Italy fears for 'vanishing' heritage after arrests over sacking of historic library

Prosecutors seize two more men in relation to disappearance of thousands of books from 16th-century Girolamini collection

The director of the Vatican Museums has warned that Italy's cultural heritage is "vanishing" after prosecutors in Naples said two more people had been arrested on suspicion of taking part in a "premeditated, organised and brutal" sacking of the city's 16th century Girolamini library.

Antonio Paolucci said he was "saddened but not surprised" by the devastating losses of the historic institution in Naples, where thousands of rare and antique books were last year found to have disappeared. The alleged plundering, which prosecutors have been investigating for the past nine months, was symptomatic of a country whose rich cultural heritage was at risk from various factors including theft and neglect, he said.

"In the Italy of a thousand museums and libraries, our immense national heritage is vanishing … and the cultural fabric of the country is coming apart," Paolucci, a former culture minister, told the Italian daily La Stampa.

He said a lack of protection for the country's treasures was having "disastrous effects" and was particularly harmful for small institutions that did not have the same level of security or prestige as, for instance, the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Urging the state to take better care of its heritage, he added: "Every looted painting or plundered library is a wound to civilisation which cannot be healed – a disaster for Italy and humanity as a whole."

The allegations of theft on a grand scale from the Girolamini library first surfaced last year, when a visiting art historian, Tomaso Montanari, found the institution in disarray, with precious volumes piled up in no particular order alongside fizzy drink cans and other detritus.

Soon after, when prosecutors started looking into reports of missing books, its former director, Massimo Marino de Caro, was arrested, accused of systematically plundering the library for its rare works and selling them on, via contacts, to a network of customers in Italy and abroad. He subsequently admitted to taking books, but said it was in order to pay for the cultural upkeep of the library. He has been working with investigators from his prison cell in Naples.

Estimates of how many books were stolen vary because a large proportion of volumes in the prestigious collection were not catalogued. But investigators have spoken of a total that could exceed 4,000. They include works by Galileo Galilei and, according to the investigators, a 1518 edition of Thomas More's Utopia.

"What was done to the Girolamini library was a premeditated, organised and brutal act, the sacking of an inestimable cultural heritage," said Naples prosecutor Giovanni Colangelo on Tuesday, admitting that those working on the case doubted that all the missing works would ever be brought home.

Gianni Melillo, deputy prosecutor, said the library – which opened in 1586 – would "no longer exist" as it once was. "The damage is irreparable," he added.

On Tuesday, prosecutors announced that a bookbinder from Bologna suspected of erasing the Girolamini imprint from the books had been arrested, as well as a person they described as a "runner" who allegedly acted as a link between the books and their customers.

Arrest warrants had also been served on four other people who were detained last year on suspicion of involvement in the thefts, the prosecutors said, while Marcello Dell'Utri, a politician in Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom People party (PDL) was placed under investigation. Prosecutors said they suspected him of receiving around 10 of the library's books. He denies any involvement.


Lizzy Davies in Rome

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
British Library buys Futurists' metal manifesto

The Tin Book, Italian Futurist art movement tome which called for destruction of libraries, bought for £83,000

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

20, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Barcelona phone booth library vandalised a day after opening
Booth, which first opened on Saturday, is being repaired after vandals painted it with graffiti and stole screen

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

27, Apr, 2022 @10:32 AM

Article image
Spain's national library director in bad books over stolen Galileo treatise
Ana Santos asked to account for why it took four years to report theft of Sidereus Nuncius

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

15, Mar, 2021 @1:25 PM

Article image
Leaning Tower of Pisa among sites in Italy to reopen after lockdown
Strict safety measures in place, as Colosseum and others also prepare to welcome visitors again

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

31, May, 2020 @2:25 PM

Article image
Violin museum shows off musical heritage of Stradivari's birthplace

Steel magnate funds creation of museum in Cremona boasting workshop, auditorium and collection of priceless instruments

Lizzy Davies in Cremona

06, Sep, 2013 @1:54 PM

Article image
German library pays £2.5m for 'friendship book', 400 years after it first tried to buy it
Philipp Hainhofer’s Das Große Stammbuch, signed by influential 17th-century Europeans, acquired by Herzog August Bibliothek

Alison Flood

27, Aug, 2020 @1:38 PM

Article image
Artist's 'blank books' project seeks to restock historic Baghdad library
Wafaa Bilal will send Kickstarter donors an empty white book and put real book on shelves of University of Baghdad library that was destroyed in war

Marta Bausells

26, Jan, 2016 @2:10 PM

Letters: A shaming betrayal of cultural heritage
Letters: The threat to the Women's Library – a unique collection on women's struggle for equality – is, as Caroline Davies has so eloquently outlined, an act of cultural vandalism

01, May, 2012 @8:00 PM

Article image
Pompeii villa opens in Paris, but Roman ruins remain at risk in Italy
More than 200 artefacts loaned to Musée Maillol in Franco-Italian joint effort to highlight plight of Unesco heritage site

Dalya Alberge

19, Sep, 2011 @5:28 PM

Article image
New digital library to display world on a website

Multimillion-dollar project hailed as online 'intellectual cathedral' to carry thousands of cultural treasures

Lizzy Davies in Paris

08, Apr, 2009 @11:01 PM