Why A Major Art Heist In Italy Robs Us All

This past Thursday, November 19th, what may turn out to be the biggest art theft in Italian history – apart from Napoleon’s efforts of course – took place at the Museo Civico di Castelvecchio, in the city of Verona. Three armed men overcame the museum’s security guard at closing time, and stole 17 paintings from the museum’s collection, before making their getaway in the security guard’s own car. So far, the robbers have not been apprehended.

Some in the press are suggesting that, as in the famous heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the paintings stolen from the Castelvecchio were taken to order. Presumably, given the list of what was taken, the underworld kingpin who selected these items has a particular penchant for Venetian art. The majority of the works stolen were by the great Venetian Old Master painter Jacobo Tintoretto (1518-1594), and of the remaining pieces, three were by his son Domenico (1560-1635) or his associates, another by Jacobo Bellini (c. 1400-1470), the progenitor of the Renaissance style in Venice, and another by Bellini’s son-in-law, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506).  

The stolen works are estimated to be worth between $11-16 million, but this seems a figure based purely upon conservative speculation. For example, works by Mantegna are not only rare in themselves, they almost never come up for sale on the open art market. Mantegna’s painting of “The Descent of Christ Into Limbo”, a very interesting picture but certainly not pretty to look at, sold at Sotheby’s over a decade ago for around $28.5 million. The work of Antonio di Puccio Pisano (c. 1395-1455), or “Pisanello” as he is commonly known, is even rarer: apart from some of his bronze medals and drawings, I could not even find a recent auction result for one of his paintings.

You can see photographs of each of the stolen paintings by visiting this link. I imagine that they will soon appear on the Art Loss register, if they have not already. Here’s a translated list of what was taken:

The Madonna of the Quail by Pisanello

St. Jerome Penitent by Jacopo Bellini

The Holy Family with St. Mary Magdalene by Mantegna

Portrait of a Child Showing a Child’s Drawing by Giovanni Caroto

Portrait of a Young Benedictine Monk by Giovanni Caroto

The Madonna Nursing the Christ Child by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Carrying of the Ark of the Covenant by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Banquet of Belshazzar by Jacobo Tintoretto

Samson by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Judgment of Solomon by Jacobo Tintoretto

Portrait of a Man by Circle of Domenico Tintoretto

Portrait of a Venetian Admiral by Studio of Domenico Tintoretto

Portrait of Marco Pasqualigo by Domenico Tintoretto

The Lady of the Campions by Rubens

A Landscape by Hans de Jode

A Seaport by Hans de Jode

Portrait of Girolamo Pompei by Giovanni Benini

I chose the missing Tintoretto “Samson” to illustrate this post, because he accurately reflects in this picture the attitude of frustration we all ought to have toward stolen art. Certainly, the loss of these works highlights the ongoing problem of art and antiques theft in Italy and elsewhere, which is quite a lucrative black market business and often used for money laundering purposes. Yet more importantly, this act removed from the shared patrimony of both the people of Verona and indeed of the world, the opportunity to study, appreciate, and learn from these paintings.

These works of art not only represent people and events important to the Catholic faith and to Italian culture, they are also tangible fragments of our shared human history. Each tells a story of how and where they were made, by and for whom, using what materials and methods were commercially available and scientifically understood at the time, and what happened to them after they left the artist’s studio. Without the paintings themselves, we may still have words on a page to tell us these things, but words alone cannot make up for their loss as objects of both visual beauty and historic significance.


Detail of "Samson" by Tintoretto

The Lady Who Taught Van Dyck To Paint

We often think of the Old Master Painters during the Renaissance and Baroque eras as being just that: masters, rather than mistresses. Yet there are exceptions to this, as you learn when you begin to delve more deeply into art history. While most of these ladies are not household names today, during their lifetimes some of them were very popular and well thought of, indeed. So today I wanted to draw your attention to one in particular, whom I was reminded of yesterday, in the context of news about a pretty amazing art discovery.

