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Rediscovered beauty on show in Rome

by Andrea Carli

An exhibition in Rome gives life again to a particular kind of art: that one which in the past has been denied, demeaned or obliterated. Now this art can rise like a phoenix from the rubble to reveal itself once again.

The first section of the Roman exhibition is dedicated to the recovery and protection activities carried out by the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

It starts with two archaeological finds: a Lucanian krater dated to the 5th-4th century BC and an Etruscan black-figure hydria from the 6th century.

Six paintings belonging to the collections of the National Museum of San Matteo in Pisa open the first section of the exhibition. Along with eleven other works, they were entrusted in 2002 to a Tuscan art restorer who, at the end of his conservative restorations, returned only seven of them, selling twelve to art dealers.

The buyers, unaware of their illegal origin, handed the paintings over to French and Swiss companies, which in turn sold them to wealthy foreign collectors. One painting in particular, an oil on board with a gold background depicting “Our Lady of Sorrows”, after passing through the hands of an antiquarian from Lucca and then a foreign company, was displayed at the Maastricht Market Exhibition in Holland.

Here it was recognized by a group of Flemish art experts and put up for sale for a very high value. Thanks to the investigations of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage and the subsequent international rogatory letters issued by the Judicial Authority of Pisa, it was possible to locate the paintings in the possession of Italian and foreign collectors and art dealers. Activities to recover the last two missing paintings are ongoing.

The second section presents works from the Marche region, which was hit hard by the earthquake that devastated Central Italy in August 2016. Some of the artifacts are from the collections at the museums in the towns of Force and Comunanza, closed to the public due to the damage caused by the earthquake and currently being restored.

The Museums of Force and Comunanza are located in ancient buildings of high architectural value and, along with eight other buildings belonging to the Diocese of “San Benedetto del Tronto, Ripatransone and Montalto”, are part of the “Sistini Museums” group created in 1998 - a successful combination of the Diocese, the province and the municipalities - in an area of the Marche territory known as Piceno.

This area was well-known for the figure of Felice Perretti, who was born there and elected as Pope Sixtus V in 1585. From 1566 to 1571, as bishop of Sant’Agata dei Goti near Benevento, and from 1571 to 1577 as prelate of Fermo, the future pope strongly influenced the historical and cultural features of the Marche region to which he was closely related by birth, as it is documented by the numerous gifts and privileges granted to the area.

Whereas the Christ wearing the tunic from the Museum of Force (11th-12th century) represents a remarkable specimen of medieval art, the two paintings attributed to Giuseppe Ghezzi (1634-1721), one from the Museum of Comunanza, the other from the Museum of Ascoli Piceno, along with that by Ubaldo Ricci (1669-1719) from the church of Santa Maria Assunta at Cassignano, reveal an interesting phase of the Late Baroque period linked to the works of the great Carlo Maratta, who was also from Marche and who had close connections with the two artists in Rome.

Finally, the third section focuses on damage to artistic heritage caused by humans, especially in times of war and conflict, which, unfortunately, is of great relevance at the moment.

The events of World War II were particularly significant for Italy. The case of the Benevento Cathedral is emblematic: the building was struck by Allied bombs in September 1943 and almost completely razed to the ground. The only parts that remained standing were the façade and the mighty bell tower. It was generally thought that the only surviving elements of the two ambons - attributed to Nicola da Monteforte and signed and dated to 1311 - were the five pieces preserved and exhibited at the Sannio Museum in Benevento.

In the spring of 1981 however, while searching through the rubble of marble deposited in one of the Archbishop’s houses during the post-war period, all the lions and griffins that had formed the two parchments were revealed one-by-one, along with fragments of the columns that surmounted them. Other fragments of the sculptures, capitals and marble slabs that made up the sides of the ambons, along with the base of the Paschal candle featuring Caryatids and the spiral-shaped shaft of the column that was set upon it, were also discovered. These items are currently waiting to be transferred to the new Diocesan Museum, whose first segment was inaugurated a few months ago.

This exhibition is a great opportunity to see the elements of Monteforte’s pulpits together again after over 60 years since their separation with parts found in the Sannio Museum and others among the rubble of the destroyed cathedral. The section on the Benevento area would not be complete without exhibiting part of the Treasure which Vincenzo Maria Orsini, archbishop of Benevento (1686-1724) and later Pope Benedict XIII (1724-1730), wanted to give to Benevento. It also survived the destruction of 1943 and was judged to be one of the most important and renowned Treasuries of the Pontifical State by Xavier Barbier de Montault in 1789.

(The beauty re-found, Musei Capitolini, Rome, until November 26th)