back to home  
Home Blog Profiles Press Contact Archive Photogallery Students
The Acton Collection, Villa La Pietra  
La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
The Circulation of Works of Art: a Long-standing and Ever-present Problem
Serena Padovani
La Pietra Dialogues
October 24, 2010

Because of their different cultural traditions and historical conditions, I am aware that this topic may be perceived quite differently in other European Union countries and the United States. In Italy, there has always been the desire to conserve our immense cultural heritage in situ, thus avoiding its dispersion. Our laws witness this, dating as far back as the 15th century, and increasingly so starting from the early 17th century. My considerations, obviously, will start from historical examples of this approach rather than from a legal perspective.

In 1624 the Papal States enacted a ban on the digging and removal of marble and metal statues, figurines and antiquities, not only from the city of Rome but also "by river, sea or land". The law imposed fines for both the client and the supplier, together with the possibility of “corporal punishment at our discretion”.

In 1602, Tuscany´s Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici charged the Accademia del Disegno with the task of controlling exportations and categorically banned the exit of works by the 19 most renowned masters: Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Andrea del Sarto, Fra’ Bartolomeo, Pontormo, Bronzino, Titian, Correggio, Parmigianino, Filippino, Perugino, …

However, even if the safeguarding of the artistic heritage has always been a duty of public administrations, the removal of works of art from their sites of origin has always taken place in more or less legal ways.

Thus the members of the Papal court, and of the main ruling families in Rome and Florence, appropriated works of art for their private collections, removing them from the churches and convents for which they had originally been commissioned, although they paid for these works, had copies made to replace the originals or had new ones placed on the altars.

Right in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, at the end of the 17th century, a homonymous descendant of Ferdinando de’ Medici typically exemplifies this attitude. Between1690 and 1710 ca. the Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, the eldest son of Grand Duke Cosimo III, gathered an extraordinary collection in his private apartments in Palazzo Pitti: its paintings came not only from family collections but also from antiquarians - especially in Venice - and by requisitioning large altarpieces located in Tuscan churches.

1 – Raphael, Madonna of the baldachin, Florence, Palatine Gallery, Pitti Palace

This large altarpiece is a masterpiece of Raphael´s early maturity. It was painted in Florence in 1508 for the altar of the Dei family chapel in the church of Santo Spirito. It portrays a ‘Holy Conversation’, with four saints and four angels gathered round an enthroned Madonna and child, under the circular canopy from which drapes the cloth of honor - traditionally symbolizing the majesty of Mary - held by two angels to reveal the divine assembly. In the classical apse echoing the Pantheon, the four saints exhibit the power, the naturalness and the grandeur of the figures that Raphael would execute shortly after in the Vatican rooms in Rome. (Detail of the heads). In this work he combines the new magnificence of sacred painting with the humanity and fragility of the Christ Child, and the intensity of the saints´ portraits.

The work remained in the possession of one of his closest friends, Baldassarre Turini, who placed it in the provostship of his hometown, Pescia, not far from Pistoia.

Nearly two centuries later, in 1697, Ferdinando de’ Medici located the painting and wanted it for his collection. He was able to convince the provost of Pescia and the patron family of the chapel, to sell him the work. Besides paying for it, Ferdinando also obtained a salaried position at court for the provost´s nephew, and had the copy of the painting made by Pier Dandini - one of the most esteemed painters of the time - placed on the alter of the chapel where it still stands.

Fearing, and rightly so, the negative reaction of the local population which had gotten wind of his plans, Ferdinando organized the complex dismantling from the altar and the transportation of the large altarpiece (almost 4 meters by 2) by night, under the supervision of one of Ferdinando´s court painters, Domenico Gabbiani. But the protests were indeed vehement: an “anonymous message” of unsurpassed virulence - whose text is preserved in the State Archives - was made public in hand-written gazettes (and I quote): “In the last few days the magisterial work by Raphael from Urbino was artfully removed or rather stolen from the Provostship of Pescia …”; and the text speaks of a “detestable and abominable indignity” made possible by a “perfidious plot” on the part of the provost who, instead of dissuading the prince from his project, had accepted it to second his personal ambitions. Still today Pescia would like to have its Raphael back.

