the countries representing SUPPLY (Turkey, Syria, Greece, Egypt, Italy, Spain, etc.) and DEMAND (France, Japan, England, United States, etc.).

With the irony I personally espouse and consider necessary when dealing with any cultural dispute, I think we can conclude by saying that the heart of the matter lies in a simple fact: black or red-figure Attic vases, porphyry sculptures, funerary urns, majestic bronzes of antiquity, are mostly, and unfortunately, to be found in the waters of the Mediterranean or in the countryside or deserts of the countries bordering it, rather than in the North American prairies!

 
 
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