Italy’s undersecretary for culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, has stepped down amid a rising tide of controversies. He is currently being investigated over allegations that he laundered stolen art. Last week, he shocked the nation by verbally attacking two journalists who raised the matter, shouting “if you die in a car crash, I will be happy.” He is also accused by Italy’s antitrust authority (TAR) of accepting lucrative fees to appear at cultural events.
Sgarbi, aged 71, is a notoriously outspoken conservative art critic and TV personality. He stepped down just before giving a lecture on Michelangelo in Milan on Friday, two weeks before he would have to face a vote of no confidence on February 15. During the announcement, he made no reference to the stolen painting scandal, citing instead the antitrust investigation as his reason.
“This conference, according to what the antitrust authority has sent me, would be incompatible, illicit, outlawed,” he said. “Therefore, in order to prevent all of you from being accomplices to a crime, I speak from this moment free from my mandate as undersecretary.”
A letter sent by Sgarbi to Italy’s president Giorgia Meloni, published yesterday, seems to suggest he is preparing to retaliate. He avoided using the word “resignation,” which led some to speculate that he may now be angling for a different outcome. Instead, Sgarbi announced that he is appealing TAR’s decision. He went on to suggest that TAR should extend its investigation to all government officials “with the same criteria.” This has been widely interpreted by the Italian press as a threatening “counterattack.”
Sgarbi is the first minister to resign from Meloni’s cabinet and has been under pressure to do so for weeks after becoming the subject of a highly publicized exposé that implicated him in laundering a stolen painting by Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti. The work had been stolen from a privately-owned castle in 2013 and never recovered. Suspicions about Sgarbi’s involvement first arose after he leant a very similar work to an exhibition in 2022, the main difference between the two canvases being the inclusion of a candle in the upper left corner on Sgarbi’s version.
Accounts by restorers who worked on the painting support the possibility that this candle was added after the theft as a cover up. Sgarbi claimed his version of the painting was found in a house bought by his mother in 2000 and dismissed the accusations as a form of “political aggression.” The painting in Sgarbi’s possession has been confiscated by Italian authorities.
In his letter to Meloni on Sunday, Sgarbi avoided any mention of this scandal and kept the focus squarely on the antitrust investigation, appearing keen to portray himself as unfairly persecuted. Without making any mention of the payments that he had been offered, Sgarbi framed the issue as one of freedom of speech.
“I am not allowed to speak and promote art and my ideas in any way,” he wrote.
Sgarbi erupted in anger last Monday when questioned about the allegedly stolen painting on national TV, according to Il Fatto Quotidiano. “Get the fuck out of my way,” he shouted at the journalists Manuele Bonaccorsi and Thomas Mackinson, adding that they are “as ignorant as goats” in an expletive-ridden rant. He also threatened to expose his genitals on air.
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