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The Botticelli in the Basilica

A sleepy, southern Italian town kept one of the art world’s biggest secrets for more than 50 years.

The Botticelli in the Basilica
Camille Blanco

Camille Blanco

March 7, 2024
6 Minutes

Hanging on the walls of a country home in the southern Italian commune of Gragnano, near Naples, are the ornately painted strands of Simonetta Vespucci’s golden hair. Portrayed as the Virgin Mary, Simonetta—cousin-in-law of Amerigo Vespucci and rumored lover of Botticelli himself and Giuliano de’ Medici—sits on a throne of darkly painted wood with gilded accents, her head tilted to the right as her soft, yet piercing gaze follows her viewer across the frame. On her lap, she cradles a cherubic child, the infant Christ, who grasps at the fuchsia threads of her dress and stares, frozen in time and space, at her flowing veil. This 23 by 31 inch (58 by 80 cm) masterpiece, though not as famous as Botticelli’s Primavera or Birth of Venus, is a majestic work of art estimated to be worth around $109 million (€100 million). 

The painting in question, entitled Madonna delle Grazie by investigators. (Image: Business Insider)

The painting itself was commissioned for the Roman Catholic Church in 1470 and painted by Botticelli between 1481-82. Peppe Di Massa tells La Repubblica that “[Pope Sixtus IV] donated [the painting] to a small countryside church to obtain economic support from the Medici family to finance the Sistine Chapel’s completion during a time when the papacy was struggling financially.” But after the church burned down in the early 1900s, it was given to Santa Maria la Carità, a Neopolitan church in a small Italian commune. In 1982, after an earthquake damaged the small Neopolitan Church, it was decided, by government decree, that the painting would be given to a local family for safekeeping. According to CNN’s Barbie Latza Nadeau and Jack Guy, local authorities maintained continuous checkups on the painting, “advising [the family] on where to keep it and helping move and clean it.” For unknown reasons, these checkups stopped in the 1990s, and the painting ended up being listed as “missing” on the Italian Culture Ministry’s list of missing artworks.

In his statement to the Guardian, the Carabinieri command for the protection of the cultural heritage of Naples, Massimiliano Croce, revealed that after the painting had “been forgotten by the authorities,” research into the painting’s history pushed the department to pursue their inspection of the Somma family’s private home. When Croce and the Carabinieri discovered the painting, they reported that it was in “poor condition, with numerous abrasions and chromatic alterations caused by oxidation of varnishes.” As of now, the canvas will be undergoing extensive restoration for a year, as the Carabinieri and the culture ministry hope that it will soon be exhibited on the walls of a museum, where the public will finally have a chance to admire it again. Nevertheless, as in almost every case of art seizure, the police must determine if the painting truly belongs to the family before they can place it in state custody. Croce says that “if we were to verify that the family who owned it was not entitled to keep it then it will pass into the hands of the state. Otherwise, it could remain the property of the family but exhibited in a museum to ensure greater security.”

Gerardo Somma with the painting in 2010. (Image: La Repubblica)

Now, when it comes to determining the painting’s ownership, that seems easy enough: since the painting is in the Somma family’s possession, as it was given to them by the church, it’s theirs. According to Art. 1376 of the Italian Civil Code (ICC), “ownership of movable art, antiques or collectibles is transferred from the seller to the buyer when the parties enter into a sale agreement.” Thus, this would mean that the Somma family would be the rightful owner of the work. Nevertheless, the key phrase in this article is sale agreement. Recall that neither the Sommas nor the church entered into such an agreement and there is no seller or buyer in this scenario. Rather, the artwork was passed down from generation to generation of Sommas until the Carabinieri knocked on their door and demanded it back. 

On the other hand, Art. 1161, paragraph 1 of the ICC provides that “if the acquirer is in good faith but the asset was not acquired pursuant to a contract that provides for the transfer of title from one party to the other (eg, a loan agreement), the ownership of the asset shall vest in the acquirer after 10 years of uninterrupted possession.” In this case, the Somma family would indeed be the rightful owners of the painting, as it has been in their family for more than 40 years. However, this article applies to the good-faith acquisition of stolen artwork, and this painting was never recorded as being stolen from the church. 

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. (Image: Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi)

Furthermore, while there are sections dealing with the good-faith lending of art to public museums, there is no clear information in the ICC about the informal lending of an artwork owned by a church, then given to another church, then given to a family, and finally confiscated by the Carabinieri.

At this point, as the Carabinieri are looking to the ICC to determine the painting’s rightful owner, including whether or not it was “properly passed down,” they are currently keeping it in government custody. In Italy, however, “a painting of such cultural value can be owned by an individual only if its security and preservation is assured.” If the individual, the Somma family in this case, “is deemed capable by the state, the carabinieri will periodically inspect its conditions, which must be sterling.” But as Tessa Solomon from ArtNet News writes, evidence of “extensive repainting and tampering” found through “an analysis using ultraviolet light” prompted “an immediate withdrawal of the work” from the Somma family home. The Carabinieri cited Article 43 of the Italian Code of the Cultural and Landscape Heritage from the Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali to justify the seizure: “The Ministry shall have the power to have movable cultural property transferred and temporarily conserved in public institutions, in order to guarantee its safety and ensure its conservation pursuant to article 29.” 

The painting next to a member of the Carabinieri. (Image: ArtNet News)

While the paintings of other masters have been subject to brutal legal scrutiny and caught in restitution wars, Boticelli’s works rarely make an appearance. In 2019, a Welsh Museum discovered that they had a real Botticelli masterpiece in their storeroom after thinking it was a forgery for 70 years. In 2020, another work, valued at $10 million, quietly vanished from a family’s collection as it was the subject of a legal inquiry into its ownership. 

Meanwhile, as flakes of paint are carefully removed and colors painstakingly matched, Madonna delle Grazie awaits its spectacular unveiling. For a painting that has never before been seen by the public, it is no surprise that the Carabinieri and the Italian Culture Ministry are eager to get it back into the public sphere. “Many of us fought for this painting to be returned to the community when its traces were lost. They said it had ended up in a safety deposit box,” says Di Massa. “Now we hope it can find its rightful place in a museum.”

(Cover Image: Two members of the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Unit of Naples holding Botticelli’s bubble-wrapped and taped masterpiece, CNN)

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