Theft at the Villa Giulia

A view of the Villa Giulia, Italy’s Etruscan Museum

Over the Easter holiday weekend, thieves have broken into the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome, home to thousands of Etruscan artifacts, including the Euphronios/Sarpedon Krater. La Reppubblica reports today that the thieves broke into the museum on Saturday night through the back, locked the guards on duty in the gatehouse, and stole some jewelry from the 19th century Castellani collection. They appear to have avoided entirely the antiquities from Cerveteri, and elsewhere, many of which had been repatriated back to Italy in recent years. Holiday weekends are notorious for being risky times for museums.

Some of the recently repatriated antiquities that
have hopefully been left unscathed after the theft

The thieves reportedly used smoke bombs to distract the guards and to obscure the view of the security cameras. But they appear to have taken little. Most of the antiquities were unscathed, at least according to initial reports.

The Villa Giulia was founded in 1889 to house pre-Roman antiquities from the Etruscan civilization. The building had been a Renaissance villa built by Pope Julius III beginning in 1550. It has a lovely garden designed by Giorgio Vasari, and a very early 19th century recreation of an ancient Greek temple.

There does not appear to be any reporting of the theft in English, here is the text of a Repubblica account in Italian:

Sono entrati dal retro e, dopo aver rinchiuso i custodi di turno nella guardiola, sono saliti nella Sala degli ori dove hanno fracassato tre vetrine e rubato alcuni gioielli ottocenteschi della collezione Castellani, usando dei fumogeni per non rendere visibili le immagini riprese dalle telecamere. Quello avvenuto la scorsa notte al Museo nazionale etrusco di Villa Giulia, a Roma, è un “furto singolare”, di cui “non si capisce la finalità” perché gli oggetti rubati non sono quelli di maggior valore nel museo, spiega la direttrice regionale per i Beni culturali e paesaggistici del Lazio, Federica Galloni. “I ladri – racconta la dirigente del Ministero dei Beni culturali – sono entrati dal retro del museo ieri sera, verso le 23.30. Hanno rinchiuso i custodi nella guardiola e sono saliti al secondo livello, nella sala degli Ori, dove hanno frantumato con un’ascia tre vetrine blindate molto spesse all’interno delle quali erano esposti dei gioielli della collezione Castellani. Ne hanno presi solo alcuni, forse perché disturbati dall’arrivo dei carabinieri, chiamati immediatamente dai custodi. Non capisco – ragiona Galloni -, è veramente un furto strano, singolare, perché nel museo ci sono dei reperti archeologici di gran lunga più importanti, che hanno maggior valore se immessi sul mercato”. Sul posto si trovano sia la scientifica che il Nucleo Tutela Patrimonio Culturale dei carabinieri. “Verranno esaminati i filmati delle telecamere a circuito chiuso”, aggiunge Galloni, anche se “i ladri hanno utilizzato dei fumogeni durante il furto”. 


Roma, Rapina Con Fumogeni  Rubati Gioielli Dell’800 a Villa Giulia – Roma – Repubblica.it.” Roma – La Repubblica. Mar. 31, 2013.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

A Field Class at Cerveteri

Inside la banditaccia at the Etruscan Necropolis near Cerveteri

Last Friday I finished teaching my art and cultural heritage law course here in Amelia as a part of ARCA’s masters certificate program. One of the highlights of my year is coming to Amelia for ARCA’s program, and the field class at Cerveteri captures so much of what makes cultural heritage policy a rich and interesting area  to study—but there are frustrations as well.

First the good. There are beautiful vibrant works of art in the houses for the dead. We met Stefano Alessandrini who took us through the necropolis and the tombs. They now have names like ‘the tomb of the Grecian Urns’—where of course many Greek pieces of pottery were found. And the highlight is the ‘tomb of the reliefs’ with wonderful frescoes, bas-reliefs, and sculptures that portray a number of professions. The images are familiar and comfortable, except maybe for the image of Cerberus on the far wall. The burial complex was quite large, far larger in fact than the protected area of Cerveteri in the banded area. And outside of the protected world heritage site are tombs in need of conservation, some exposed tufo rock tombs, and also some vulnerable unexcavated tombs.

