Italian culture minister probed over stolen painting

Vittorio Sgarbi
Image caption,Junior Culture Minister Vittorio Sgarbi is also a renowned art critic, historian and TV personality

An Italian junior culture minister has been accused of possessing and exhibiting a stolen 17th Century painting, which he denies.

The latest allegations to hit a member of Italy’s government centre on Vittorio Sgarbi, a renowned art critic.

Mr Sgarbi has been put under investigation for laundering stolen goods after including the painting in a 2021 exhibition.

“The Capture of Saint Peter” was reported stolen in 2013.

The painting by Rutilio Manetti – a follower of the Baroque master Caravaggio – used to be displayed in a castle in the northern Italian region of Piedmont.

Mr Sgarbi, who is also a TV personality known for his foul language and several convictions for slander, is also accused of altering the painting by adding a candle to the top corner, allegedly to conceal its provenance.

The politician says he found the work while restoring a villa bought by his mother more than twenty years ago. He claims the painting is the original, while the one stolen in 2013 was a copy.

The allegations surfaced in an investigation by the programme ‘Report’ on the Italian TV broadcaster Rai. The owner of the castle who reported the painting stolen told journalists that the canvas was cut out of the frame in 2013. She also said that a friend of Mr Sgarbi had earlier visited the property and expressed an interest in buying the work.

‘Report’ also stated it had found that another friend of the politician later transferred a damaged painting of “The Capture of Saint Peter” to a restorer. It was said it bore a hole with the same shape as a piece of the canvas cut out of the Piedmont castle frame in 2013.

By the time the restored work was put on display by Mr Sgarbi in 2021, the painting had the addition of the candle in the top corner.

The composite image used by Report to illustrate the differences between what it says is the original work, on the left, and the copy, on the right
Image caption,The composite image used by Report to illustrate the differences between what it says is the original work, on the left , and the copy, on the right

The junior minister is now also facing accusations regarding another work: a painting attributed to the French artist Valentin de Boulogne, valued at €5m (£4.3m), which was seized by police in Montecarlo. Mr Sgarbi is being investigated by a prosecutor for illegally exporting the painting. He says it is a copy – and that it did not belong to him. The BBC has contacted Mr Sgarbi, but has received no response.

Opposition parties have called for Mr Sgarbi’s sacking, with the Five Star Movement saying it would present a motion in parliament for his dismissal.

It is the second embarrassment to hit the Italian government this year, after a governing party MP was put under investigation for taking a handgun to a New Year’s Eve party, which went off, injuring a fellow guest. Emanuele Pozzolo denied that he fired the weapon but has now been suspended by the Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is still riding high in the opinion polls and her right-wing coalition looks stable – for now.

But in the run-up to the European elections in June, all parties will be seizing on any weakness or opportunity they can exploit. There have already been public displays of tension with her coalition partner Matteo Salvini.

This could be a year when Italian politics gets even nastier. And the prime minister will be hoping that scandals don’t come in threes.

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