In Rome, a new museum for treasures recovered before returning home

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ROME — Last month, Italian officials inaugurated a new museum here whose title sets an ambitious agenda: the Museo dell’Arte Salvata, or Museum of Saved Art.

Rescued art is a broad term, it turns out, and the museum will showcase the myriad ways artworks can be salvaged – from thieves, from rubble from earthquakes and other national disasters, from ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean or the ravages of time by Italy’s expert restorers.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said at the museum’s inauguration that it would “show the world the excellence of our work” in all of these areas.

But it’s telling that the museum’s first exhibition – which runs until October 15 – focuses on the recovery of looted works of art and pays tribute to Italy’s art-theft police squad – the Command carabinieri for the protection of cultural heritage. The unit is credited with sending thousands of works of art back to Italy, effectively thwarting “the black market in archaeological artefacts”, says a sign on display.

About 100 pieces – Greco-Roman vases and sculptures and even coins dating from the 7th to 3rd centuries BC – are on display at the museum, which has been housed in a cavernous hall that was built as part of the baths of Diocletian and is now annexed to the National Roman Museum.

Their stay in the exhibit here, however, will feel like a pit stop.

For years, the policy of the Italian Ministry of Culture has been to return recovered artefacts to museums closest to the site from which they were likely looted, a process that can sometimes involve arduous deduction given the clandestine nature of the artifacts. excavations.

So, for example, when the looted 2nd-century AD marble statue of Vibia Sabina, Hadrian’s wife, was donated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2006, it was returned to its villa of Tivoli (although it is on temporary display in Rome these days, highlighted by the Chamber of Commerce).

The task of determining where the artifacts of this new museum should return will fall to a team of archaeologists and experts.

“I consider this a wounded art museum, because the works exhibited here have been deprived of their contexts of discovery and belonging,” said Stéphane Verger, director of the National Roman Museum, under whose tutelage the new museum falls. .

Italy’s emphasis on recovering art and returning it faithfully to its places of origin, however remote, has had its detractors. Some say that in a globalized world where efforts are being made to spread culture, solve international problems and break down economic and social barriers, the repatriation of Western antiquities demonstrates a more insular persistence of the importance of national identity. Others argue that antiquities are best viewed in institutions that attract millions of visitors rather than local museums in isolated towns where they are more likely to attract dust than people.

A case in point is the evolution of an exhibition known as “Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces”, from the Greek word for homecoming, which was first mounted in 2007 by cultural officials Italians as a triumphant recognition of their success in securing the return of stolen antiquities. . Held in Italy’s presidential palace in Rome, the exhibition recognized the tremendous success Italy had had in persuading several American museums to return dozens of objects to Italy, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in California.

But since 2017, a renovated version of the “Nostoi” exhibition has been installed in a series of small rooms in a low building in a central square in Cerveteri, once an Etruscan stronghold known as Caere, about 25 kilometers away. northwest of Rome. The exhibition does not have regular visiting hours, but a tour guide association that occupies the adjacent space will open the halls on request.

“We have to rely on volunteers to keep it open,” noted Alessio Pascucci, who was mayor of Cerveteri until last month (he didn’t run for office), who nonetheless hopes the current museum can become a national institution for returnees art.

A stone’s throw away, arguably Italy’s greatest prize in the war against the looting of antiquities, the highly prized Euphronius Krater, is also on display in a local setting, where it can be displayed in context and boost tourism and the local economy. The 6th century BC red-figure krater. J.-C. had been looted in 1971 from a tomb in Cerveteri and sold a year later to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 1 million dollars, an unprecedented sum at the time. The Met abandoned the krater in 2006. After a stint at the Villa Giulia in Rome, it is now a permanent addition to the Cerveteri Archaeological Museum, complete with a kylix, or drinking cup, also of Euphronius, that the Getty Museum returned to Italy in 1999 after evidence emerged of his murky provenance.

Franceschini, the culture minister, said the idea for a new museum that would showcase recovered antiquities before they returned to their local origins came to him when these two pieces were loaned to the Archaeological Museum of Cerveteri in 2014. Rather than returning the pieces to Villa Giulia, culture officials decided the two vessels were better off in Cerveteri, near the sites from which they had been illegally mined.

Today, the Euphronius crater is “a symbol of the city itself,” Franceschini said at the inauguration of the Museum of Rescued Art. “We are certain of the paramount importance of returning the works to their place.”

Vincenzo Bellelli, the new director of the Cerveteri Archaeological Park, said it was a “courageous decision” and an “enlightened policy that has given local museums new opportunities” to broaden their appeal. “It’s betting on culture sites,” he says.

In October, after the exhibition closes at the Museum of Rescued Art, 20 pieces are expected to be attributed to Cerveteri, including a white-on-red lidded pithos decorated with the blinding of Polyphemus, the giant son of Poseidon and Thoosa. The pithos, or large vase, is an Etruscan work from the 7th century BC. AD recently recovered from the Getty Museum.

Bellelli said that for now the pithos would have its own display in the museum, alongside the Euphronius pieces.

But like Verger, he argued that the story of the looting and recovery of these coins should only be a footnote to the much larger narrative of the city’s history.

That two vases made by Euphronius, one of the most renowned artists of ancient Greece, were discovered in Cerveteri shows the importance of the Etruscan city at the time. “It was a hub in ancient times”, a “major market” and a place where ideas traveled.

“There was a reason why such precious vases were found in Cerveteri,” he said.

Until then, however, returning artifacts will take center stage at Rome’s new museum.

The works currently on display there had been seized by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office from museums, auction houses and private collectors in the United States, acting on evidence provided by the riflemen regarding their illegal source.

Last December, 200 pieces were handed over to Italian authorities, a handover described as the largest repatriation of relics from America to Italy, and such a large return “called for exposure”, said Massimo Osanna, chief from the culture department of the ministry. management of museums.

“We are already working on a new exhibit because we have so much interesting material,” he said.

Verger said the current exhibit “exemplifies the great effort of the Carabinieri” in Italy’s decades-long crusade to stem antiquities trafficking, as well as the work of Manhattan prosecutors, “which has been very important.”

Explanatory panels located inside the display cases summarize decades of investigations by the carabinieri which often led to criminal prosecutions and then the restitution of ill-gotten gains. But there’s not much finger pointing at the museums and collectors who – inadvertently or not – fueled this black market. For the most part, the dozens of vases, jars, statues and coins are presented according to their type and potential provenance, and not according to the collections from which they were taken.

It was a conscious choice not to blame.

“The coin has been returned, it’s back,” Verger said. The exhibition at the museum was a kind of “parenthesis in the life of the object”, he added. “A phase of illegality is over, and now a new life begins.”

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