One of the most remarkable finds in the art market in recent years occurred on the British Antiques Roadshow, when an Anglican minister from Derbyshire learned that the painting he had purchased for 400 pounds in an antique shop a decade earlier was by the great Flemish Baroque painter, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The work turned out to be a study by Van Dyck for a larger work, “The Magistrates of Brussels”, which was destroyed in 1695 during a bombing of the town hall of that city. Several other preparatory paintings survive, including one in the British Royal Collection. The rediscovered painting has just gone on view at the Rubens House in Antwerp, where it is on permanent loan from the collector who purchased it.  

Between 1621-1627 the young Van Dyck was living and working in Italy, earning his keep by painting the nobility in places like Genoa, such as the enormous portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo now in the National Gallery here in DC. He was also taking time to study and travel throughout Italy, sketching and talking to other artists as he went. One of those whom he met, and whose ideas were to have a significant influence on his own development as an artist, was a lady then her 90’s and suffering from an eye ailment which prevented her from painting the portraits that had made her famous.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was the eldest of seven children born to members of the minor nobility in Cremona, Italy. Unusually for her sex and class at the time, she became a highly accomplished artist, to the point that she engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Michelangelo on art and technique, after he praised a drawing she sent him. Her early paintings of herself, her brother, and her five sisters showed a remarkable directness and lack of sentimentality.

Eventually Anguissola was called to Spain to be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel de Valois, the third wife of King Felipe II, who was a decade younger than the Italian painter, but also a painter herself. The two became close friends, and no doubt for Anguissola it was in some respects like being the big sister again. During her time in Madrid she painted the Royal Family and their courtiers many times. While in Spain her style changed as she matured, in part to adopt to the formalities required of court life and her own place within it, and her figures similarly adopted a certain hauteur.

A very famous painting in The Prado of Felipe II in middle age for example, once attributed to other artists working in Madrid at the time, has now been credited to Anguissola. Dressed completely in black, the most powerful man in the world is portrayed gently holding a rosary in his left hand, with his right hand resting in the carved grooves of his armchair. His expression is one of quiet, complete self-confidence: here is a man who knows exactly who he is, and feels absolutely no need to apologize to anyone for it. This is a remarkable psychological study of a figure who changed the course of world history.

It is some indication of the esteem in which Felipe II held Anguissola that following the untimely death of Queen Isabel in childbirth, he provided for his wife’s dear friend and companion by not only giving her an annual pension, but also a substantial dowry so that she could marry into the nobility. Anguissola married the son of the Spanish Viceroy to Sicily, and with her husband’s encouragement continued to paint. After his death in 1579, with the King’s permission she sailed back home to Italy; on the journey, she and the ship’s captain fell deeply in love with one another, and the two eventually married. Like his predecessor, Anguissola’s new husband encouraged her to continue painting. When it became impossible for her to paint due to her deteriorating vision, she supported the arts through philanthropy, collecting, and by meeting with younger artists who wanted to learn from her experiences.

In July 1624, a young Van Dyck showed up to visit the now very elderly Anguissola, to look at her paintings, hear her stories about some of the great artists she had met and corresponded with, and to come to understand some of her ideas about how to engage in the art of painting. He wrote of their conversations in his notebooks, now preserved in the British Museum, and drew a sketch of her which he later turned into an oil painting, now in the collection at Knole House. In it, we see a very old woman, bowed by age, but still as sharp as ever – as Van Dyck himself described her – her large, searching eyes no longer seeing clearly, but still peering into the person sitting before her.

Who knows – but for that deeply perceptive understanding of how to convey, in portraiture, the dignity of the sitter, Van Dyck might never have emerged from Rubens’ shadow. Whatever the case, Van Dyck acknowledged that he learned an enormous amount about the art of painting from Anguissola, particularly with regard to how to treat his sitters. Had this tiny Italian lady not made such an impact on the man who became the most popular and influential painter in England for well over two centuries, British and indeed American art would have been something else entirely.


Self-portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola (1558)

Museums Get Trolled With Proposed Signs

Recently the grand, Second Empire-style Renwick Gallery here in Washington reopened its doors, following a lengthy renovation, with a rather hideous addition of signage to its stately façade.

