ROME — Last month, Italian officials inaugurated a new museum here whose title sets a lofty agenda: the Museo dell’Arte Salvata, or the Museum of Rescued Art.
Rescued art is a broad term, it turns out, and the museum will showcase the myriad ways in which artworks can be salvaged — from thieves, from the rubble of earthquakes and other national disasters, from ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean or from the ravages of time by Italy’s expert restorers.
Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said at the inauguration of the museum that it would “show the world the excellence of our work” in all these fields.
But it is telling that the museum’s first exhibition — which runs through Oct. 15 — focuses on the recovery of looted art and pays tribute to Italy’s crack art theft police squad — the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. The unit is credited with having returned thousands of art pieces to Italy, effectively thwarting “the black market in archaeological artifacts,” explains a panel on display.
About 100 pieces — Greco-Roman vases and sculptures and even coins dating from the seventh century to the third century B.C. — are on view at the museum, which has been installed 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 exhibition here, though, will be something akin to a pit stop.
For years, Italian culture ministry policy has been to return recovered artifacts to the museums closest to the site they were likely looted from, a process that can, at times, involve arduous deduction given the clandestine nature of the excavations.
So, for example, when the looted second-century A.D. marble statue of Vibia Sabina, Hadrian’s wife, was ceded by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in 2006, it was returned to his villa in Tivoli (although it is on temporary display in Rome these days, showcased by the Chamber of Commerce).
The task of determining where artifacts in this new museum should return to will fall to a team of archaeologists and experts.
“I think of this as a museum of wounded art, 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 oversight the new museum falls.
The Italian focus on recovering art and faithfully returning it to places of origin, no matter how remote, has had its detractors. Some say that in a globalized world where efforts are being made to spread culture, tackle problems internationally and drop economic and social barriers, the repatriation of Western antiquities speaks to a more insular persistence in the importance of national identity. Others argue that antiquities are best seen in institutions that attract millions of visitors rather than in local museums in out-of-the-way towns where they are more likely to draw 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 Italian cultural officials as a triumphal recognition of their success in securing the return of stolen antiquities. Staged in Italy’s presidential palace in Rome, the exhibition acknowledged the tremendous success Italy had had in persuading several U.S. museums to return dozens of items to Italy, most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in California.
But since 2017, a refurbished 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 northwest of Rome. The exhibition doesn’t have regular visiting hours, although a tour guide association that occupies adjacent space will open the rooms on request.
“We have to depend on volunteers to keep it open,” noted Alessio Pascucci, who was Cerveteri’s mayor until last month (he didn’t run for reelection). Pascucci nonetheless hopes the current museum can grow to become a national institution for repatriated art.
A stone’s throw away, arguably Italy’s biggest prize in the war against looting antiquities, the treasured Euphronius Krater, is also exhibited in a local setting, where it can be displayed in context and spark local tourism and the economy. The sixth-century B.C. red-figure krater had been looted in 1971 from a Cerveteri tomb and sold a year later to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1 million, an unprecedented sum at that time. The Met relinquished the krater in 2006. After a stint at the Villa Giulia in Rome, it is now a permanent addition to Cerveteri’s archaeological museum, along with a kylix, or drinking cup, also by Euphronius, which the Getty Museum returned to Italy in 1999 after evidence emerged of its murky provenance.
Franceschini said the idea of a new museum that would showcase recovered antiquities before they returned to their local origins had come to him when these two pieces were lent to Cerveteri’s archaeological museum 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 excavated.
Now the krater of Euphronius 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 where they belong.”
Vincenzo Bellelli, the new director of the Cerveteri archaeological park, said it was a “courageous decision” and “enlightened policy that gave local museums fresh opportunities” to broaden their appeal. “It’s betting on sites of culture,” he said.
In October, after the exhibition at the Museum of Rescued Art closes, 20 pieces are expected to be allocated to Cerveteri, including a lidded white-on-red pithos decorated with the blinding of Polyphemus, the giant son of Poseidon and Thoosa. The pithos, or large vessel, is an Etruscan work from the seventh century B.C. recently recovered from the Getty Museum.
Bellelli said that for now the pithos will be given its own vitrine in the museum, alongside the Euphronius pieces.
But like Verger, he said that the story of the looting and recovery of these pieces should only be a footnote to the much more important telling of the city’s history.
That two vases made by Euphronius, one of ancient Greece’s most renowned artists, 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, Bellelli said.
“There was a reason why such precious vases were found in Cerveteri,” he said.
Until then, though, the returning artifacts will be in the spotlight of the new museum in Rome.
The works now on display were 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 carabinieri regarding their illegal provenance.
In December, 200 pieces were turned over to Italian officials, a handover described as the largest single repatriation of relics from the U.S. to Italy. Such a significant return “called out for an exhibition,” said Massimo Osanna, head of the culture ministry’s directorate for museums.
“We’re already working on a new exhibit because we have so much interesting material,” he said.
Verger said the current display “exemplifies the great effort of the carabinieri” in Italy’s decades long crusade to stem antiquities trafficking, as well as the work of the Manhattan prosecutors, “which has been very important.”
Explanatory panels located inside the showcases synopsize decades of investigations on the part of the carabinieri that often led to criminal proceedings and subsequently the return of the ill-gotten goods. But there is not much finger-pointing at the museums and collectors that — inadvertently or not — fueled that black market. For the most part, the dozens of vases and jars and statues and coins are presented according to type and potential provenance, and not by the collections they were whisked away from.
It was a conscious choice to not lay blame.
“The piece has been returned; it’s back,” Verger said. The exhibition in 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.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.