I have dwelt upon this episode because, since it is thoroughly documented, it demonstrates not only how the material and spiritual value of a work of art was obviously understood by such a refined and cultivated collector like the Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, but also by the citizens who felt outraged by the loss. Then as now.

Another significant case worth mentioning is the sale of 100 masterpieces from the celebrated Estense Gallery of Modena, in 1745.

This collection put together over the course of three centuries (from the 15th to the 17th) by the Dukes of Este, and scattered among their palaces in Ferrara and Modena, was one of the most renowned in Europe and consisted of sculptures, medals, china, armors and weaponry and above all a large series of paintings, essentially from Northern Italy. At the end of the 16th century, Duke Francesco I consolidated most of the works (i.e. paintings) in one collection, thus creating the Gallery in Modena, which became immediately famous.

This slide shows the collection´s most important piece, The Night by Correggio. It is a Nativity scene which, owing to the special luminous effect emanating from the Christ Child in the center of the painting, has traditionally been known as The Night (in contrast to the Madonna with Saints Jerome and Magdalene, originally in the Church of Saint Anthony in Parma, then in the Gallery of Parma in the 19th century, entitled The Day). In 1640 the painting was removed by Duke Francesco I d’Este from the church of St. Prosperus in Reggio Emilia and taken to his collection in Modena. As in the case of the Madonna of the Baldachin by Raphael removed from Pescia, it is said that everything took place at night to avoid the uprising of the population, and there is even a document kept in the church of St. Prosperus accusing the duke of sacrilege.

In the 18th century the Este dynasty experienced a series of economic and political downturns which threatened the integrity of the collection: this was scattered and hidden in secret places, as often happens in times of war. The core of the collection including The Night by Correggio, was entrusted to the care of the Salesian nuns in Modena, who were ordered to keep the secret, under threat of committing a capital sin …

But the events precipitated: Ferrara fell under the Papal States and the Duke was in need of money. He yielded to the pressure of the emissaries of August III of Saxony who, for some time had coveted the rich collection in the Estense Gallery, and sold 100 masterpieces.

However, aware of the gravity of the sale, the Duke and his counselors had to act with extreme caution to avoid popular uprising. The works were absconded in secret, those kept by the Salesian nuns were transferred to Ferrara, and the shipment was organized from a new hiding place…

Obviously, from the mid 18th century these works have been displayed in the splendid Gallery of Dresden, enhanced by August III´s collection frames, seen and admired by everyone. But in this case as well, the severe cultural loss for the State was hard felt by all because of the inestimable value of the works. And this awareness is still alive today.

In 1882, in his history of the Estense Gallery, Adolfo Venturi entered the following comment by an anonymous contemporary of his: “Those who sell a celebrated national work of art to foreigners, sell a piece of their homeland”.

The same sentiment of romantic patriotism was echoed a few years ago (1994) by Antonio Paolucci, (Introduction to the Florentine Museums, in the book by Gregori, Uffizi e Pitti) (and I quote): “ There are Italian dynasties whose names are indissolubly linked to the dreadful loss of extraordinary museum collections, such as Modena´s Este family who will never be forgiven for having sold its masterpieces to the Prince Elector August III of Saxony, now boasted by the Gemaeldegalerie in Dresden”.

To the contrary, Paolucci praises the wisdom of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici who, in 1737, imposed an explicit condition when transferring her family´s art heritage to the new Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco Stefano of Lorraine: galleries, paintings, statues, libraries, jewels and other precious objects were not to be removed from the capital and from the State of the Grand Duchy because they were intended as (and I quote) “an ornament for the State, for public enjoyment and to attract foreigners”. These could be the words of a current, enlightened, Minister for the Cultural Heritage.

Throughout the 19th century we witness a series of incredible sales, and relative attempts to prevent them, including: the polyptych by Giuliano da Rimini, signed and dated 1307, now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

This large dossal, commissioned for the main altar of the church of St. Francis in Urbania, a small town in the Marches, is a masterpiece by a master of the extraordinary School of Rimini, which in the first three decades of the Trecento produced a series of astounding paintings in the wake of Giotto. Thus, a fundamental work of painting.

