A major scandal is brewing in Italy over the recent revelation that the heirs of the late Count Giovanni Festari sold the archive of documents and sketches by Renaissance artist and architect Giorgio Vasari to Russian firm Ross Engineering for a jaw-dropping 150 million euros ($225 million).
Vasari was a fine Mannerist artist and architect in his own right, but today he is best known as the biographer of the most famous artists of Renaissance and Middle Ages. He wrote about them in what is widely acknowledged as the first art historical biography, his Lives of Artists.
This is a foundational work of art history, and his archives contain not only his own notes and sketches, but also correspondence with five popes, Michelangelo and Cosimo de’ Medici, his patron and the ruler of Florence.
Considerable mystery surrounds the sale of Vasari’s papers, which are kept in the house the artist bought for himself in his home town and which he decorated with his own frescoes. The mayor of Arezzo [Giuseppe Fanfani] said he had only learned of the transaction in a letter from a government official which said it had taken place on 23 September – days before the death of the owner of the archive, Giovanni Festari.
The letter informed him that, under the terms of a 1994 government order, he could block the sale by matching the price supposedly offered by a Russian company. “Madness,” said the mayor. “Where am I going to find €150m? That’s equivalent to five times the annual budget of the Arezzo council.”
And he has just six months to match the price or the sale becomes official. The cost is so exorbitant that there is some speculation that it’s not the actual selling price, but a deliberate deception to ensure that it can’t possibly be matched by the town of Arezzo, or the whole region of Tuscany for that matter.
By law, the archive can’t leave Arezzo, but that is little consolation to the mayor. Laws change, after all, and he can’t imagine that the Russians would be content with owning it long distance forever.
A lawyer representing Ross Engineering says they know they can’t move the archive and they have “no problem” leaving it in Arezzo. ”Who knows?” he says. “Maybe they want to have an exhibition and open them up to the public?”
I would say that perhaps their spokesperson might know, should he bother to ask. This kind of vague response is hardly reassuring.
Italy is planning a series of celebrations of Vasari’s 500th birthday next year. If this sale goes through, that would put a major damper on the festivities.
Roman prosecutors are looking into the sale right now. According to Tuscany culture chief Diana Toccafondi, the archive was recently thoroughly renovated using state funds, and the government has expended considerable resources before to keep it out of fureign hands.
Mayor Fanfani isn’t letting this go. He has appealed to the regional parliament, the Russian ambassador, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi and Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is actually in Russia this week meeting with Vladimir Putin.
I hope against hope this issue makes it at least as high on the agenda as Russian hookers and comparing tans.