Odyssean Adventure of Missing
Works of Art
by Albert Kos
Wars and the geopolitical changes that sometimes follow them
leave behind unhealed wounds on the affected areas, not only
among the people and in their environment but also in the destroyed,
impoverished, or in any other way degraded cultural and artistic
heritage. There are numerous stories about stolen, seized, mysteriously
disappeared, or unjustly confiscated works of art in Europe
and elsewhere in the world, and quite a few have to wait a very
long time to be solved.
One such story that has recently intrigued cultural, and partly
also political, circles in Italy and Slovenia regards the question
of returning several tens of masterpieces from the area of the
Slovenian coastal cities of Koper, Izola, and Piran, now being
in the possession of the Italian government or more precisely
of the municipality of Trieste, as a result of historical coincidences
In 1940, the then Italian authorities removed from the above
area, which belonged to Italy in the period between the two
world wars, all major works of art from churches, convents,
and museums to protect them against the risk of war, since they
were supposed to be endangered by potential military conflicts.
Since then, any trace of these works of art (totalling about
80) has disappeared, and to all the requests to return them,
submitted initially by the Yugoslavian and then (after 1991)
the Slovenian authorities, Italy replied that their whereabouts
Works of Art Found in Rome
The riddle surrounding their fate was resolved in 2002, when
at the initiative of, and thanks to, the reputable Italian art
historian (and then state secretary at the Italian Ministry
of Culture) Vittorio Sgarbi, the paintings removed in 1940 from
Koper and Piran were 'found' in the basements of the Venezia
Palace in Rome, where, stored in crates and without proper protection,
they gradually decayed. At Sgarbi's initiative, they were evaluated
for the first time, catalogued, and also presented to the public
in the state in which they had been found.
At a press conference that was announced under the title A Treasure
- Artworks from Istria - Found, held on 15 May 2002 at the Venezia
Palace in Rome, those participating were the first who could
see again, after more than 60 years, the extraordinary masterpieces
of the Venetian school of the 15th and 16th centuries, by artists
including Paolo Veneziano, Alvise Vivarini, Vittore Carpaccio,
Gianbattista Tiepolo, the school of Giovanni Bellini, and many
other protagonists of the Venetian Renaissance.
This display of a smaller yet artistically the most important
part of the 'rediscovered treasure' resulted in an automatic
resolution for Slovenia with regard to the question of returning
the rediscovered paintings, sculptures, and art objects to Slovenia,
to their original sites, and to their legitimate owners. The
official Italian representatives, however, Sgarbi included,
avoided the question of their return or even directly rejected
the justification of any such requests.
Where Will the Treasures from
Slovenian Istria End up?
After two-and-a-half years of silence and negative politicising
in Italy, particularly in Trieste, on the question of whom the
stolen paintings belong to, Sgarbi, at a press conference held
in mid-December last year at the Trieste Revoltella Museum,
presented 21 canvases (restored in the meantime), which are
to be displayed to the public for six months from April of this
year and later obtain a permanent place in the Trieste National
Gallery or in the famous Miramare Castle near Trieste, claimed
that they were the property of the Italian state as they had
been created by Italian artists and that the state of Italy
had protected them against destruction.
Slovenia and especially the legitimate owners of these works
of art firmly oppose such intentions, based on rather politicised
arguments, which try to justify the controversial 'confiscation'
of cultural heritage, and the Slovenian side insists that they
should be returned to the churches, convents, and museums in
Koper and Piran where these masterpieces undoubtedly belong.
This is ultimately confirmed by the preserved receipts, issued
in 1940 by the then Italian authorities to the owners of the
confiscated works of art, which provide undeniable evidence
of the temporary nature of their removal to safety at that time.
Slovenian diplomats, with the support of art historians and
monument protection experts, remain firm in their efforts to
have the canvasses returned as soon as possible to the places
and sites where they belong according to their origin and heritage
and believe this goal should be achieved.
Capodistria Benedetto Carpaccio: Madonna col Bambino tra SS
Bartolomeo e Tommaso (Mary with Child between St. Bartholome
and St. Thomas) (1538) - removed from Museum of Koper-Capodistria.
Article abstracted from Sinfo.