Following the restructuring of the church, the dossal by Giuliano da Rimini was transferred to the church convent, which in the early 19th century was assigned as a presbytery to the Chapter of the Cathedral of Urbania.

In 1998, following the fortuitous discovery and publication of the correspondence relative to the illicit sale of this work by the Chapter, we learn that in 1901 a Florentine antiquarian convinced the friars to sell the work. In violation of the Pacca Law, the dossal was removed from the former Papal States and sent by train to Florence where it arrived on June 25th, 1901 from which it could no longer be claimed as it was in the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

It was only after the fact, that the Chapter members seemed to realize the illegality of the operation and asked Nelli, the antiquarian, to return the work pending compliance with the law (I quote from the letter addressed to Nelli): “Our insisting for you to comply with the law, even at the sacrifice of some of our interests, was due to the serious reason that here the exportation of the painting was frowned upon and ... we feared that some zealous citizen or evildoer could... report the fact to the Judicial Authority. Mr. Nelli, we know the situation better than you, you must not underestimate the danger we are in”. And the Chapter members insisted on Mr. Nelli´s obtaining the authorization from the Fine Arts Commission in Ancona, offering to pay half of the expenses. But Mr. Nelli, who has secured the work in his hands, only guaranteed his silence on the matter.

The author of the 1988 article concluded: “And until today the same dead silence has reigned over the mystery of the removal of this work from Rimini, a work now known as the pearl of the Boston museum".

This is a triptych by Spinello Aretino, signed and dated 1391 (Florence, Accademia Gallery), and it is an example of a successful prevention of a sale.

It is by one of the greatest masters of the late 14th century, born in Arezzo but also active in Lucca and Florence, whose many works were often divided and are now scattered in many museums and collections through the world.

This triptych by Spinello was kept in the church of St. Andrew in Lucca, where it was probably placed originally. Around 1840 an attempted sale to the Hungarian Baron Samuele de Festetits was stopped by a timely decree of the Tuscan Government that, on October 31st 1850, seized the work and destined it to the Accademia Galley. So in this case the painting has remained in Tuscany even if displayed in a museum and no longer in the original church.

Masaccio, Enthroned Madonna, London, National Gallery.

The Pisa polyptych, a fundamental Renaissance work, was painted by Masaccio in 1426 for a chapel of the Carmine church in Pisa.

After the mid 16th century it was removed and dismembered following the restructuring of the church. Eleven of these fragments have been traced, scattered in museums the world over.

Crucifixion, Naples, Capodimonte.

Six paintings on wood panels representing saints, destined to side pilasters: one in Pisa, San Matteo Museum; one at the Getty Museum; four in Berlin, together with the three scenes of the predella: the legend of St. Julian and the alms of St. Nicholas, the martyrdom of St. Peter and the martyrdom of St. Paul.

These images of overpowering beauty and force allow me to introduce Wilhelm von Bode, an official of the Berlin Gallery and great connoisseur who, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, acquired most of the Italian paintings and sculptures for the museums in Berlin.

In his autobiography published in 1930, Bode reports having acquired the works now in Berlin, that is the four Saints and the scenes of the predella, from the Capponi collection in Florence, ironically commenting that, in the opinion of Giovanni Morelli, they had been executed only by one of Masaccio´s assistants. This obviously had served the purpose of obtaining a substantially lower price and avoiding the Italian authorities´ interference.

The personal but above all institutional relationships between Bode and Morelli, two protagonists of art history and cultural policy between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, have been studied in particular by Jaynie Anderson, and presented in her paper at the conference dedicated to Wilhelm Bode in 1996.

The English scholar (and I stress not Italian, and thus less biased) states that in the second half of the 19th century Giovanni Morelli, Senator of the Republic, was entrusted with the task of (and I quote) “saving his country’s artistic heritage”.

As to his relationship with Morelli, she states: “It is often assumed that the rivalry between Giovanni Morelli and Wilhelm von Bode was purely a matter of art historians’ jealousy, a personal squabble over a method of attribution. ...Here it will be argued that the differences between Morelli and Bode were political, or in other words, about the politics of acquisition between competing nations and their developing national museums”.

