Pressure is mounting on Italy’s government to sack Vittorio Sgarbi, a junior culture minister, amid accusations he laundered a stolen 17th-century painting. Police seized the work from a property reportedly owned by the 71-year-old junior minister who is both a politician and art critic and is famed for his fiery outbursts. Sgarbi denies the accusations and has vowed to defend his name with “every possible means”.
Titled La Cattura di San Pietro (or The Capture of St Peter), the 1637-39 painting is attributed to Rutilio Manetti, an exponent of Sienese mannerism, and shows soldiers bringing a bearded man before a judge. The work—which has an estimated value of between €200,000 and €300,000 according to Italian-language reports—was stolen from the 14th-century Buriasco castle near Turin in 2013, according to the Carabinieri’s art squad.
On Friday 12 January, police reportedly searched three houses owned by Sgarbi in Rome and near Macerata. They subsequently found the painting at a property owned by the Sgarbi family in Ro Ferrarese, which is linked with the Cavallini-Sgarbi Foundation and houses numerous works owned by the family, together with a 3D copy commissioned by a workshop in, Correggio Corriere della Sera reports.
Sgarbi subsequently claimed in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that he had “handed over the work” to police so that “the necessary verifications could be carried out”. He added: “I am absolutely serene. […] I have nothing to fear. I will defend myself with every possible means against those who speculate on the affair and those who are complicit in it”.
In a recent episode of the Report investigative TV programme, Margherita Buzio, the castle’s owner, told reporters that thieves had cut the painting from its frame, adding that one of Sgarbi’s friends had earlier visited the property and expressed an interest in buying the work.
Police, who believe the work arrived in Sgarbi’s hands through fraudulent means, suspect restorers then painted a small torch into a corner to make it more difficult to identify. The painting was included in an exhibition in Lucca in 2021, with Sgarbi listed as the owner.
The politician, however, insists that he found the painting in a villa his mother bought him in Viterbo, about 60 miles north of Rome, more than twenty years ago. “My painting is the original, the other is a badly made copy,” Sgarbi told Corriere della Sera last week. “That was exactly Manetti’s style—he put candles everywhere.”
In a note circulated on Monday, opposition councillors in Ferrara called on Sgarbi to resign as president of the Fondazione Ferrara Arte, a local authority foundation which organises exhibitions in collaboration with Ferrara’s Gallerie d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea.
Irene Manzi, a parliamentarian with the centre-left Democratic party, said last week Meloni and Gennaro Sangiuliano, the culture minister, “must stop protecting” Sgarbi. Movimento 5 Stelle (or The Five Star Movement) party said it would present a motion in parliament for Sgarbi’s dismissal.
In a separate case, Sgarbi is being investigated for illicitly exporting a painting by Valentin de Boulogne valued at €5m (£4.3m), which he allegedly tried to sell abroad without a permit. The painting was seized by police in Monte Carlo in June 2021.