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Fight over Old Masters breaks out after Italian bank merger

Tuscan politicians demand the return of works loaned to shows in Vicenza

Cassa di Risparmio di Prato's Old Masters travelled to Vicenza for an exhibition at the headquarters of the Banca Popolare in Palazzo Thiene—and haven't come back

A heated row has broken out over a collection of Old Master paintings after the merger of two Italian banks. If unresolved, critics say, it could set a dangerous precedent in the way that corporate art collections are handled after a takeover.

The Cassa di Risparmio di Prato, based in Prato, Tuscany, was taken over by the Banca Popolare di Vicenza, based in Vicenza, Veneto, in 2010. Both institutions have sizeable art collections—the one belonging to the now-defunct Cassa di Risparmio di Prato’s is in the hands of an eponymous non-profit foundation, while the Banca Popolare di Vicenza’s is owned by the bank itself.

In 2011, a year after the takeover, the Banca Popolare di Vicenza put on an exhibition of Renaissance art, “Lippi, Bronzino and Caravaggio: Masterpieces from the Tuscan collection of the Banca Popolare di Vicenza”, at its headquarters in Palazzo Thiene, a Unesco World Heritage site. The Prato foundation loaned some of its works to the show in Vicenza, notably Caravaggio’s The Crowning With Thorns, 1604-05, Giovanni Bellini’s Crucifixion with Jewish Cemetery, 1501-02, and Filippo Lippi’s Madonna with Child, around 1436. All three paintings have yet to be returned to Prato.

This has prompted outrage from Tuscan politicians, museum professionals and the general public. The Tuscan authorities have confirmed, however, that Lippi’s work will return to Prato, albeit only temporarily, for the exhibition “From Donatello to Lippi: the Prato Workshop”, at the newly renovated Palazzo Pretorio from 14 September to 13 January 2014.

A number of works in marble, also belonging to the Prato foundation, currently feature in “Lorenzo Bartolini”, a monographic show at the Banca Popolare di Vicenza’s headquarters until 31 January 2014. The bank’s press office has so far refused to comment on the future return and ownership of these works, as well as the three Old Master paintings.

Risa Maria Di Giorgi and Matteo Biffoni, two Tuscan politicians, released a statement saying that banks cannot carry off works of art after a merger “as if they were the spoils of war”, likening the act to those of the Spanish conquistadores in South America and the Nazis during the Second World War.

Riccardo Mazzoni, a Prato-born senator, told the Italian media that the law should protect works of art belonging to all manner of public institutions. He said that the Cassa di Risparmio di Prato’s collection and exhibition space were established long before the bank became a publicly limited company and was listed on the stock exchange. By this logic, he says, the art should be protected under Italian law.

However, Massimo Carlesi, another local politician, has raised the question over whether the Prato foundation had created the necessary legal framework that would make sure its collection was protected after the banks’ merger.

The Banca Popolare di Vicenza’s press office did not want to comment on the matter, and the institution’s president, Gianni Zonin, was also unavailable.

Giovanni Bellini's The Crucifixion with Jewish Cemetery, 1501-03, from the collection of the Cassa di Risparmio di Prato
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