Death of Vatican cleric puts his lauded but mysterious art collection under new scrutiny

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The death of the elderly canon Monsignor Michele Basso last month has thrust his mysterious art collection back into the limelight, raising questions about how he obtained the works. In 2000 the canon was investigated for fraud by the Rome public prosecutor after allegedly trying to sell fake works disguised as originals using forged documents. Meanwhile, the most controversial work in the collection, an apparent copy of a precious Greek vase, could reignite a previous restitution dispute between Italy and the US.

Mario Parracciani, an inspector appointed by the Rome court, confirmed in 2000 that the collection features works by Guercino and Giambologna; a 16th-century statue of San Giovannino from the Michelangelo school; and a vase bearing the name of Greek artist Euphronios. The collection reportedly features pieces by Mattia Preti and Pietro da Cortona, with newspaper Il Messaggero claiming it contains around 70 works. They had, until 2020, been stashed in Basso’s home near St Peter’s Basilica.

Basso reportedly donated the collection to the Fabric of St Peter, the institution that is responsible for restoring St Peter’s Basilica, that year. It was stored in 30 fireproof cases around the same time and placed in a storeroom in the basilica’s roof, Il Messaggero reports. Pope Francis launched an internal financial investigation into the accounts of the Fabric of St Peter in the same year.

Generous benefactors

Basso is thought to have not been wealthy enough to buy the works. “He was not a rich industrialist, a prince or count,” Franca Giansoldati, a journalist for Il Messaggero, tells The Art Newspaper. “He was a man of extremely humble origins whose mother worked as a caretaker.” Giansoldati added that Basso told her in a 2021 interview that he had been given the works by “generous people”.

An amateur archaeologist and art expert, Basso reportedly participated in digs under St Peter’s and contributed to archaeological literature. He was previously archivist of the Fabric of St Peter’s and chamberlain of the Chapter of St Peter’s, which consists of the college of priests appointed by the Pope as canons.

In 2000 Basso was allegedly trying to sell fake works using forged documents; the canon subsequently came under scrutiny following an investigation into fraud by the Rome public prosecutor. Parracciani told the agency: “I believe the archaeological works are authentic and the paintings originals.” Lawyers Andrea Viscardi and Andrea Starace had been entrusted with finding Italian or international buyers, the news agency ANSA reported at the time.

We tracked down Starace who told us that both himself and Viscardi went to the Vatican twice to advise two men whether the works were authentic. One of these was “probably Basso”, he says. Starace insists that the two lawyers were not involved in trying to find buyers for the works, a claim he later fought successfully in a legal battle.

Basso’s lawyer, Lorenzo Contrada, told Corriere della Sera at the time that the works had been “offered as gifts by other prelates who had received them in turn from worshippers without heirs”. The canon had wanted to sell the works to raise funds for building a hospital in Tirana, Contrada told ANSA.

Prosecutors also accused a former counsellor in the Vatican’s Italian embassy, of being part of a ring of 14 people that were trying to sell the works. The case was later dropped.

Giansoldati says that the Vatican had opted for “total silence” when questioned about the art. Questions have meanwhile been raised about the fate of the original Euphronios Krater, which is dated 515BC and was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972 for $1.2m by antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht. The object was returned to Italy in 2008 after Italian officials argued it had been illegally excavated from an Etruscan cemetery near Rome in 1971.

Italian news outlets report that Basso’s copy dates to the 19th century, suggesting that the original Krater may have actually been excavated before 1909, when Italy introduced a ban on the illegal export of culturally significant assets, potentially allowing the Met to demand the item’s return. The museum did not respond to a request for comment.

However, Maurizio Pellegrini, a forensic archaeologist who has investigated numerous prominent art crimes, said in an interview that Basso’s copy may have been produced in the 20th century and falsely sold as a 19th-century product. Alternatively, he suggested, it may be a copy of another Euphronios vase.

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