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Italian art squad thwarts illegal sale of famous painting

The Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, the branch of the Italian police that specializes in finding stolen art and antiquities, has recovered thousands of objects since it was founded in 1969.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Italian police have recovered a 17th century Italian painting depicting the legend of Cimon and Pero before it was illegally sold at auction in Austria. 

Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi's "Caritas Romana," or "Roman Charity," was seized from an art house in Vienna and returned to Italy after it went missing from a private collection in 2019 and was exported from Italy using falsified documents. 

Italy’s famed Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage – a specialized cultural police force which tracks down missing art and artifacts – announced Tuesday it had recovered the oil painting with the help of the Austrian police and Eurojust, the European Union’s judicial cooperation agency.

“The painting was on the verge of being auctioned,'' officer Alfio Gullotta told reporters in the southern Italian city of Bari, where officials displayed the painting during a press conference. 

Two men are under investigation for the crime. Police said that a Tuscan brokerage company obtained an export license from the Italian Ministry of Culture by claiming the work was not an original Gentileschi but the work of one of her protégées.

Italian officials praised the quick work of the Italian embassy in Austria and the Austrian police in recovering the painting.

‘I’m delighted that the rapid and good cooperation with our Austrian colleagues at the agency has led to the return to Italy of this important piece of cultural heritage,” Filippo Spiezia, Italy’s representative at Eurojust, said in a statement. 

Named for the legend it depicts, "Roman Charity" shows Pero breastfeeding her father, Cimon, after he has been sentenced to die by starvation. The story was first recorded by 1st-century Latin writer Valerius Maximus and is heralded as an exemplary act of devotion. 

Gentileschi was commissioned to paint the work in the mid-17th century by a nobleman in Puglia, the region of Italy that forms the heel of the boot-shaped peninsula. She was already painting professionally by the age of 15 but much of her life was overshadowed by her sexual assault by fellow painter Agostino Tassi. The then-17-year-old Gentileschi participated in a seven-month trial, undergoing torture with thumbscrews to prove her allegations were truthful. After Tassi was convicted, Gentileschi moved to Florence, where she had a successful career as a court painter and become the first woman accepted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing, the local art guild. 

Last month, a new museum showcasing rescued art opened in Rome. The Museo dell’Arte Salvata, or the Museum of Rescued Art, displays art and historic objects that have been looted, stolen or lost on a temporary basis before they return home. The museum's first exhibition focuses on the Carabinieri Command and includes some 100 pieces of sculpture, pottery and coins which the police squad has located. The force has recovered thousands of objects since it was founded in 1969.

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