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An 'Italian Art Squad' Recovery Is Unveiled At The MFA

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Piero della Francesca's “Senigallia Madonna” (MFA)
Piero della Francesca's “Senigallia Madonna” (MFA)

BOSTON — The unsolved mystery surrounding the theft of priceless paintings at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has captivated art lovers — and frustrated the FBI — for decades.

But sometimes, stolen art does get recovered.

On Friday one famous example debuts at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Thieves burgled “Senigallia Madonna,” a Renaissance masterpiece, in the 1970s, but it was rescued by an Italian police force known as the Italian Art Squad.

Until this week I had no idea an Italian Art Squad even existed. Then I met with its deputy director, Luigi Cortellessa, at the MFA.

MFA Renaissance curator Frederick Ilchman, left, and Carabinieri Art Squad Deputy Director Luigi Cortellessa in front of “Senigallia Madonna” at the MFA. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
MFA Renaissance curator Frederick Ilchman, left, and Carabinieri Art Squad Deputy Director Luigi Cortellessa in front of “Senigallia Madonna” at the MFA. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“The Carabinieri corps for the protection of our cultural heritage is a very original unit in the world,” he told me after giving me a small pin of the Italian flag. His heritage protection command has been policing cultural wrongdoings since 1969. It was an international first to have a law enforcement branch dedicated to protecting a nation’s cultural treasures.

Today about 280 officers work closely with INTERPOL, UNESCO and the FBI to track down stolen art. Cortellessa says the corps' 12 units are very busy; he listed off some reclaimed items: “7,000 antique books last year, 100,000 archived documents, many, many counterfeited goods, antique coins…”

Also countless old films, archeological objects and, of course, paintings.

“It’s not important the number of the objects,” Cortellessa clarified. "It is important the history, the tradition that every object gives us. Our power is in the passion for our activities.”

Cortellessa flew to Boston to unveil one of Italy’s most famous stolen-then-recovered paintings: the "Senigallia Madonna" by Renaissance master Piero della Francesca. Thieves ripped the two-feet-by-two-feet work off the walls of an Italian palace in 1975.

MFA curator of paintings Frederick Ilchman knows the story well. It starts on Feb. 5 when the crooks took advantage of scaffolding on the exterior of the famous museum. He said:

This is the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in the Palazza Ducal in Urbino. It’s a beautiful 15th-century palace, high up over the town. Thieves scaled the scaffolding, broke in, and were able to remove two paintings by Piero della Francesca — this and another one — plus a portrait by Raphael.

Like at the Gardner museum here in Boston, the Italian thieves sliced the paintings out of their frames. The world was shocked.

Ilchman calls Piero della Francesca’s "Senigallia Madonna" one of the 15th-century’s most important pictures. The artist is something of a cult figure, and Piero fans even make pilgrimages along what the curator calls the Piero della Francesca trail.

“They love tracking down his works and sort of going down on their knees in awe at how beautiful and serene the paintings were — their geometry, their sense of balance and order — and you could even say that the burglary in 1975 was the kind of culmination of the fad for Piero della Francesca,” Ilchman said.

A year after the "robbery of the century" (as it was referred to at the time) the Italian Art Squad received a tip from a Roman antiques dealer and the police recovered the lost Piero (many fans refer to the artist by his first name).

“It’s perhaps his last finished work, and it’s an ostensibly simple composition,” the curator explained. “You’ve got the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child and two attendant angels. It’s extremely quiet and part of the magic of Piero is that the figures indeed seem to be enacting an incredibly slow-motion ritual.”

Ilchman reminded me that the Gardner museum has a fresco by Piero (it's one of only seven works by Piero in American museums) but the priceless paintings stolen from that museum are still at large. Even so, Cortellessa, of the Italian Art Squad, said he has hope.

“My experience tells me that it is possible to recover stolen art goods," he said. "By Raphael, Van Gogh…” and, of course, Piero della Francesca.

For now, though, the cultural police officer is proud to bring Italy's reclaimed masterpiece to the U.S. for the first time. The "Senigallia Madonna" is on display at the MFA through mid-January.

-- Listen to this story here:

This program aired on September 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.


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