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

Seen And Unseen: Drones Reveal Architectural Splendor

One of the most intriguing technological developments of recent years for the commercial market has been the drone, or more specifically, the micro Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). These tiny, light, HD camera-wielding flying machines are used to make all sorts of fun videos such as this one. Drones have proven to be a huge hit with backyard air traffic controlers, pranksters, and aspiring action movie directors around the world.

Yet with all their modern, gee-whiz capabilities, these machines also have the power to make us pause and wonder at the achievements of those who came before us, particularly when it comes to the centuries of magnificent art and architecture sponsored by the Church. A recent post on ChurchPop.com brought together eleven astounding videos of Christian monuments around the world, including Mont Sant Michel in Brittany, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, among others. Each was filmed, in whole or in part, using a drone, thereby bringing the viewer never before seen footage of these places. All eleven of these Catholic structures showcase the continuity and yet at the same time diversity of design in the Church across nearly a millennia in this sampling.

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat about either Utrecht or Canterbury Cathedrals, which are featured in the post linked to above, I would point out a few facts. Both cathedrals were designed and built by Catholics, for use by Catholics, long before they were later… appropriated by others. They were not torn down as so many others were. Thus, whatever may have befallen them on the inside, these two churches remain largely Catholic works of art on the outside.

Regardless, it must be said that the possibilities raised by drone technology are potentially endless, when it comes to the renovation and preservation of sacred art and architecture. Imagine, a parish needing an assessment of a leaky belfry could fly up a drone to shoot some video for potential contractors. A cathedral seeking to determine what shape the ceiling frescoes are in could film closeups of the surface for art experts located hundreds of miles away, without ever erecting a scaffold. Art researchers could take a look at carved ceiling bosses located high inside an ancient monastery chapel halfway around the world from the comfort of their own office.

Getting back to the point, such opportunities are wonderful moments to ask others to take another look at the Church they think they know. It is hard to watch the drone video of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for example, and not want to visit its many ornate stone spires. Who knows what thoughts or experiences may cross such a pilgrim’s path on the Camino?

Technology is certainly a means for us to imagine the future. Clearly it can also be a way for us to better understand the past. And in the sacred context, by revealing the hidden splendor of these places it can bring before our eyes imagery which corresponds to the vision of the Psalmist: “I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go up unto the House of the Lord.”


Where’s The Pope At?

It may surprise you to learn, as I did yesterday, about the tombs of the popes in Rome. Or rather, I should say, I was fascinated to learn about the lack of them. For as it turns out, many of the popes’ tombs have been lost, thanks to the overly enthusiastic sledgehammers of Italian Renaissance and Baroque architects.

Perhaps like me you had never really considered where those Roman Pontiffs from earlier centuries were interred. Some were in catacombs no doubt, from the centuries when Christianity was illegal. Yet you probably reasonably assumed that they were all subsequently buried at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

I just so happened to look up the saint of the day on one of my apps yesterday, and learnt that it was the Feast of Pope St. Zachary (679-752). For some reason, I became curious to see what his tomb looked like. I knew that the old St. Peter’s had been built by the Emperor Constantine, and was demolished beginning in the early 16th century. I simply assumed that the graves of the popes had been moved, and the pontiffs later reinterred.

I was rather shocked to learn that not only did Pope St. Zachary not have a tomb I could visit, but dozens of papal graves such as his had been lost as a result of intentional neglect. Because of his sanctity, relics of him may be preserved elsewhere, such as a fragment of bone or the like. Yet his original grave at the Vatican is long gone.

The architects of the new St. Peter’s, beginning with Bramante and continuing all the way through to Bernini, had little love for the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic tombs of the previous popes. Some of these structures were enormous, and looked rather like wedding cakes. So instead of trying to preserve them or their contents to reinstall in the new church – or anywhere else for that matter – in many cases the now old-fashioned tombs were simply smashed to pieces or left to fall apart.

Several of the more important popes, such as St. Gregory the Great, were “transferred”, and had new tombs for them designed in St. Peter’s. Other popes who were less important or influential got their remains tossed together in the same sarcophagus. Still others don’t appear to have been preserved at all, for unknown reasons, and despite being saints – like poor St. Zachary.

You can get an idea of the hodgepodge of surviving papal tombs that resulted from the construction site chaos at St. Peter’s by looking at some of the surviving tombs in the grottoes beneath the church. Partially disassembled monuments, reused sarcophagi, and other oddities from the architectural salvage yard fill many of the niches and hallways. It’s remarkable to perceive how little respect was paid, comparatively speaking, to the remains of so many individuals – and how few “made” it through the construction project.

Apart from the obvious historical and architectural scandal of these losses however, upon further reflection it might not be such a bad thing that so many of these monuments bit the dust a few centuries or less after the men they once contained. No work of Man will outlast the works of God. Perhaps it’s fitting that eventually, the remains of even the most popular of popes will be reduced to nothing more than pieces of bone in a reliquary, or even just a name on an inscription.

Sic transit gloria mundi, as the saying goes. True, most of us will never be interred in a grandiose tomb designed by a famous architect or sculptor. At least in considering the fate of so many of the popes, we have something rather sobering to reflect on, as we continue our journey through Lent.


Pope St. Zachary (679-752)