Italy’s junior culture minister Vittorio Sgarbi has resigned amid investigations regarding the acquisition of a stolen 17th Century painting.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on February 5 she had accepted Sgarbi’s decision to step down.
In January, prosecutors in the central Italian city Macerata opened an investigation regarding what was alleged to be the illicit acquisition of La Cattura di San Pietro (The Capture of St Peter) – a 1637-39 painting attributed to Rutilio Manetti that had been stolen from Piedmont’s Castello di Buriasco in Turin, in 2013.
Prosecutors claim Sgarbi “added a torch” to the painting’s upper-left corner in an attempt to “disguise it”.
The painting had been cut out from its frame at the castle and replaced with a photocopy shortly after one of Sgarbi’s friends visited the gallery and “expressed interest in buying it”, according to Margherita Buzio, the owner of the venue.
Sgarbi then allegedly lent the painting to an exhibition in Lucca in 2022, which brought it to journalists’ attention.
A December 2023 investigation by two media outlets, the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano and Report, an investigative programme on state-owned TV station Rai 3, then aroused police interest.
Acting on the request of the Macerata-based prosecutors, they reportedly confiscated the painting from Sgarbi’s house on January 12.
When Manuele Bonaccorsi, a reporter for Rai 3, asked Sgarbi if he was in possession of the stolen artwork, estimated to be worth between €200,000 and €300,000, the junior minister allegedly replied: “If you die in a car accident, I’ll be happy. I hope you have an accident … you disgust me,” and then threatened to “expose” himself.
An Italian art expert, who wished to remain anonymous, told Brussels Signal: “Having a painting exhibited creates a trail of legitimacy, which then allows the artwork to be auctioned more easily.
“The real conundrum here is, was he really so stupid to buy a stolen artwork, butcher it with a painted detail, and then give it to be exhibited?”
Manetti was a follower of Caravaggio – a Baroque master whom historians say had his own legal problems, including several stints in jail for “brawling”, after which he fled Rome and a sentence of beheading in 1606.
Sgarbi has claimed the castle’s “stolen” artwork was a 19th Century copy of his painting, which his mother apparently found “laying about in a house in Viterbo”, which she bought in 2000.
Sgarbi has campaigned to make museum-entrance free to Italians and to slash VAT on art imports in a bid to make the country “more competitive” in the global art market.
Like Caravaggio, though, he has had multiple brushes with the law.
For instance, he was accused of illegally exporting a €5 million painting by Valentin de Boulougne, seized in Monte Carlo in June 2021.
Italian anti-trust authorities are also investigating “large and undeclared” payments Sgarbi allegedly received to appear at cultural events, while also serving as the junior cultural minister. Those inquiries are ongoing.
On February 4, he announced he wanted to “negotiate” his resignation with Meloni.
Laura Boldrini, who represents Tuscany in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, commented: “He says he wants to negotiate with the Government for his resignation? But what are we, at the souk.”
Sgarbi’s apparent tastes in art perhaps reflect those of late former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who spent his final years impulsively buying-up paintings and such as they came up in late-night television auctions.
Berlusconi’s 25,000 artworks largely have “little to no value”, according to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper in October 2023 – quoting “art expert” Sgarbi as saying.
According to reports, housing Berlusconi’s art now costs his heirs around €800,000 a year, with woodworm having destroyed part of the collection already. The expense of exterminating such grubs, observers have said, would in many cases exceed the paintings’ value.
As for Sgarbi, reportedly a close friend of Berlusconi, his political passing seems to have similarities with Manetti’s mentor.
“Exactly like Caravaggio symbolically beheaded himself twice in David and Goliath and in Judith and Olophernes, Sgarbi relented to public pressure and resigned his much-cherished Government post,” claimed the Italian art expert.