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In Rome, a New Museum for Recovered Treasures Before They Return Home


Last month, Italian officials inaugurated a new museum here whose title sets a lofty agenda: the Museo dell’Arte Salvata, or the Museum of Rescued Art.

Rescued art is a broad term, it turns out, and the museum will showcase the myriad ways in which artworks can be salvaged — from thieves, from the rubble of earthquakes and other national disasters, from ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean or from the ravages of time by Italy’s expert restorers.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said at the inauguration of the museum that it would “show the world the excellence of our work” in all these fields.

But it is telling that the museum’s first exhibition — which runs through Oct. 15 — focuses on the recovery of looted art and pays tribute to Italy’s crack art theft police squad — the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. The unit is credited with having returned thousands of art pieces to Italy, effectively thwarting “the black market in archaeological artifacts,” explains a panel on display.

About 100 pieces — Greco-Roman vases and sculptures and even coins dating from the seventh century to the third century B.C. — are on view at the museum, which has been installed in a cavernous hall that was built as part of the Baths of Diocletian and is now annexed to the National Roman Museum.

Their stay in the exhibition here, though, will be something akin to a pit stop.

For years, Italian culture ministry policy has been to return recovered artifacts to the museums closest to the site they were likely looted from, a process that can, at times, involve arduous deduction given the clandestine nature of the excavations.

So, for example, when the looted second-century A.D. marble statue of Vibia Sabina, Hadrian’s wife, was ceded by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in 2006, it was returned to his villa in Tivoli (although it is on temporary display in Rome these days, showcased by the Chamber of Commerce).

The task of determining where artifacts in this new museum should return to will fall to a team of archaeologists and experts.

“I think of this as a museum of wounded art, because the works exhibited here have been deprived of their contexts of discovery and belonging,” said Stéphane Verger, director of the National Roman Museum, under whose oversight the new museum falls.

The Italian focus on recovering art and faithfully returning it to places of origin, no matter how remote, has had its detractors. Some say that in a globalized world where efforts are being made to spread culture, tackle problems internationally and drop economic and social barriers, the repatriation of Western antiquities speaks to a more insular persistence in the importance of national identity. Others argue that antiquities are best seen in institutions that attract millions of visitors rather than in local museums in out-of-the-way towns where they are more likely to draw dust than people.

A case in point is the evolution of an exhibition known as “Nostoi: Recovered Masterpieces,” from the Greek word for homecoming, which was first mounted in 2007 by Italian cultural officials as a triumphal recognition of their success in securing the return of stolen antiquities. Staged in Italy’s presidential palace in Rome, the exhibition acknowledged the tremendous success Italy had had in persuading several U.S. museums to return dozens of items to Italy, most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in California.

But since 2017, a refurbished version of the “Nostoi” exhibition has been installed in a series of small rooms in a low building in a central square in Cerveteri, once an Etruscan stronghold known as Caere, about 25 kilometers northwest of Rome. The exhibition doesn’t have regular visiting hours, although a tour guide association that occupies adjacent space will open the rooms on request.--nyt

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