Wilhelm Bode and Giovanni Morelli are also the protagonists of the episode concerning another very famous masterpiece by Giorgione, The Tempest, now at the Accademia in Venice, one of the most celebrated and mysterious paintings ever.

According to Bode, he had already agreed with the owners on the acquisition of this precious painting - then housed in the Manfrin collection in Venice - on behalf of the Berlin Gallery. Morelli came to know of the deal, and rushed to stop it: he managed to find another buyer for the painting and to arrive just one hour before Bode got the authorization for the purchase from the Director of the Berlin Gallery. So The Tempest remained in Venice and, in 1932, was left to the Accademia Gallery on a permanent basis: all thanks to Giovanni Morelli´s intervention, for which Wilhelm Bode never forgave him.

As I previously stated, Italy´s historical and artistic heritage has always been perceived as an integral part of its territory. And the entire legislation on our country´s cultural heritage has always aimed to safeguard our rich network of works of art, even minor ones, which must not be removed from context.

Naturally, laws are interpreted differently through time to accommodate to changing needs. I remember that in the ´70s (and it is not by chance that the UNESCO Convention is dated 1970) exportation authorizations were consistently denied to all works, irrespective of their artistic value, so much so that our exportation offices only dealt with works "on temporary importation", that is free to circulate in any case.

This strictness extended to all the other sectors covered by safeguarding norms.

Cataloguing, that is registering works of art, was established at that time and was (and still is today) based on the photographic documentation, description and dating of any and every object contained in a church - including broken candelabra and pews, lecterns and ordinary benches - just like the paintings and sculptures on the altars.

So in those years, compulsory reporting by individuals in possession of works of art of any artistic or historical significance was even extended to works of mediocre quality, because they were considered as a testimony of both history and art history. Considering that, as most of you know, the reporting of a privately owned works of art translates into a certification of its value but also limits its market circulation, you can clearly understand the practical consequences of this ideological approach typical of the ´70s.

Such approach underwent some changes, in particular regarding the movement of art works, also in the light of the new European set-up. However, the awareness that art is a heritage that must be safeguarded in its context, because only this way can we fully appreciate its historical and artistic significance, is still present today, and rightly so in my opinion, not only as far as Italy is concerned.

I previously mentioned the sale of the Este collection in the 18th century, now displayed in the Dresden museum, as an example of the scattering of the Italian artistic heritage. But I also emphasized that such patrimony, all things considered, was not actually scattered but has remained a universal heritage to be enjoyed in this museum.

Let´s now move on from Italy to the United States. I would like to discuss another episode, which while not as spectacular as the previous ones, concerns the recent dispersion of the Italian primitives collection of the New York Historical Society.

It is true that this institution focuses its interest on the American historical and artistic heritage, but until recently it was endowed with one of the oldest collections of Italian and European paintings in the USA, created in the 19th century thanks to the donation of major collections which are extremely significant for the history of North American collecting. In particular Louis Durr´s collection and above all that of Thomas Jefferson Bryan who, in 1867, donated the entire collection he had gathered while traveling in Europe.

Suddenly, in 1970, the Society began selling parts of it, motivated by the need to raise funds to make this by now outdated institution more modern and attractive to the public.

I will now give you just two examples.

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, painted on a polygonal wood panel and attributed to Paolo Uccello. This work has recently been attributed to a Florentine painter and illuminator of the late 14th-early 15th century, Bartolomeo from Fruosino, a pupil of Lorenzo Monaco. It was studied in an exhibition entitled Painting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence 1300-1450, organized in 1995 by the Metropolitan Museum.

This is indeed an exceptional and interesting work, and rather a curiosity, both for art and costume history: a tray used to serve food to women in labor. Over time in Tuscany such trays no longer served their original purpose, but were painted on the front with a Nativity scene and on the back with the coat of arms or emblem of the family to celebrate the birth of an heir. This work is even more interesting from the historical and artistic point of view because a date is inscribed on its edge: April 25th, 1428.

The back shows an the act of peeing.

