Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Dec. 2002, amended in March 2022

Art Theft

Mona LisaThe most famous case of art theft in the 20th century was, no doubt, the disappearance of Leonardo's La Gioconda. It went missing from 1911-13 and was recovered when the moron who stole it from the Louvre in Paris tried to sell it (!) to a museum in Florence.

Art theft is a major problem in much of Italy, and Naples is no exception. Paintings and statues of varying degrees of worth disappear all the time from small, unguarded churches, and pilferage is of great concern even at major archaeological sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are relatively well guarded. (I recall, however, a friend familiar with Mexican archaeology telling me once as we walked around Herculaneum how incredible it was to him that you could actually walk right into the buildings and touch everything. "They wouldn't let you near anything this valuable in Mexico.")  There's no telling where much of the stuff winds up —probably in the hands of private collectors elsewhere in the world. Sometimes the authorities get the material back, sometimes they don't. 

This morning's paper carried a story of what counts as a major "bust" in Naples. They have arrested a gentleman who had 21,000 objects of artistic or archaeological interest in his home in Campi Flegrei (the Flegrean Fields) outside the city. The gentleman in question has been very busy over the last few years scouring the area known as "Magna Grecia" — ancient Greek colonies on the southern Italian mainland. His collection, obviously meant for illicit sale to collectors elsewhere, ranges from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages and includes pottery, bronze items, and even fossils. 

Sometimes, you can be sitting on top of something of interest. In many of those cases it is best to let things lie and not say anything; at least, that is the opinion of those average citizens sitting on top of it. Because of the long and tortured history of the subsoil of Naples, most of the streets in the old historic Greco-Roman center of the city — although they lie accurately over the street grid of the old city — are, in some cases, as much as 40 feet above the ancient streets themselves. In the case of the actual, geographic center of the old city, the intersection of via dei Tribunali and via San Gregorio Armeno, where the modern churches of San Lorenzo and San Paolo Maggiore now stand, that area was buried by a massive mudslide in the sixth century. The excavated site of the Roman market place below San Lorenzo is the only major excavation in the old city. 

Thus, all of the buildings within a few squares blocks of that site have basements that would count as museums anywhere else in the world. Bits and pieces of ancient Greece and Rome are simply sticking out of the walls if you go down below the ground floors of any building in the area. Should the shopkeeper call the museum to come and get this piece of mosaic or that tile or vase? Maybe not. They might close down the shop and declare the poor man's business a national treasure. Even worse: they might form a committee to decide what to do.

amphitheater vedius pollio

Above ground ruins are another sticking point. There is a large remnant of a Roman amphitheater on the western hillside of Cape Posillipo (photo, left). It is near the exit of an old Roman tunnel beneath that hill. The amphitheater is, however, on private property and may be visited only by appointment through various cultural or tourist organizations two or three times a year. The owner's point of view is that if everyone in Naples opened their property to archaeological "culture vultures," then there would be no private property in Naples. Everything, it seems, is on top of something interesting. 

added March 2022: There is an extensive overview of large-scale looting and plundering of Italian (including Neapolitan) work of art by the Nazis in WWII, by the forces of Napoleon in the late 1790s and early 1800s  and, to a lesser degree (and confined to the Kingdom of Naples) by British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, at this link.

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