Vittorio Sgarbi: Italian undersecretary for culture, critic... and art thief?

The Forza Italia politician, a junior minister in the Giorgia Meloni government, has been indicted for the alleged theft of a painting by Rutilio Manetti, a renowned 17th-century artist

Vittorio Sgarbi attends a press preview of 'El Greco' at the Palazzo Reale in Milan on October 10, 2023.Pier Marco Tacca (Getty Images)

Vittorio Sgarbi, politician, art critic and TV showman, leaves few indifferent. The cultivated polemicist, who until recently was a faithful squire in cultural matters of former prime minister and Mediaset owner Silvio Berlusconi, moves from controversy to controversy. A year ago, images of a fist fight he had with writer Giampiero Mughini on a live television show in front of the astonished gaze of other guests went viral. But it was nothing new. The previous year he had been dragged out of parliament by ushers after uttering insults against other deputies and refusing to leave the chamber. This time, however, Sgarbi could face a more serious problem. The current undersecretary for culture in the Giorgia Meloni government has been indicted for the alleged theft of a painting by Rutilio Manetti, a renowned 17th-century artist.

The Capture of Saint Peter, the painting in question, a Renaissance work with Caravaggio influence, was stolen from a castle in Buriasco (Piedmont) in 2013. The canvas, however, reappeared in 2021 in an exhibition as the property of Sgarbi himself. Those who were familiar with the work could appreciate a small but substantial difference: Sgarbi’s painting was identical, but a candle had been added in the top left of the painting. A small but luminous pictorial detail fundamental to the case. The Prosecutor’s Office, according to Italian media, is now investigating whether it was a modification introduced by Sgarbi himself to hide the possible theft.

'The Capture of Saint Peter' by Rutilio Manetti. On the left, an image of the stolen painting. On the right, an image of the painting owned by Vittorio Sgarbi, with the candle in the upper left.

Sgarbi, who is also the mayor of Arpino, a small town in Lazio, flatly denies the accusations in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS and says that he has not yet received the notice from the Prosecutor’s Office. “It’s not the same painting! Moreover, none of those who accuse me [the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano and the program Report] have seen the paintings: neither one nor the other. They can’t write articles accusing me without having seen the works. I have commissioned an expert to check my work and it will be proved that mine is an original and that all the elements, including the candle, are part of the painting,” he said. Sgarbi acknowledges that he had visited the castle in Buriasco, but “it was 20 years ago.” “Of course I saw that painting. But it was a copy indecently kept in a place full of other copies. It looked like a movie set. Look, I’m very relaxed. It’s all make-believe, all of it.”

The case broke a few weeks ago, when both Report and Il Fatto Quotidiano reported that Sgarbi had inaugurated an exhibition called The Painters of Light — not without its irony being a case that revolves around a candle — in Lucca (Tuscany), in which the Capture of Saint Peter by Manetti, valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars and listed as stolen in the Interpol database, was displayed. Prior to 2013, the painting was in the castle owned by Margherita Buzio, a place Sgarbi had visited several times. According to local media, one of his collaborators had offered to buy it, but the offer had always been refused.

Deputy Vittorio Sgarbi being ejected from the Italian Parliament in 2020.LaPresse / Roberto Monaldo (AP)

The owner told police that thieves had entered the castle, cut Manetti’s canvas out of its frame, and left a photograph of the work in its place. The Carabinieri have been sent by Macerata prosecutors to question a restorer and the owners of the company in Correggio (Reggio Emilia), which allegedly made a copy of the work, as Sgarbi argues in his defense. His painting, he claims, was in a mansion that his mother bought some time ago.

The controversy has caused concern in the government, which is now meditating on how to handle the cloud hanging over its junior minister in the Manetti case and the other matters pending against him. On Wednesday morning, Sgarbi, who refuses to resign over the case, posted a photograph of himself sitting on a chair in front of a painting, barefoot, and with his shoes to one side. In the message he makes a play on words with an Italian saying. Mi vogliono fare le scarpe [which literally translates as “they want to make me shoes” and idiomatically roughly means “they want to get me out of the way”] Sgarbi wrote. “Here they are.”

Sgarbi is also under investigation by the Italian Competition Authority for allegedly charging for consulting assignments and other appearances at events despite holding public office. Il Fatto Quotidiano published a report in which it claimed that he continued to charge for his consultancy services despite being a member of the government.

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