Italy: Minister accused of possessing painting stolen from castle

Rome: The Italian government is embroiled in a fresh controversy after a junior culture minister was placed under investigation over allegations that a 16th-century painting in his possession was stolen from a castle more than a decade ago.

Vittorio Sgarbi, a well-known art critic, is also accused of tampering with the painting in order to disguise its origins.

Prosecutors said they were investigating Sgarbi for the alleged laundering of stolen art after claims broadcast by Report, an investigative series on the public broadcaster Rai. His denies the allegations.

Margherita Buzio, the owner of La Cattura di San Pietro (The Capture of Saint Peter), a painting by the artist Rutilio Manetti, reported the work stolen from her castle in Piedmont in 2013, telling police at the time that the canvas had been cut from its frame. A person identified by Report as a friend of Sgarbi is alleged to have visited the castle a few weeks before to inquire about buying the painting.

The painting, which was damaged during the theft, was entrusted to an art restorer for repair a few months later, according to the allegations. The restorer told Report that the artwork he was given was the stolen painting and that he was asked to add a candle to the top left corner in order to make it less identifiable. He said the tweaked painting was the same artwork presented by Sgarbi at an exhibition in Lucca in 2021.

Sgarbi has said the painting on show was the original version of The Capture of Saint Peter, which he said he found while restoring an abandoned villa bought by his mother in Viterbo in 2000. He said the painting stolen from the castle was a “bad copy” produced in the 19th century.

Sgarbi told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that those claiming he modified the painting were “ignorant”. “Manetti’s style was just that – he put candles everywhere,” he said. “My painting is the original, the other is a badly made copy.”

He accused the restorer of making the allegations “in revenge” over money he owed him.

Opposition parties have called for Sgarbi to be sacked. Irene Manzi, a politician with the centre-left Democratic party who heads a parliamentary culture committee, said the prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and the culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, “must stop protecting” Sgarbi, who is also being investigated by Italy’s anti-trust authority for allegedly accepting lucrative fees for appearing at cultural events. The Five Star Movement said it would present a motion in parliament for Sgarbi’s dismissal.

The case comes after Meloni was forced to suspend a politician from her far-right Brothers of Italy party after a gun owned by him was accidentally fired at a New Year’s Eve party.