Italy returned to Mexico last Wednesday a booty of 594 paintings that were stolen on the other side of the Atlantic in the sixties and moved through the black market to the transalpine country. It consists of more than five hundred traditional votive offerings, small pieces of wood and cloth painted between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries by unknown artists, as an offering of gratitude or devotion to God, to the Virgin or to a saint. They are an expression of popular art deeply rooted in the religious tradition of Mexico, with several centuries of antiquity.
The Italian Minister of Culture, Alberto Bonisoli, who presented the paintings to the Secretary of Mexican Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, defended the need to reinforce the return of works between countries. "Today we have the opportunity to return something to the Mexican government and to send a signal to the whole world that this restitution marks the direction we should take," Bonisoli said, and announced that during the coming months the Committee for the restitution of cultural goods to also deal with the issue of outstanding returns to Italy. The minister clarified that they are currently studying about thirty cases in this regard. "We'll go ahead like a steamroller," he launched.
To return the votive offerings to their place of origin, it took a little more than two years of research and diplomacy. A routine check on a sample of religious themes in Milan raised the suspicions of the agents of the Carabinieri unit for the protection of the cultural heritage of Monza. Something did not fit in those pieces of the exhibition entitled Give us today our daily bread, in which votive tables dedicated to the theme of the Earth were exhibited, and an investigation was opened on the track of illegal traffic of cultural goods at an international level. In June 2016, the Carabinieri of the patrimony together with technicians of the Ministry of Culture extended the researches and began to follow the trace of the paintings, analyzed the iconography and the inscriptions, and discovered that the works had been removed from different places of worship in Mexico between 1960 and 1970. They had ended up in two Italian museums, one in Lombardy and the other in Piedmont, after a donation from a well-known Milanese art collector, now deceased.
Then the diplomatic machinery was set in motion, until the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History confirmed that the votive offerings belonged effectively to the country. The ceremony of restitution of the works of this Wednesday is a new sample of the prolific collaboration between Italy and Mexico to combat the illegal traffic of cultural goods. In 2014 and 2016 the transalpine country has already restored to the Latin American several archaeological pieces from illegal excavations and, last year, Mexico established the Unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage to protect the artistic, historical and cultural legacy of the country, taking as a model the squadron specialized in the Italian Carabinieri, which has more than fifty years of experience. Currently and since 2017, Italian agents, together with the Higher Institute for Conservation and Restoration, offer to Mexicans training courses on techniques for safeguarding cultural property in emergency situations, such as the two earthquakes that shook Mexico in September of that year.
In Italy, this specialized police unit has the exclusive task of protecting cultural heritage and has allowed, among others, recently unmasking a score of modiglianis False exposed in Genoa, is very respected. Two weeks ago, the Carabinieri group returned the Belgian Ambassador Frank Carruet, on behalf of Italy, an ancient manuscript, Clarissima et Facillima in Quatuor facra Iefu Chrifti Evangelia, dated in the sixteenth century and was stolen in 2005 from the University Library of Mons.