This very peculiar subject is identified by the following inscription on the margin, whose translation I took from the above-mentioned New York exhibition card to help simultaneous interpreters: “May God grant health to every woman who gives birth and to their father …I am an infant who lives on an island (?) and I make urine of silver and gold”.

Although the coats of arms have been abraded, they could belong to a family of Sienese goldsmiths, the Montauri, and the amusing inscription on the silver and gold urine could be an auspicious reference to a river of silver and gold. Here is the comment in English on the catalogue card: “The putto’s valuable urine may therefore have been a pointed reference to the source of the family’s future security”.

Luckily, this peculiar polygonal painting sold by the New York Historical Society, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. It is a good thing that this work has remained in the USA and is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum.

Other works of the New York Historical Society have instead left the USA or in any case their whereabouts are unknown.

The Crucifixion, a painting on wood panel by Mantegna, included in Bryan´s bequest (1867). Its attribution was challenged by most critics, even if a renowned art historian like Wilhelm Suida (1946) confirmed it. This is a lesser-known work, and has never been displayed in the recent spectacular exhibitions dedicated to Mantegna.

But it has been my good fortune, and enormous surprise, to examine it in 1981, when it was submitted to the Exportation Office, naturally for ‘temporary importation’ for restoration: it is a deeply moving work of extreme finesse that I believe should be unquestionably attributed to Mantegna. Unfortunately, we do not know where it is.

One day it will certainly re-appear on the antiquarian market and perhaps it will be studied and appreciated as it rightly deserves. Meanwhile it is a pity that such an interesting and fine work is no longer with the New York Historical Society.

Why should this chapter of American collecting history be destroyed? Why not preserve it intact as originally, since it documented the taste of men of culture prevailing in 19th century America?

I find it a bit unusual that the value of Thomas Jefferson Bryan´s collection, and the others donated to the New York Historical Society around the mid 19th century, is celebrated by Sotheby’s in its introduction to the 1995 auction catalogue, entitled “Important Old Master Paintings the Property of the New York Historical Society”.

This publication reconstructs the history of this institution and stresses its significance following the acquisition of its premises (quote): “As New York had never previously had an adequate gallery for displaying works of art, the new building attracted to the Society a considerable number of paintings, sculptures and archeological and ethnological specimens… Within thirteen years of its opening, the new building had, through gifts, bequest and purchase, acquired so much ancient, European and American art that, until the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870, it was the most important art museum in the city”.

Moreover: “The Reed and Bryan paintings represent the taste of 19th century American collectors prior to the establishment of public art museums”.

I hope I am wrong, and I wish I could be contradicted even here and now, but I do not think that these sales have made any stir or caused any protest.

To conclude my talk on old and more recent examples of the complex and varied case histories of works of art exportation, I truly think it would be desirable to have a harmonized legislation to regulate the circulation of art works worldwide.

In any case, this issue must be addressed above all by museum directors in collaboration with international legal experts, as is the case in today´s conference.

I would like to share the thought by James Cuono from his book Who Owns Antiquity: a work of art, even if illegally (or not strictly legally) removed from its original territory, is better housed in a public museum rather than hidden in the obscurity of the private market.

The same concept was previously voiced by an illustrious collector, Grand Prince Ferdinando de’Medici (1700 ca.), who had acquired the large altarpieces by Raphael, Fra’ Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto with great patience and effort from priests and friars who resisted his offers: according to him those works were much better off in the rooms of his Pitti Palace, rather than in the damp and smoky churches of origin.


Corsignano parish church, Pienza

All of us, whether Italians or not, have experienced the thrill of discovering a romantic little church in the Tuscan countryside. The poetic power still expressed by its stonewalls, complex articulations, powerful bell tower, double lancet window above the door projecting over the pure lines of the facade, leaves us speechless.

To think that this small church enshrined paintings and sculptures created over the centuries for its altar, should make us realize and admit that it is not the same to see these works displayed in the rooms of any National Gallery somewhere in the world.

    share print
twitter linkedin facebook facebook


NYU Florence
NYU Global
NYU Wagner




Villa La Pietra
Via Bolognese, 120
50139 Florence - Italy




Phone +39 055 5007 557
Fax +39 055 5007 576