Controversial Italian Culture Official Faces Investigation Over Links to Stolen Painting

Vittorio Sgarbi, a controversial art critic who became Italy’s junior culture minister last year, has once again become the subject of headlines, this time because he is being investigated in connection with a stolen painting that resurfaced in 2021.

The painting, The Capture of Saint Peter by Rutilio Manetti, was stolen from a castle in Buriasco in 2013. According to local authorities, thieves broke into the castle, cut the work from its frame, and then ran off with it. The work is reportedly worth several hundred thousand euros.

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Eight years later, a similar-looking painting appeared in an exhibition at Lucca. When it went on view, it came with a text that noted it had come from the Villa Maidalchina, which is owned by Sgarbi himself, according to the Italian broadcaster RAI.

RAI spoke to a restorer who noted that the Lucca painting contains just one small difference: there is now a candle visible in the top left of the composition. But for many Italian politicians, the similarity to the stolen Manetti painting suggests that it may indeed be the same work, with an addition made after it was heisted.

Last week, Il Fatto Quotidiano published an investigation into the work in which it reported that Sgarbi’s painting was indeed the stolen Manetti canvas. The publication went on to report that Sgarbi was under investigation in the Italian city of Macerata, something that Sgarbi himself went on to deny.

“Once again Il Fatto lies, using confidential information completely unknown to me and my lawyer,” he told Corriere della Sera. “I have not received any notice of investigation. Nor would I know how to be investigated for a theft that I did not commit. And for a crime committed 11 years ago, in circumstances not clarified by the investigators at the time. This news shows a clear violation of the secrecy of the investigation, the only crime of which there is evidence.”

In another interview conducted by Corriere della Serra, Sgarbi claimed that his work was “the original” and that his detractors were “ignorant.” Sgarbi, who is a member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government, said that he did not plan to resign, contrary to calls to do so from members of the opposing party.

Sgarbi has been a contentious figure, both within the realm of Italian politics and the Italian art world. He has proposed projects with intentional shock value, such as an excrement-themed exhibition that he never ended up mounting, and he has rankled artists by stating that he is opposed to avant-garde artists, such as those involved with the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s.

Still, he has remained a highly visible figure of the Italian art scene, curating the Italian Pavilion for the 2011 Venice Biennale and overseeing acquisitions for the MAXXI museum in Florence for a period.

More recently, he has gained notice for his sexist remarks made in public settings. During an event held at MAXXI last year, he boasted about having had sex with nine women a month, and then called it “tragic” that Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister, who had died in June, had slept with “fewer than 100 women in his life.” (Also last year, Sgarbi claimed that Berlusconi’s art collection was “worthless.”) Sgarbi ended up being denounced by nearly all of MAXXI’s employees in an open letter.

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