In light of this development, Washington City Paper rather cleverly decided to photoshop some signs, symbols, and banners onto a number of museums and galleries around the Capital. (WARNING: Readers particularly sensitive to blue language may not wish to follow this link.) For those who do not live locally or who do not follow news from the art world, a bit of explanation on these submissions will be necessary:

National Museum of Women in the Arts – The addition to the façade of a pair of feminist symbols, originally the symbol for the goddess Venus, is somewhat obvious. There is certainly a particular philosophical slant to this institution. The historical irony lost on some visitors is that the building was originally a rather massive temple of Freemasonry. Make of that connection what you will.

Natural History Museum – With apologies for the language, the proposed signage pretty much sums up why a significant portion of its visitors walk through the doors of the museum. It also simultaneously reflects the current level of frustration that renovations to expand and re-display the rather significant collection of dinosaur and other fossils are taking so long. At least the mummies are still there.

Textile Museum – The banner may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since over the years I’ve heard people remark, “There’s a museum…of textiles?” However the collection is quite interesting, from an historical and a manufacturing perspective, even if you’re not particularly interested in cloth. The only anachronism here is that the building pictured is no longer the home of the museum, which moved to the campus of George Washington University earlier this year. 

Air and Space Museum – Chances are if you love this museum, you’re also a Star Wars fan. And if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re probably on pins and needles waiting for the next installment of the franchise to premiere next month. The Smithsonian feels your pain.

Corcoran Gallery of Art – Once one of the grandest museums in the city, The Corcoran is no more, thanks to a number of factors, including having lost its focus as an art institution. Its collection is currently being chewed over by the leonine National Gallery, which gets first bite at the Corcoran’s massive holdings, before allowing regional museums to fight like vultures over what’s left on the bones. The building itself and the associated school of art are now part of George Washington University. 

Hirshhorn Museum – As much as I loathe the place, the banner hanging from the side of The Hirshhorn in this image is a masterwork of trolling, second perhaps only to that proposed by City Paper for the National Building Museum. The new director of The Hirshhorn has been the subject of controversy in the art press, preferring to spend more time in New York than in Washington, and – bizarrely – holding the 40thanniversary gala of the museum in Manhattan, rather than at the museum itself or in DC. As WaPo art critic Philip Kennicott put it, this was quite the “snub” to our fair city, making this proposed signage all the more perfect.

American Indian Museum – Apart from praising the building itself, the most common remark you hear visitors to this, one of the newest of the Smithsonian museums, say is that the collection is underwhelming – but the cafeteria is terrific. It has become an eating destination rather than an educational institution for many of the busloads of tourists being dropped off along the Mall. Truth be told, most of the museum cafeterias on The Mall are fairly bland and awful, so the innovative dishes on offer here offer something far better than frozen hamburger patties and microwaved pizzas.

National Building Museum – I love the National Building Museum space, and I love the concept of a museum dedicated to architecture. Unfortunately, this place tends to lose its focus a bit too often, which is why this outstanding example of trolling deserves a little explanation. This summer the NBA hosted an art installation in its grand, main hall, which was essentially a giant ball crawl for adults entitled “The Beach”. Although the balls were supposedly cleaned regularly, there was at least one reported case of pink eye, and claims of various respiratory illnesses, which visitors blamed on having plunged into the installation, described by some as smelling suspiciously like a dirty diaper. When the “art” was removed at the end of summer, large quantities of hair, skin, and other goodies were found at the bottom of the pit.    

National Gallery East Building – The National Gallery is my favorite museum in DC, and I have spent countless happy hours there looking at art, seeing films, hearing concerts, and dining with friends. It is a great treasure of which we all ought to be very proud. Sadly, the East Wing of it, by starchitect I.M. Pei, is one of my least favorite places in DC. Seemingly in a constant state of disrepair, despite having only been built in 1978, it is a shining example of why so much of Post-War architecture constitutes little more than a massive debt burden passed on to future generations.


New Signage on Renwick Gallery (via CityPaper)