Italy's cultural heritage vanishing, warns Vatican museums director

After library plundered, ex-minister says the cultural fabric of the country is coming apart

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 February, 2013, 3:40am


The director of the Vatican museums warned that Italy's cultural heritage is vanishing after prosecutors in Naples said two more people were arrested on suspicion of taking part in a "premeditated, organised and brutal" sacking of the city's 16th century Girolamini library.

Antonio Paolucci said he was "saddened but not surprised" by the devastating losses of the historic institution in Naples, where thousands of rare and antique books were last year found to have disappeared. The alleged plundering, which prosecutors have been investigating for the past nine months, was symptomatic of a country whose rich cultural heritage was at risk from various factors including theft and neglect, he said.

"In the Italy of a thousand museums and libraries, our immense national heritage is vanishing. The cultural fabric of the country is coming apart," Paolucci, a former culture minister, told Italian daily La Stampa.

He said a lack of protection for the country's treasures was having disastrous effects and was particularly harmful for small institutions that did not have the same level of security or prestige as, for instance, the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Urging the state to take better care of its heritage, he said: "Every looted painting or plundered library is a wound to civilisation which cannot be healed - a disaster for Italy and humanity as a whole."

The allegations of theft on a grand scale from the Girolamini library first surfaced last year, when a visiting art historian, Tomaso Montanari, found the institution in disarray, with precious volumes piled up in no particular order alongside fizzy drink cans and other detritus.

Soon after, when prosecutors started looking into reports of missing books, its former director, Massimo Marino de Caro, was arrested, accused of systematically plundering the library for its rare works and selling them on, via contacts, to a network of customers in Italy and abroad. He subsequently admitted to taking books but said it was in order to pay for the cultural upkeep of the library. He has been working with investigators from his prison cell in Naples.

Estimates of how many books were stolen vary because many were not catalogued. But investigators say the total may exceed 4,000. They include works by Galileo Galilei and, according to the officials, a 1518 edition of Thomas More's Utopia.

"What was done to the Girolamini library was a premeditated, organised and brutal act, the sacking of an inestimable cultural heritage," said Naples prosecutor Giovanni Colangelo, admitting that those working on the case doubted all the missing works would ever be brought home.