NORCIA, Italy—Father Marco Rufini wants to believe that a Good Samaritan took a 17th century painting by French artist Jean Lhomme from his parish church in Nottoria di Norcia after the latest in a series of devastating earthquakes that began in August and hit here especially hard in late October.
The 6-by-4-foot Pardon in Assisi, commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, had hung in the church for more than two centuries. It had only been removed once, when the church underwent a moderate restoration that quite obviously did not include implementing anti-seismic measures. And now it’s gone.
The last time anyone saw it was Oct. 25, on the eve of a string of earthquakes that leveled much of this area of central Italy last month.
“I hold out hope that someone went into the church to save it,” Rufini told The Daily Beast. “Maybe they put it in a safe place and had to evacuate. Maybe they plan to return it when the earth stops shaking.”
Sadly, Father Rufini’s faith in humanity is very likely misguided. Patrimony police, along with Italy’s “red helmet” fire brigade force, a modern Monuments Men army specially trained to rescue precious works of art from disaster zones, believe it has been stolen.
“It probably fell off the wall during the tremor and the bandits easily ran away with it,” says a fire brigade member who recently was picking through the rubble of the church of San Salvatore for fragments of an ancient fresco. “We’ve found caches of art, silver and jewelry taken from destroyed homes hidden for later pickup all over the area.”
In fact, bandits have been combing the area since August, picking through the rubble and pocketing whatever they can. Italy’s civil protection agency has had to deploy special anti-looting forces to guard over destroyed banks where people kept safe deposit boxes and homes known to belong to wealthy people. Owners have also returned to unsafe areas to guard their possessions from bands of thieves that Italians call “jackals” who often pose as residents to get into the area.
But it’s not just works of art that are going missing. In the tiny town of Montelparo, local police discovered that someone had broken into the storage room of a local bar. They left Champagne bottles and snack wrappers as evidence. They also stole the air conditioner and cleaned out all the coins from the slot machines. The bar owner had obtained special permission from the civil protection authorities to return to his property to empty out the storage container and remove the air conditioner so he could open a new bar. When he got there, it was already too late.
“Since the first earthquake struck in August, jackals have been prowling the area to steal everything from sacred art to family heirlooms from the rubble,” Nicola Alemanno, the mayor of Norcia, told The Daily Beast. “They look for wall safes and jewelry boxes. It’s a free-for-all”
Authorities do what they can to patrol the area, but there are more than 100 small hamlets that have been affected and many of them have no residents left. Nearly 300 people died in the Aug. 24 earthquake that was followed by large tremors on Oct. 25 and again on Oct. 30, leaving many areas completely isolated.
The archbishop of Norcia and Spoleto, Monsignor Renato Boccardo, says it is impossible for authorities to watch every single house for looters. “Whoever wants to go into a home or church can get in easily,” he told reporters at a press conference in Rome last week. “Each church in the area is filled with precious art works, ancient religious artifacts, and cash from the collection plate.”
The fire brigade’s red helmets have removed thousands of paintings employing cranes and machinery generally used for human rescue. They have also covered frescoes with tarps to try to protect them from the rain and snow until they can be removed and reassembled. More than 5,000 churches and monuments were damaged or destroyed in the earthquakes.
The overall damage is thought to be in the billions of dollars, but authorities have not been able to put a price tag on what is missing from the destroyed area.
Most homeowners have been evacuated and are not allowed to return until authorities shore up the buildings and the civil protection agency gives the OK. Roads are blocked, but bandits simply traverse the open fields in the sparsely populated areas and pick through the treasures.
“It adds insult to injury,” Boccardo says. “Especially when you consider that the good people can’t go back to their homes while the jackals run free.”