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Vast database of Italian church’s art and artefacts goes live

Experts generally positive, but Florence and Naples are gaps that need filling

Now online: putti in Vatican City

The Vatican has published a vast online catalogue of the Italian Catholic Church’s artistic heritage. The project, which began 16 years ago, is ongoing but in the meantime the Church hopes the database will help in the recovery of works if they are stolen.

The website contains almost 3.5m objects, from paintings and sculptures to ornaments, crucifixes, altarpieces and other items belonging to some of Italy’s 63,773 churches in 216 dioceses. The database will be subject regularly updated. Thousands of works held in the churches of certain dioceses, such as those of Florence and Naples, are still to be catalogued.

The project is a collaboration between Church and State, involving the dioceses, the Ministry of Culture, the Italian Episcopal Conference and the National Office for Ecclesiastical Heritage. Initial funding was set at around €51.6m.

The database will eventually be expanded to include the Church’s architectural heritage and literary archives.

Users can search by artist, subject matter, object, diocese and date range and the search results can be filtered further if needed, but experts have pointed out a number of flaws in the system that suggest more work is needed.

David Ekserdjian, an art historian and curator, who specialises in the 16th-century Italian Renaissance, says the database has a number of absences and inconsistencies. For example, a copy of Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto, 1604-06, is registered in the diocese of Siena, Tuscany, and dated to between 1600 and 1649, whereas the original, in the church of Sant’Agostino, Rome, is absent. Similarly, Donatello’s wooden sculpture of St John the Baptist, 1438, in Venice’s Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari church, is nowhere to be found, but a wooden crucifix that was only recently attributed to Donatello, dated to between 1440 and 1445, is already registered in the diocese of Padua.

From a research point of view, Ekserdjian believes the site will be useful for the less well-known works rather than the famous ones, as their whereabouts are already public knowledge. “The problem is that you don’t know what’s not in there,” he says. The database does not provide the exact location of the works, leading users as far as the diocese, but without mentioning the name of the specific church.

Tomaso Montanari, an art historian at Università Federico II in Naples, says: “It’ll be years before this task is complete.” He believes the search engine and navigation need much fine-tuning. “It’s an enormous job and it’s still rough around the edges, but anything that promotes the knowledge and preservation of the Church’s artistic heritage can only be good for the country,” he says, adding that “catalogued items will now be harder to sell on the black market”. He is not surprised at some of the gaps in the database. “The heritage [in Florence and Naples] is so vast it’s no wonder they haven’t finished cataloguing it yet,” he says.

For more information go to: www.chiesacattolica.it/beweb


A copy of Caravaggio's Madonna di Loreto (left) from the diocese of Siena, Tuscany is registered but original, in the church of Sant’Agostino, Rome, is absent
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