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)

Disasters, Artistic and Otherwise

As I posted the other day on social media – N.B. you can follow my Twitter or Instagram accounts at @wbdnewton – you know you’ve been rather naughty when you go to confession, and the priest orders you to start blogging again. Father’s speculation that I was “choking myself” by not writing, while perhaps somewhat extreme, is not completely inaccurate. In fact, I have been so remiss of late, that one of my very kind subscribers sent me a note last evening asking whether I was going to be writing any more. Ouch.

Fortunately, with various familial and other events now safely out of the way, and with the onset of cold weather at last, the mind turns more easily to thoughts of wordplay. I am therefore glad that you, gentle reader, have decided to play along. And I am particularly grateful that, during the interim, you did not pick up your toys and go home.

The word play in which we will engage today has to do with the word, “disaster”. Now, we are all very much aware that disaster can be a comparative term, depending on the circumstances under which a perceived problem has arisen. Getting a coffee stain on your suit on a Tuesday at the end of the work day, for example, is almost certainly not a disaster, at least not in the way that it would be, should the coffee be spilled on your get-up the morning of your wedding day. Yet disasters can often be qualified by exactly what sort of disaster is taking place.

We are all familiar with the term “natural disaster”. This is an event which occurs when the planet or the universe does its thing, such as when the plates of the Earth’s crust jostle about for room and bring about earthquakes, or when the Moon goes swinging by and causes tides and flooding. Allegedly, such disasters are also caused by people like Bono or Leonardo DiCaprio taking private jets to parties, but be that as it may.

There is also the “artistic disaster”, in which an artist – real or imagined – creates a work that gives rise to the exact opposite of the thoughts or emotions which the artist had intended to evoke. A personal favorite is Botticelli’s “Cestello Annunication” now in the Uffizi which, as Leonardo da Vinci himself described, appears to show the Blessed Mother jumping out of a window to try to escape from the Angel Gabriel, who himself appears to be scuttling along the floor. One could also include much of the work of the Italian modernist Lucio Fontana, who liked to slash paintings for fun and profit. One of his “slash paintings” just sold for $24.7 million at Sotheby’s last week, proving P.T. Barnum right yet again.

Occasionally however, one is confronted with what I will term the “artistic natural disaster”, in which an artist – either sua sponte or on commission – creates one disaster in order to commemorate another. Such is the case with “Grande Cretto”, a work by the late Italian artist Alberto Burri, inaugurated this weekend on the site of the former town of Gibellina, Sicily. The town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1968, which killed hundreds of people and injured many more. A new town was rebuilt some distance away, while the ruins of the old town were turned over to several artists and architects, including Burri, for the construction of a quasi-monument to those who had died in the disaster.

While Burri himself died before his work could be completed, the now fully-realized work spreads out across the hillside where the town stood, like an assemblage of poorly-cut brie that has been left sitting in the pantry for too long, and dried out. Burri’s concrete shapes trace the contours of the former streets of the town, with the earlier blocks he constructed now a weathered gray, and the newer still a glistening white. Eventually, these newer blocks, too, will take on the appearance of a 1960’s reinforced concrete parking garage with no discernible entrance.

The end result of this project is a waste of space, materials, and more importantly the opportunity to mark the tragedy that occurred. The piece’s banality and absurdity scars the Sicilian countryside for future generations in a way far worse than had the local officials simply allowed the ruins of the town to speak for themselves, as they crumbled into dust. It is, in effect, one disaster commemorating another.

In a more pious age, the site might have been cleared, and a beautiful memorial church or monastery built to commemorate those who had died – something which no doubt the dead, themselves, as Catholic country folk, would have approved. Obviously the reader does not need to be told that we live in a decidedly impious, self-obsessed age. Yet here we can see further evidence, as if it were needed, that the contemporary art world is often more interested in worshiping doubt and celebrating the self, rather than in expressions of faith and selflessness. For in the end, this piece is all about Burri, rather than about those who died in the disaster: and what an utter disaster it is.