You can see the area from this google maps image. To the right of the white line is the unexcavated or non-conserved area. To the left is the well-kept World Heritage Site.

There was one Italian archaeological excavation of a tomb outside la Banditaccia:

But also we saw a different kind of excavation, there were a few looters pits on the exposed hillside a few hundred yards up the road. These appeared to have been done in the last few months:
At the bottom of the hole you can see the outline of one of the tombs, likely a square tomb. So a looter may return at night and look for the entrance to a tomb. One difficulty is the remoteness of the field here. It’s just out of view of the little dirt track. On a dark night a looter could cover the hole with dark canvas and shine a flashlight underneath to do their work. 
Before the trip I assigned DH Lawrence’s short chapter discussing Cerveteri to the students. Though his scientific knowledge of the Roman and Etruscan civilization was lacking perhaps he did get the feel of these tombs just right. He travelled there in 1927 with a companion, and one imagines the little wine sink just off the main square is the same one where Lawrence popped in and complained about the lunch he ate before walking to the necropolis. But when he stops complaining about the food, the dust, the heat, and the Romans (the ancient ones), he describes a happy feeling walking among the tombs. He envisions the Etruscans thinking about a trip to the underworld. He suggested that the Etruscans might have burned their simple wooden homes (whether this is true or not I am not sure). But the point he draws from this writerly device gets the feeling of the place right. The Etruscans believed in a happy, joyous afterlife, which freed them to live in the moment while they were alive. And it is perhaps no coincidence that the time when Lawrence traveled to Italy and the Etruscan places was a time when Lawrence was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, and he might have been thinking about his own legacy and afterlife.
And he notes that many of the best treasures of the tombs were missing from them. Some had been lost to the humidity of the tufo rock, or to scholarly study and excavation. Others had yet to be looted or excavated . The Sarpedon/Euphronios krater was still resting in its context while Lawrence was walking through the tombs. The terms cultural nationalist and internationalist had yet to be devised and attached to the arguments about the proper place for these objects. But Lawrence is a firm believer in the power of context for the aesthetic experience of the viewer: 

What one wants is to be aware. If one looks at an Etruscan helmet, then it is better to be fully aware of that helmet, in its own setting, in its own complex of associations, than it is to ‘look over’ a thousand museums of stuff. Any one impression that goes really down into the soul, it is worth a million hasty impressions of a million important things.

I guess we all have different views on our favorite way to see art. Walking through a large museum with many objects—millions might be a bit of an exaggeration—is certainly one way. And pairing a trip to the Villa Giulia with a trip to Cerveteri in the same day offers a deeper different experience of seeing the tombs and the objects removed from them in the same day. We can argue about the value of both. But in making the decision, we should respect the law and regulation. Disagree with it, work to change it, work to strengthen it, whatever. But looting, even looting from the distant past, should not be used to avoid or end the conversation.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

3 Year Italian Investigation Yields Marble Reliefs


From the Daily Mail, it seems Italian police have recovered 12 marble reliefs depicting Roman gladiators. USA Today picks up an AP story as well, available here. The panels were discovered buried in a garden near Fiano Romano. The reliefs, made of Carrara marble, are thought to date to the 1st century BC. The images are stunning, as David Nishimura rightly points out. Officials say the pieces will be studied, restored, and then displayed at the Villa Giulia in Rome.

The Prosecutor, Paolo Ferri, says individuals have been charged, but their names have not been released. One thing I would like to know is, what archaeological context was destroyed in the process of removing this from the decorated tomb? How will the raiders be punished? I wonder as well, why the investigation took three years. That’s a very long time; I imagine they were waiting to catch the raiders trying to sell the pieces to a dealer or international buyer.

(Image by Plinio Lepri, AP)

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com