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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, debuts rare painting by Renaissance master Piero Della Frencesca
Piero della Francesca, Senigallia Madonna, 1470s. Oil and tempera on panel. Galleria Nazionale delle Marche / Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici, Artistici ed Etnoantropologici delle Marche. Courtesy of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has opened a single-work exhibition on September 13 which showcases the rare Renaissance painting, the Senigallia Madonna (1470s), and recounts the fascinating story of its theft and recovery in the 1970s. On loan from Italy, the work was created by Italian master Piero della Francesca (1411/13–1492) and will be on view in the United States for the first time. Stolen in 1975, the tempera and oil on panel painting was recovered the following year by the Carabinieri Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (known as the Carabinieri Art Squad)—a branch of the Italian military police charged with combating theft, looting and illicit trade in works of art. Part of the MFA’s Visiting Masterpieces series, Piero della Francesca’s Senigallia Madonna: An Italian Treasure, Stolen and Recovered will be on view through January 6, 2014 in the Museum’s Lee Gallery, along with a companion video that chronicles the efforts of the Carabinieri. The exhibition is part of “2013—Year of Italian Culture,” a series of events that celebrates the best of Italian arts and culture in more than 50 cities and 80 participating institutions across the US. Supporting sponsorship from Friends of the Italian Cultural Center of Boston. Presented with additional support from the Cordover Exhibition Fund and the MFA Associates/MFA Senior Associates Exhibition Endowment Fund. Lent by the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche/Soprintendenza per i Beni Storici, Artistici ed Etnoantropologici delle Marche/Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo. In cooperation with the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale. Presented under the auspices of the President of the Italian Republic’s “2013—Year of Italian Culture in the United States,” designed to enhance the close bonds between Italy and the United States.

“This profoundly moving painting, by one of the greatest of all Italian artists, will give visitors to the MFA an experience of intense spirituality,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “Piero created his serene masterpiece, the Senigallia Madonna, in the 1470s. Five-hundred years later, the painting was so coveted that it was stolen from its home and only recovered thanks to the diligence of the Carabinieri’s Art Squad. We are grateful for the efforts of the Carabinieri and the generosity of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche to bring this treasure to the United States.”

Admired today for creating some of 15th-century Italy’s most treasured frescoes and altarpieces, Piero was a brilliant mathematician as well as a painter. Known as an early master of geometry, his style is marked by the geometric elegance of his settings, the calm and nobility of his monumental figures and a masterly handling of light. The Senigallia Madonna, nearly 2 feet by 2 feet in size, shows the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child with two attending angels. Given its format and subject, this picture would have been intended for private devotion. Its name comes from the port city near Urbino in Italy, where it was first noted in a church in the 19th century. The painting is normally on display in the Italian museum, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, located in the Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale) in Urbino.

With only a handful of works by Piero in American museums, the Senigallia Madonna exhibition is a rare opportunity to see what is believed to be the Tuscan artist’s last painting. Other Piero works in Massachusetts are the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s detached fresco of the hero Hercules as a youth, and in Williamstown, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s Virgin and Child with Four Angels, likely an altarpiece. The MFA also displays other important paintings from 15th-century Italy that provide context for the Senigallia Madonna, including Giovanni di Paolo’s Madonna of Humility (about 1442), Fra Angelico’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Peter, Paul and George, Four Angels, and a Donor (about 1446–49) and Botticelli’s Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist (about 1500), all in gallery 219.

“Piero is one of the most revered of all Italian painters, and his works almost always transfix the viewer with their mysterious tranquility,” said Frederick Ilchman, Mrs. Russell W. Baker Curator of Paintings at the MFA. “The Senigallia Madonna, probably his last completed picture, conveys so eloquently why he has a remarkable following among so many people today. The temporary presence of this masterpiece allows the MFA to tell the story of Italian Renaissance painting much more fully.”

The theft of the Senigallia Madonna occurred on February 5, 1975 along with another Piero, The Flagellation of Christ, and Raphael’s portrait of an unidentified noblewoman known as The Mute Woman. Urbino’s Ducal Palace, home to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche since 1912, was considered one of Italy’s most-secure museums at the time. However, thieves took advantage of scaffolding alongside the Palace to break into the gallery—scaling 12- to 15-foot walls, breaking windows and using false keys to gain entry. Like most museums, the Palace lacked an electronic alarm system, and with guards making rounds only every two hours, the thieves were able make their escape before the works were found missing at 2:30 a.m., with only the frames left behind.

After more than a year of investigation—and public pleas to the thieves to protect the works —the Art Squad received information from a Roman antiques dealer that led them to Switzerland. Posing as wealthy buyers, they staged a mock negotiation with the suspects. The meeting never took place, but the works were discovered in a hotel in Locarno on March 23, 1976. After recovering the paintings, four people were arrested in Italy, Germany and Switzerland and the paintings were returned to Urbino on March 29, 1976.

The recovery of the Senigallia Madonna was a milestone for the Art Squad, formed in 1969 to protect Italy’s artistic heritage. Part of the Ministry of Culture, the unit was the first in the world dedicated exclusively to fighting art theft and forgery. Now with 280 officers, the Art Squad works in Italy and abroad with groups including INTERPOL and UNESCO to protect, document and find stolen works. The unit’s responsibilities range from maintaining the world’s most complete database on illicit art trafficking to thwarting illegal excavation of sensitive archaeological sites. Since its inception, the unit has rescued approximately one million archaeological objects from the black market, recovered more than 500,000 works of art and seized close to 300,000 forgeries.

The loan of the Senigallia Madonna continues the MFA’s ongoing relationship with Italy. In September 2006, the MFA transferred 13 antiquities to Italy and signed an agreement with the Italian Ministry of Culture, marking the beginning of a new era of cultural exchange. It included the creation of a partnership in which the Italian government would lend significant works from Italy to the MFA’s displays and special exhibitions program and established a process by which the MFA and Italy would exchange information with respect to the Museum’s future acquisitions of Italian antiquities. The partnership also envisaged collaboration in the areas of scholarship, conservation, archaeological investigation and exhibition planning. In addition to the Senigallia Madonna, other significant loans have included The Capitoline Brutus, a rare bronze bust of a Roman statesman dating to around 300 B.C., and the marble statue Eirene (Goddess of Peace), as well as masterpieces lent to the exhibitions Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice (2009) and Aphrodite and the Gods of Love (2011).

The Senigallia Madonna is the third MFA exhibition in celebration of “2013—The Year of Italian Culture.” In January, The Capitoline Brutus was displayed at the Museum from the Capitoline Museums in Rome, and during the spring the Museum exhibited Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane, a show organized by the Muscarelle Museum of Art that featured 26 drawings from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence.

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