An elite Italian paramilitary police agency works daily to track down some of the world’s greatest artistic treasures that have been pilfered from some of the least secure display locations: Catholic churches. 

Under the title “The Army for Art: Recovered Aspects of the Sacred,” an exhibit in Florence is saluting the work of this agency by showcasing 37 of the thousands of religious paintings, sculptures and minor artworks recovered over the past four decades. 

Among them is the “ Crux Veliterna ,” a reliquary cross cherished by Pope Benedict XVI. Crafted of gold, pearls, gems and enameled pictures in a workshop of Norman Sicily in the 1100s, the cross contains a fragment of the True Cross. 

One night in May 1983, thieves smashed the glass case in the cathedral museum of Velletri, a hill town near Rome, and stole the cross. It took the art-crimes squad 12 years to track down the cross in Rimini, and in 1995 it was returned home in the presence of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, but then titular bishop of Velletri. 

In 2007, he venerated the cross as his first act during a pastoral visit to the diocese, which gave him a replica of it. 

Trauma and gratitude 

The exhibit, which runs through April 6 at Florence’s Pitti Palace, is the third of three celebrating the 40th birthday of the Cultural Patrimony Protection Command, a branch of the Carabinieri (military police) in the armed forces, which reports to Italy’s Ministry of Culture. Other exhibits displayed archaeological returns (Naples) and all-time highlights (Rome). 

Curator Simona Pasquinucci said the words “aspects of the sacred” in the subtitle for the Florence show “refer to the sphere of the devotion of the community of faithful which functions as a kind of added value for works of sacred subject kept in places of worship.” That is why, she stressed, “theft, vandalism and profanation are often experienced as traumas for the entire community, and this why there is so much gratitude toward those who succeed in restituting these works safe and sound even after many years.” 

The issue of whether irreplaceable art should stay in churches and convents has been long debated among scholars, she told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Art historian Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums and a former arts superintendent and Italian Cabinet minister, argues that Italy is an “open-air museum” whose nature must be respected and all of whose parts — including its thousands of churches and their furnishings — must be preserved and watched over insofar as possible. 

Detective stories 

Every object in the Florence and Rome exhibits has at least two back stories — a history of art and devotion, and the crime-detection story behind its recovery. 

The former Charterhouse of Galluzzo atop a hill outside Florence offered blessed solitude to its original inhabitants, Carthusian monks who observed a vow of strict silence. But in 1973, thieves scaled the fortresslike walls with a ladder and made off with paintings, including a Madonna by the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach, recovered in 2002. 

A precious “Madonna and Child” in tempera by the early Renaissance master Benozzo Gozzoli was filched in 1995 from the tiny church of Calci near Pisa, which lacked any alarm system. With the help of Scotland Yard and thanks to a photographic databank the Carabinieri had set up in 1980, the picture was found two years later in England. 

A bejeweled Gothic processional cross was too tempting for a greedy monsignor, who took it from a parish in the village of Trequanda in 1960. He promised to have it restored, but sold it instead. When the pastor asked for its return, the monsignor said it had been lost in the Florentine flood of 1966. Twenty years on, both men had died; Church authorities found their letters and asked the prosecutor in Siena to investigate. In 1994, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported that the cross was identified in the Cleveland Museum of Art, which had bought it in good faith. After 15 years of negotiations, the museum gave it back to the church last April. 

The pastor and members of the church of San Domenico in Chioggia near Venice awoke on Aug. 31, 1970, to discover their 7-foot painting of St. Paul, signed and dated by the Renaissance master Vittore Carpaccio, was gone. During the night thieves sneaked into the church and cut the canvas from its frame, rolling it up with the painted layer inside — a common practice that can lead to irreparable damage. Scant leads pointed to Switzerland. Pressure on the criminal underworld, an alert to art dealers and probably the work’s large size made it hard to sell. Slipped back into Italy, the painting was recovered the next year. 

A particular target of art crimes is Naples, with its hundreds of churches filled with art that is often poorly protected from both the elements and the underworld. Two spectacular 8-foot canvases by the late-Baroque master Luca Giordano depicting scenes from the life of St. Augustine were discovered by the Carabinieri at an art auction in 1981, and turned out to have been stolen from the church of Sant’Anna al Trivio in Naples. 

Uncertain futures

“The most important recovery ever made is the one yet to happen.” That is the creed of the Cultural Patrimony Protection Command. Heading the wish list would be Caravaggio’s last altarpiece, the 1610 “Nativity,” stolen from the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo in 1969 (it’s also one of the FBI’s top 10 art crimes). An ex-Mafia hit man testified in December that the picture was damaged during the theft and had been burned in the 1980s. The news agency Zenit noted, however, that such witnesses are rarely reliable. 

Even so, thieves overpaint works to disguise them, or section them into less identifiable pieces, or both. The fate of stolen art is often unpredictable.  

Nora Hamerman writes from Virginia.

'A Madonna Is Not Painted To Keep In A Safe' (sidebar)

The very fact of being church art puts many works at high risk of vandalism and theft, said Archbishop Giuseppe Betori of Florence, Italy. 

“Precisely the excellence that artists and craftsmen have used in making things for Catholic worship is the allure that sacred artworks and liturgical vessels have for those who want to use them for private gain. ... And yet, the Church has never thought of having to avoid this sad possibility by moving, for instance, to less valuable materials or forms that lack beauty. The objects of worship are for the Lord, and we owe him the greatest praise that the human mind is capable of thinking and human hands are capable of executing. 

“A Madonna is not painted to keep in a safe, but to continually expose it to the veneration of the faithful and to whoever wants to admire it, even if they are far from the faith, perhaps also with the hope that looking at it could be transformed from aesthetic enjoyment to belief,” he added. 

“[The] Christian community itself” is the best steward of art in the churches, said Archbishop Betori. “A church frequented by the faithful in prayer is less vulnerable than an empty room that can be entered unobserved by any ill-intentioned person. A community full of pastoral activity that inhabits the spaces of the parish throughout the day is a strong deterrent” to criminals.